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Monday 12 August 2002

Mars Probes, edited by Peter Crowther (DAW Books, 2002, 315 pp, mass-market paperback, $6.99)

Reviewed by F. Brett Cox

Despite the perennial lamentations regarding the state of SF short fiction — magazine sales are down; an aging audience is not being replenished with younger readers; writers are damaging the field by writing stories that don’t match my/your/somebody’s conceptions of what SF should be; the thrill is gone — the fact remains that there are an awful lot of SF stories published each year, more than any one person can keep up with. One underexplored outlet for SF short fiction is the mass-market paperback original anthology, of which there are still several published each year, and to which hardly anybody pays attention. This inattention is in part because most such anthologies appear to be, based on the reports of those who do read them, unmemorable: “mostly minor anthologies that may well be worth their (usually relatively low) cover price to you in terms of entertainment value, but for the most part contain at best only competent, second-rank work, stuff that may be entertaining but will be largely forgotten by this time next year,” as Gardner Dozois observes in his introduction to The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Nineteenth Annual Collection.

All the more important, then, when a paperback anthology comes along that exceeds our expectations. Such an anthology is Peter Crowther’s Mars Probes, which is quite simply one of the best SF books of the year. The table of contents reveals an impressive, multi-generational array of writers: a reprint of one of Ray Bradbury’s lesser-known Mars stories followed by original stories from Eric Brown, Paul Di Filippo, Alastair Reynolds, Mike Resnick and M. Shayne Bell, James Lovegrove, Scott Edelman, Ian McDonald, Allen Steele, Stephen Baxter, Gene Wolfe, Paul McAuley, James Morrow, Brian Aldiss, Patrick O’Leary, and Michael Moorcock. (I will note without comment that this is an all-male lineup — “note” because it should be noted, “without comment” because, as I have recently discovered during the course of my own editorial project, the contents of an anthology are not selected as much as they emerge.) The stories themselves are of uniformly high quality; perhaps even more importantly, they are not at all uniform in their approach to the anthology’s theme, although they can be loosely grouped into those that take Mars literally — core science fiction that suggests more or less believable futures — and those that take Mars figuratively — stories that are more interested in the idea of Mars that in the literal planet, including several stories that refer explicitly to the canon of Mars fiction.

In the former category we find Brown’s “Myths of the Martian Future”, in which native Martians of the far future discover that key elements of their race’s mythology derive from interventions, past and present, by residents of a nearby planet, and Reynolds’s “The Real Story”, whose journalist narrator discovers that the events surrounding the first human landing on Mars were far more complicated than the public ever knew. McDonald’s “The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars” alternates between the stories of a cosmonaut whose Mars mission was scrubbed at the last minute and a construction worker whose projected consciousness animates a worker robot on Mars, while Baxter’s “Martian Autumn” tells of a Mars whose history may enable a shattered Earth to rebuild itself. Wolfe’s “The Shields of Mars” tells of a human and alien staffing an isolated Martian outpost who unexpectedly find themselves needed to defend against terrorist attacks; Aldiss’s “Near Earth Object” begins with scanning the skies for threatening meteors and moves through time travelers and alien artifacts to no less than the ultimate fate of the universe — in 17 pages, no less.

And yet, as with all good fiction, sooner or later the categories start to break down. Even the stories that take Mars literally frequently have overtones of the mythic/literary Mars: Brown’s two plucky adventurers across the Martian landscape have resonances from Stanley G. Weinbaum’s classic “A Martian Odyssey”; McDonald’s tale of projected consciousness is a literalization of John Carter’s journeys in the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books; both the title and the conclusion of Wolfe’s story hearken back to Burroughs and Leigh Brackett. And the stories that seem less concerned about the facts and figures of the red planet are often faithful to what we know, in their fashion. James Lovegrove’s “Out of the Blue, Into the Red” and Patrick O’Leary’s “The Me After the Rock” are near-future SF about the exploration of Mars, but both stories focus more on the individual characters’ responses to such exploration: Lovegrove tells of a father and son whose fractured relationship begins to heal when the latter leaves for Mars, while O’Leary offers a chilling portrayal of the psychological effects of the Martian landscape on its early explorers. Steele’s “A Walk Across Mars”, like the Reynolds story, is narrated by a reporter who discovers what really happened during the first Mars landing, but within an alternate history in which Nixon beat Kennedy and the first humans landed on Mars in 1976. And just when you think Michael Moorcock’s “Lost Sorceress of the Silent Citadel” is simply and superficially as labeled, an “Homage to Leigh Brackett”, you find that it is in fact using the formal devices of pulp fiction to tell a hard-SF tale of the far future of both Earth and Mars.

