Paul Di Filippo reviews Old Mars

This blockbuster anthology from the consummate professional editing team of Martin & Dozois (Warriors; Songs of the Dying Earth) exhibits at its heart a paradox or dichotomy or dialectic or question which is central to much science fiction today, a topic that’s received much airing lately on the internet and at convention panels.

What is the relationship of the genre’s past to the present, actual and ideal? Should certain old-school tropes and themes be abandoned as false and inutile? Can we ever step in the same stream twice, and recapture glories and pleasures of old? Can postmodern approaches somehow lend a fresh aspect to the antique? Are attitudes toward such SF strictly determinable and predictable by membership in a given generation? Is the medium stagnating or advancing by continuing to create such stories?

I don’t intend to settle any of these issues in this review. And I don’t think the editors or the writers expect these fifteen grand tales, each written at the top of their form by a stellar cast, to do anything but entertain. And yet, while you’re reading this book, such matters can’t help but arise, at least in your subconscious, and I think this volume will go a long way toward aiding each reader to decide where he or she stands on such issues, simply by its vitality and range.

(And so will the companion volume, Old Venus, which, Martin reported this past summer, was already in the can.)

So, let’s look at each tale strictly on its own esthetic merits, as an expression of that beloved consensual subcreation, Old Mars, as each contributor employs his or her distinctive approach.

Allen Steele opens the volume with “Martian Blood.” His manner is non-romantic, highly matter of fact. His livable Mars fits right into our recognized sociopolitical timeline, and was colonized with casinos and jeeps and other familiar items. This tactic lends great verisimilitude to the tale, which concerns a visiting academic on the edge of disturbing the fragile balance between native and Earthman, and the wilderness guide Ramsey who must cross moral boundaries to save the day.

Matthew Hughes abandons his usual ornate style and elegant locutions for a solid retro recreation of vintage 1950s narration, with “The Ugly Duckling.” Archaeologist Fred Mather, alone in the rapidly disappearing bone cities of Mars, finds himself enraptured by delusions—or are they timeslip realities?

Well-known newcomer David D. Levine takes a rousing, melodramatic steampunk approach with “The Wreck of the Mars Adventure.” The historical Captain Kidd is dispatched through the “interplanetary atmosphere” by royal commission to sail to Mars in a curious vessel. Ingenious young “physiologer” John Sexton serves as his right-hand man through perils and glory alike.

In “Swords of Zar-tu-Kan,” S. M. Stirling powers relentlessly onward in lively Leigh Brackett mode with the adventures of the ultra-competent Sally Yamashita and her charming helper-pet, the “optimal canid” Satemcan, as they seek to unriddle the kidnapping of Tom Beckworth.

Mary Rosenblum, in “Shoals,” exemplifies the delicate humanist SF strategy as she conjures up a rich portrait of a young boy named Maart and his sensitivities toward the strange Martian “pearls.” At the other extreme is Mike Resnick’s boldfaced and unrepentant pastiche of Planet Stories style, “In the Tombs of the Martian Kings.” “The sacred Book of Blaxorak” indeed!

For me, Liz Williams’s “Out of Scarlight” evokes Poul Anderson when he was doing this kind of tale: the exploits of a loner bounty hunter, flavored with a kind of melancholy exoticism. Next up we get Howard Waldrop’s “The Dead Sea-Bottom Scrolls.” Only Waldrop could fuse a Kon-Tiki type tale with a four-hundred-thousand-year-old Martian legend, with pop music thrown in as lagniappe.

“A Man Without Honor” by James S. A. Corey takes a similar tack to the Levine piece, transporting terrestrial sailing ship master Captain Lawton to Mars to aid his Martian peer, the tough and beautiful Carina Meer. While not exactly Dejah Thoris, Meer comes close. But her rare presence in this volume raises the question of why most of the writers avoided her potent archetype.

Favorable comparisons to Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars are inevitable when reading Melinda M. Snodgrass’s “Written in Dust,” which follows the fate of a young woman named Tilda, besieged by familial demands, as well as “Mars Reverie Syndrome.” The inimitable Michael Moorcock delivers a whip-sawing story that is part noir, part New Wave, part Edmond Hamilton with “The Lost Canal,” centering on the desperation of pro thief, Mac Stone.

Phyllis Eisenstein strikes Simakian notes in “Sunstone,” where a son’s pilgrimage to his father’s grave uncovers a deep secret of aboriginal culture. With elements of Hemingway, London and Faulkner, Joe Lansdale takes his heroine Angela King on rigorous journey of wilderness survival. In “Mariner,” Chris Roberson pulls out the Burroughsian stops with his Terran hero Jason Carmody’s piratical blood-and-thunderings. And finally, channeling Kipling via Flashman in “The Queen of the Night’s Aria,” Ian McDonald brings us the Falstaffian doings of Maestro Jack Fitzgerald and his loyal if exasperated batman, as they conduct a Martian tour.

Some brands of Mars are missing. Where’s the surreal Mars of Philip K. Dick, or the newly discovered planet of Stanley Weinbaum? But overall, the wide-spectrum accomplishments of this collection offer not only immense enjoyment, but also proof, I think, that no mode is ever dead or irrelevant, if talented creators choose to turn their hand to it with respect, affection and innovation.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

One thought on “Paul Di Filippo reviews Old Mars

  • November 25, 2013 at 9:35 am

    Nice review, Paul! I’m looking forward to reading this sometime after the holidays (it is on my Christmas list). I’ve long been fascinated by Mars and am a fan of classic and contemporary science fiction, regardless of whether it is trying for something new or reworking old tropes. I enjoy the old romanticized notions of a colonized solar system, irregardless of whether or not that ever will be, or even could be, a reality.

    Happy to hear there is another collection coming out after this one and after your review I’m more excited to get to this one.


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