Visions of Paradise

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Fourth Planet from the Sun

A few years ago F&SF editor Gordon Van Gelder released three anthologies of stories published in that magazine during its nearly 60 years of existence. One of them contained alternate history stories (One Lamp), another sword and sorcery (In Lands That Never Were), but the one which intrigued me the most was Fourth Planet From the Sun, stories set on the planet Mars. Not because I have any particular fascination with the god of war, but because it was the most sfnal of the three books.

The book began fittingly with Ray Bradbury’s “The Wilderness,” one of his Martian Chronicles about two women debating whether to join their husbands on the Martian colony. While this story could as easily have been about immigrant women joining their husbands in America or 19th century New Yorkers joining their husbands on the frontier, it epitomized the personal side of immigration and colonization, especially to a new world so distant one cannot possibly return even for a visit. Bradbury’s sense of melancholy and nostalgia make this story more thought-provoking than it would have been as a pure plotted tale.

This was immediately followed by Alfred Coppel’s “Mars is Ours” which dwells on the darker side of colonization as it reminds us that the same petty feuds and wars which ruin life on Earth for so many people will likely follow humanity to space colonies, as Americans and Russians take their Cold War to Mars. This story was somewhat discouraging, if more factual than others in the book.

Two back-to-back stories were highlights of the book for overlapping reasons. Leigh Brackett’s “Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon” was rich in exoticism and alienness, as well as Brackett’s typical lush writing, in its glimpse at a visitor to Mars who tries to get past the accepted human regions and explore the “real” Martian society. What he finds is both horrific and a reminder that true alienness is indeed nothing that humans can really understand, or of.ten accept.

Following this was Roger Zelazny’s “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” which I admit outright is one of the finest science fiction stories ever written. The SFWA selected it as the 6th best sf story prior to 1965, praise which might actually underrate the story a bit. Gallinger, the arrogant genius poet, is one of the finest narrators ever devised for an sf story, and the story itself is equally worthy of his character. As is much early Zelazny, “Rose” is basically a love story, but embedded in a truly alien society as Gallinger, much like the protagonist of “Purple Priestess”, is invited into the depths of Martian society to observe and study where other humans have never gone. Zelazny’s society is more developed than Brackett’s, and while his writing is sparser, it is equally lush and exotic, leading to an ending which succeeds in being both upbeat and downbeat, a rare trick indeed. If you have never read “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” it alone is worth the price of the book.

Two stories from the 1970s were concerned with the search for life on Mars, Gordon Eklund and Greg Benford’s “Hellas is Florida,” and John Varley’s “In the Hall of the Martian Kings.” “Hellas” is more serious, based on the modern view of Mars according to non-manned space missions sent there. “Kings” starts from that premise, but a more melodramatic story flows from it: after a mysterious explosion kills the majority of the crew, 5 people survive but are trapped on the surface of Mars without a trained pilot. They have resources for 1-2 years but rescue is at least 4-5 years away. What transpires is a combination of gritty survival mingled with a totally fantastic premise which somehow works.

The concluding novella is Alex Irvine’s “Pictures From an Expedition,” another story of–guess what?–an expedition to seek Martian life. The basic story is fascinating, a study of the interplay between five astronauts stuck together in a small, somewhat claustrophobic space capsule for nearly three years, two years in transit and one on the red planet itself. Where the story lets down is in Irvine’s decision to make the story a reflection of the celebrity cult on Earth. So one of the astronauts is sex symbol of the group, the only astronaut reporters on Earth seem concerned with, to the extent that when two other astronauts discover primitive Martian life, they are ignored so that “Barbarella” can be interviewed instead.

Irvine also sprinkles the story with extensive exerpts from online forums (in which we see the most obnoxious side of its participants) and betting odds for such things as
• Odds that a crew member will be murdered: 12 to 1
• Odds that the murdered crew member will be Jami Salter: 6 to 5

Such interruptions add little to the story, but do take away from its serious analysis of the breakdown of the relationships among the crew. Perhaps if such snippets had been done as well as John Brunner did in his classic Stand on Zanzibar, they would not have been so annoying and unnecessary overall. Fortunately the story itself was strong enough as to withstand the intrusions.

Overall, Fourth Planet From the Sun was a strong, highly-recommended collection, so long as you do not tire of repeated searches for life on Mars. If nothing else, this collection proved there is sfnal life in the red planet still.


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