OLD MARS by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
I spent part of my childhood and young adult years on Mars. Not a lot of people can make that claim these days because the books I read have given way to stories about Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. But before Harry and Percy ever made the scene, I had Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury to sweep me across the Red Planet.
I fought deadly men and beasts alongside John Carter and Eric John Stark. I probed the mysteries of the canals with Martian settlers who became dark and golden-eyed. I had the perfect childhood and formative years, I thought. And still do believe that.
However, science has since proven that there are no canals on Mars, no Tharks, and no robust adventures with swords and rayguns in the offing. I was disappointed. We were supposed to be there back in 1985. Still haven’t made it, and now the only offers are for a one-way trip with no guarantee for survival. Still…people have signed up for that.
George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois fifteen of the best science fiction writers working today and asked them to deliver a story that would have fit in the old pulps. All of these stories offer a return trip to adventurous and mysterious Mars, a world that will exist only in the minds of readers old enough to thrill over pulp magazines.
Allen Steele’s “Martian Blood” is one of my favorites in the group and smacks of the old adventure, of men taking their measure against rough country. He’s also created some Martian jargon and history that I’d love to see again.
“The Ugly Duckling” by Matthew Hughes reminded me a lot of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles with all its psychological trappings and intrigues.
The piratical nature of “The Wreck of the Mars Adventure” by David D. Levine was a story that leaned much more toward Jules Verne, and in reading it I discovered a writer new to me that I’ll be seeking on the bookshelves now.
S. M. Stirling’s “Swords of Zar-Tu-Kan” was harder to get into, and then it leaped so quickly into action that I had a hard time keeping pace with it. The world seems fairly well developed, but I needed more time to sink into and become familiar with. Still, there were nice touches, including the Martian “dog.”
I wasn’t quite as pleased with Mary Rosenblum’s “Shoals” because it was definitely hard to get into. This is more a thinking reader’s narrative and ultimately didn’t grab me as emotionally as I believe the writer intended.
Mike Resnick, one of science fiction’s grandmasters, gives us “In the Tombs of the Martian Kings,” a tale that could have shown up in the pages of Planet Stories back in the heyday of the pulps. The hero even has a snarly, take-no-prisoners sidekick that is a hoot to watch in action. I would love to see more of this duo, and more of the fun world he’s created.
“Out of Scarlight” just never connected with me. The main character was ambiguous by design, and I think that’s why I never warmed up to her. There was plenty of action, but it kept flip-flopping to the point that I wasn’t sure what was going on.
James S. A. Corey’s “A Man Without Honor” is another of those stories that owes as much to Jules Verne’s narratives as to the pulps. I really enjoyed the story and would like to see the author(s) play there again.
I just didn’t connect at all with Melinda Snodgrass’s “Written in Dust” because I didn’t care for the family. The story echoes some of the plot in “Shoals,” but goes in a different direction. There was just too much family drama for my taste in a story I’d hoped would be interplanetary adventure.
I’ve read Michael Moorcock since I was a kid, and I was looking forward to his story, “The Lost Canal.” All the familiar elements are there, but the story – even at its length – felt rushed at the end. I did enjoy his nod to his Michael Kane stories under the name Edward P. Bradbury. I’ve got copies on the shelf I want to read soon.
Phyllis Eisenstein’s “The Sunstone” is another of those stories that could have easily been found between the pages of those old SF pulps. Her prose and the story just flowed so eloquently I was carried back to a Mars that I want to see more of.
It’s really not fair for me to compare Joe Lansdale’s story, “King of the Cheap Romance,” to any of the other tales in the anthology. I love his work and he’s an exceptionally gifted author in any field he chooses to write in. This homage to the pulp vision of Mar is just about perfect. There’s a plucky heroine, cool technology, a menacing sand shark that is just about the creepiest version of any such creature I’ve ever read about, and a sense of a world I definitely want to read more about.
“Mariner” by Chris Roberson is a great read too, filled with pirates and action that harkens back to the Edgar Rice Burroughs template. The characters were mostly cardboard, but the danger was kept sharp and gleaming throughout.
I just didn’t care for Ian McDonald’s “The Queen of Night’s Aria.” I don’t know if the story was just too busy, or if it just wandered around into an area I didn’t like. The ending was telegraphed from the first page.
Overall, this is a fantastic anthology that presents a lot of great stories to old readers as well as new ones. The pulp magic lives in these pages, and I hope there’s enough interest to warrant a second volume of Old Mars, and hopefully a companion volume that explores Venus.