Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Book Review: 'DESTINATION MARS', Mike Ashley, George RR Martin & Gardner Dozois



Book Review of:
edited by 
(British Library Science Fiction Classics, 
2018, ISBN 978-0-7123-5240-6, 304pp) 
‘OLD MARS’ edited by 
(2013, Bantam Books 
ISBN 978-0-345-53727-0, 486pp)

Mars is both a planet, and an idea. Unlike the Forest-Moon of Endor or Mr Spock’s Vulcan, it is possible to look up into the night sky and see the gleam of Mars with the naked eye. It has been known and recognised as a world – a moving star, since ancient times. And fiction abhors a vacuum. Wherever there are Terra Incognitas, we populate them with fantasia. And Mars has been the subject of more fantasias than just about anywhere else. The cover of Mike Ashley’s generous paperback gathering of ten tales – plus the editor’s own learned and informative introduction, shows Chesley Bonestell’s 1953 ‘Exploring Mars’ artwork, picturing two finned rocket-ships on the ochre surface of our planetary neighbour, with twin track-marks in the dust left by exploratory vehicles, and a couple of space-suited figures climbing a rise to get a better vantage-point view of the alien terrain. Bonestell’s space-art is still regarded as some of the most visionary ever, indeed his art envisages the eerie Mars-scape for George Pal’s ‘The War Of The Worlds’ (1953) movie, another vital ingredient in Martian mythology. 

George RR Martin retells the familiar history of Milan astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observing what he describes as ‘canali’ on the Martian surface during the 1877 close planetary opposition, but how this Italian word for channel was then mistranslated into English as ‘canals’. A small, understandable error – but with immense implications. ‘Channel’ can describe a natural phenomenon. ‘Canal’ can only mean an artificial structure. When the idea was taken up by Percival Lowell at the Flagstaff observatory in Arizona, he sketched out maps of the Martian canal system, designed to irrigate the red deserts of the dying world with polar melt-water, and he wrote three influential books on the subject, beginning with ‘Mars’ (1896), followed by ‘Mars And Its Canals’ (1906) – in which he writes ‘to find, therefore, upon Mars, highly intelligent life is what the planet’s state would lead one to expect,’ and ‘Mars As The Abode Of Life’ (1908). ‘Areographers’ – those who study the geography of Mars, continued to argue the veracity of canals well into the 1950s. 

Surely it can be no coincidence that young novelist HG Wells is represented here by an 1897 short story – “The Crystal Egg”, in which a dealer in antiquities acquires the titular egg that acts as an interplanetary lens, enabling him to see the vista of Mars through a corresponding crystal suspended on a pylon above a Martian city. The glimpses of winged beings and gigantic insectoid ‘mechanisms of shining metals and extraordinary complexity’ are teasing and tantalisingly incomplete, more so due to the loss of the crystal with the dealer’s untimely death. Appearing in the May issue of ‘The New Review’ even as “The War Of The Worlds” was being serialised in ‘Pearson’s Magazine’ (April to December 1897) it suggests maybe a cross-over of Wells’ preoccupations with the Red Planet. His serial prefaced by what editor Walter Gillings calls ‘a plausible summation of the problem which compelled his octopoid horrors to prosecute’ their invasion attempt (an essay “The Battle Of The Canals” in ‘Science Fantasy’ no.1, Summer 1950). 

Mars is both a dream, and a high frontier. Not just a place, but a continuing story. Ashley selects Stanley G Weinbaum’s much-anthologised “A Martian Odyssey”, perhaps because no collection of Mars-based stories would be complete without it, but then rediscovers a neglected gem in “The Forgotten Man Of Space” by veteran P Schuyler Miller, from ‘Wonder Stories’ (April 1933). Prospector Cramer is betrayed by his colleagues and marooned in the arid rust-red sands, only to be discovered in the ice-caves by the Maee, an elfin-rabbit desert-folk who scratch out a precarious existence by farming black beans in a limestone crater. He lives with them for ten long Martian years, only to find that when he’s finally rescued by brutal rapacious Earthmen, his loyalties lie with the simple Maee, and he dies in order to preserve their secret way of life. 

Mars is the Red Planet, yet writers tint it with hues of their own conjuring, Ray Bradbury mixes in the sepia of a yearning nostalgia, with his “Ylla” – first published as “I’ll Not Look For Wine” in ‘Maclean’s Magazine’ (January 1950), set before the coming of his ‘Silver Locusts’, with subtle sub-currents of hostility to refugee migrants that still uncomfortably echoes. 