The remaining stories, while falling squarely into the “figurative” camp, consider the book’s topic in often surprising ways. Resnick and Bell’s “Flower Children of Mars” goes straight for the joke as a John-Carter-like figure returns to a Mars colonized by hippies. McAuley’s “Under Mars” and Edelman’s “Mom, the Martians, and Me” never leave Earth at all: the former is a depressingly believable tale of drug trafficking in a Mars theme park in Florida, while the latter’s narrator copes, imperfectly, with his mother’s insistence that his father was kidnapped by Martians. In Morrow’s “The War of the Worldviews”, the residents of Phobos and Deimos invade Earth, not to conquer it, but to use it as a staging area for a savage battle over differing theological perspectives. Di Filippo’s “A Martian Theodicy” is a metafictional secret history (do we have a new category here?) of what really happened during and after Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey.” And, of course, there is Bradbury’s “The Love Affair”, which has nothing to do with the third planet from our sun but everything to do with Bradbury’s undying passion for the exoticism of the universe as a Martian male falls for, but inevitably cannot have, a Martian female.

What this all adds up to is a group of stories not only high in quality, but in diversity of approach, with the very best stories representing almost every angle of attack and usually deploying more than one. Di Filippo’s story offers a rich alternate history in the course of its pitch-perfect and, to my reading, deeply affectionate revisiting of Weinbaum’s Mars; similarly, Moorcock’s novelette proves to be far more than a Brackett pastiche. McAuley’s story is not only a taut thriller but also a meditation on the continuing power of all those fictional red planets we have inherited. Edelman’s story leaves more questions open than any other in the book while arguably coming closest of all to the heart of, not what Mars is, but what it can mean. Wolfe gives us the most oddly joyful moment of transcendence as his protagonists protect their patch of Mars with, literally, swords and shields, caught up in “[t]he pure poetry of the thing,” while Aldiss offers the most densely-packed dose of overall Sense of Wonder. Morrow’s story, even as it tips its hat to H.G. Wells, is a sharp and funny exploration of the themes that have occupied the author in many other works. O’Leary’s story is the most formally distinctive in the book, told solely in dialogue (and with a first line that quotes Hemingway), and it offers the strongest suggestion that humans exploring Mars just might not be able to cope. And Ian McDonald’s “The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars”, possibly the best of a very strong bunch, is a near-seamless fusion of serious extrapolation, detailed characterization, and literary homage; it does just about everything you might want an SF story to do.

The perennial lamenters I mentioned earlier would do well to read Mars Probes to see just how varied and alive SF short fiction is. And if all the good stories aren’t enough, consider this: in his introduction to the book, famed astronomer Sir Patrick Moore mentions that he knows Neil Armstrong and also once met Orville Wright. If your jaw doesn’t drop just a little bit as you consider that astonishing statement, then you’re reading the wrong review of the wrong book on the wrong web site.

F. Brett Cox's fiction, essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Century, Black Gate, Indigenous Fiction, The North Carolina Literary Review, The New York Review of Science Fiction, The New England Quarterly, Paradoxa, Science Fiction Studies, Contemporary Novelists, Science Fiction Weekly, The Baltimore Sun, and elsewhere. He and his wife, the playwright Jeanne Beckwith, just moved from southern Alabama to Northfield, Vermont.

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