ER Burroughs hijacked Barsoom for his own bejewelled purposes, denigrated by SF-purists as frivolous escapist fantasy, yet as probes and trundling surface-rovers have since proved, even more serious speculations on the nature of Martian geography and biology are just as fanciful. I was doubtful when I first read Leigh Brackett’s “Sea-Kings Of Mars” (first published in ‘Thrilling Wonder Stories’, June 1949), because everyone knows Mars is – and always has been, a dry desolate world, making Brackett’s great cities and bustling quays built on timeless sea-girt shores, seem a step too far. Yet maybe she was right and I was wrong? There’s no rugged hero armed with broadsword and limitless courage, but recent revelations show that Mars did indeed have shallow seas during earlier eras. 

Borrowing something of ERB’s gift cast through the illuminating lens of Leigh Brackett, Marion Zimmer Bradley adds “Measureless To Man” (from ‘Amazing Stories’, December 1962), with Mars-born Andrew Slayton joining John Reade’s expedition to the lost Martian city they call Xanadu, but which – as he discovers, the discorporate Martian Kaellin calls Shein-la Mahari. In a place of ‘madness and death’ the Martians find new hosts in the colony’s experimental chimpanzees, making this Mars a new planet of the apes. ‘In a place like this, imagination is worse than smallpox,’ yet here are beautiful imaginings that go viral. 

Both EC Tubb (“Without Bugles”) and Walter M Miller Jr (“Crucifixus Etiam”) try for a more gritty less romanticised vision. No Martians, just remorseless punishing Mars-is-Hell aridity. With Tubb’s ‘New Worlds’ story which was also chapter four of his hard-hitting ‘Alien Dust’ (1955) novel, and Miller’s story from the February 1953 ‘Astounding SF’, both show pioneer labourers doomed never to leave Mars due to a kind of silicosis caused by inhaling Martian dust, or in Miller’s tale by dependence on the aerator oxygenating implants that cause lungs to atrophy. Finally, JG Ballard’s “The Time Tombs” – from ‘If’ (March 1963) is not really set on Mars at all, more a kind of enclave of his ‘Vermillion Sands’ where embittered grave-robbers carry out an illicit traffic in dead souls plundered from ‘ten-thousand-year-old tombs’ submerging in sand-seas beside the lava-lakes of the Sea of Vergil.

In the thematically related anthology – ‘Old Mars’ (2013, Bantam Books), George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois assemble modern stories deliberately recast and set on mythical lost Mars – maybe even the Mars of a parallel universe, including a playfully exuberant Michael Moorcock romp. David D Levine’s “The Wreck Of The Mars Adventure” even offers an entertaining steampunk variant in which imprisoned ‘Pirate Of The Caribbean’ Captain Kidd is pardoned from the noose on condition he flies a balloon-elevated ship through the stormy ‘interplanetary atmosphere’ to Mars. Martin himself muses how ‘the Mars of my childhood was not the invention of HG Wells or Percival Lowell or even Edgar Rice Burroughs, as important and influential as they were, each adding their own touches and twists over the years and decades to create a kind of consensus setting, a world that belonged to everyone and no-one.’ 

If the tales in his anthology seem less authentic than the ones Mike Ashley collects, that is because they are more knowingly contrived, in deliberate homage. Even Stephen Youll’s cover-art shows a more stylised multi-finned spaceship, with a phantom white city glimpsed in the red-desert distance. There are references to Wells’ Tripod attack on Horsell Common in Ian McDonald’s “The Queen Of The Night’s Aria”, as operatic virtuoso Count Jack Fitzgerald and his narrator Faisal are led into the Hall of the Martian Queen in the subterranean city beneath Tharsia. Allen M Steele prefers to use a specific scene from George Pal’s ‘War Of The Worlds’ screen adaptation for “Martian Blood” – ‘the camera-eye is wrapped in Ann Robinson’s scarf, which was splattered with gore when Gene (Barry) clobbered a little green monster with a broken pipe.’ Elsewhere, from a hotel decked out in ERB-ian memorabilia, a Dr al-Baz uses a sample of ‘shatan’ blood to prove the genetic ‘panspermian’ link between Earthman and Martian. Joe R Lansdale uses the Martian polar region as setting for pursuit through a pyramid by a relentless ice-shark, in “King Of The Cheap Romance”, asking ‘if you die on Mars, do you go to Martian Heaven?’ In Matthew Hughes “The Ugly Duckling” there are graceful cities of bone being machine-chewed into fertiliser by human colonists, and desert-schooners menaced by sand-sharks in Chris Roberson’s “Mariner” – it’s protagonist, Jason Carmody, snatched Pulp-fiction style by a Caribbean vortex to ‘the distant past of the red planet, or its future? Or perhaps into some analogue of the fourth planet that existed in another dimension?’ A world haunted by tall slender Martian ghosts, dark they were, and golden eyed… 

Because – of course, none of these stories deal with the real Mars we see as a gleam in the night sky. The world that – even now, new probes scour, hunting not for winged beings or gigantic insectoids, but for the possibility of virus that may conceivably have thrived in shallow billion-year-old seas. Instead, these beautiful and brilliantly-compiled anthologies form a tribute to fantasias of the imagination.


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