Monday, 9 April 2018

Lost Mars, edited by Mike Ashley

This anthology is subtitled "The Golden Age of the Red Planet" and is a companion volume to the British Library's Moonrise, reviewed in my previous post. Like that book, this one includes some of the more interesting but largely forgotten SF of the past, and starts with a substantial introduction in which the editor gives an overview of how Mars has been treated in fiction from the earliest times to the mid-20th century.

Interest in stories about visits to Mars were kindled by the development of the telescope. The most notable early tale appeared in 1744: The Speedy Journey, by German astronomer Eberhard Kindermann, who put all of the current knowledge or informed speculation about the planet into a fictional form. Just as with the Moon, actually getting to Mars was the problem early authors faced: the best Kindermann could do was to adopt a 17th century proposal for an airship held aloft by globes from which all air had been evacuated, with forward progress being made by the means of oars. His space travellers find intelligent humanoids living on Mars, and spend much time discussing religion. Other stories followed, always focusing on the Martian inhabitants who were generally held to be more advanced, intelligent and peaceful than humanity.

Interest in Mars moved up a gear after the close conjunction of 1877, during which the two Martian moons were discovered and the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli believed that he had observed straight lines which he called canali (channels). He never claimed that these were artificial, but others jumped to that conclusion (most notably the US astronomer Percival Lowell) so there was an explosion of fiction featuring the "canals" of Mars, constructed to channel water from wet poles to the dry deserts. These continued to represent the Martians as humanoid, wise and benevolent, until the rude shock of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, which created a sensation when published in 1897.

Fiction set on Mars then tended to spilt, one strand being the "planetary romances" (hero from Earth rescues beautiful Martian princess etc), initiated by the highly influential Edgar Rice Burroughs and followed-up by the US "pulp fiction" magazines, before being revived in a more thoughtful form by Leigh Brackett who in turn inspired Marion Zimmer Bradley. The other strand pictured Mars as a dead or dying planet, as in stories by E.C. Tubb, Walter M. Miller and most, notably, Ray Bradbury. One of my favourite novels, The Iron Thorn by Algis Budrys, which I reviewed here a few years ago, also gets a mention.

So to the stories:

The Crystal Egg by H.G. Wells: first published 1897. Published in the same year as The War of the Worlds, this is a very different kind of story. It features an object rather than a person, a sphere made of crystal which belongs to the elderly owner of an antique shop. In certain conditions, he discovers that he can see what appears to be another world through the crystal. He involves a young experimenter who is able to determine that the world is Mars, populated by a variety of creatures. The story is notable for the depth of characterisation of the people and their relationships. A memorable and rather haunting tale.

Letters from Mars by W.S. Lach-Szyrma: first published c.1889. The author wrote a long series of stories purporting to be letters from a Venusian, a flying being who visited other planets and reported on his findings. In this selection of letters, he studies the Martians and the way in which they live. There are some interesting observations: the Martians keep warm by occupying deep cave systems heated using geothermal energy (the author argues that this form of energy should be adopted by humanity, along with tidal power). He also mentions fish farms as a way of resolving food shortages. A curious mixture of a dated approach with some modern ideas.

The Great Sacrifice by George C. Wallis: first published 1903. Despite the success of The War of the Worlds, many authors continued to portray the Martians as superior and benign compared with humanity. In this story, a warning is received from the planet concerning a vast meteor storm heading for the Solar System, which on plunging into the sun will cause it to flare up, burning life on the inner planets to a crisp. The Martians have a solution…

One point worth noting is that the main female character is psychologically stronger than the men; not that common in fiction of those days. 

The Forgotten Man of Space by P. Schuyler Miller: first published 1933. A miner on Mars finds himself stranded, with no means of returning to his base across a vast desert. Help arrives from an unexpected quarter, and the miner finds himself living a very strange life.

A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G. Weinbaum: first published 1934. Another story featuring a man stranded far from his Mars base who benefits from unexpected local assistance, experiencing various adventures on his way home.

Ylla by Ray Bradbury: first published 1950. A very different kind of writing from the author of The Martian Chronicles, of which this is the first story: evocative, atmospheric, dream-like and poetic are all words which come to mind. The story is written from the viewpoint of a native Martian lady who dreams of strange men arriving from the third planet out from the Sun, even though it is of course known that conditions there would not support life…

Measureless to Man by Marion Zimmer Bradley: first published 1962. Humanity explores the almost-dead Mars, from which intelligent life has disappeared, leaving behind one empty city dubbed Xanadu. This is extremely difficult to reach due to distance and terrain, and several expeditions to it have met with disaster, with no survivors. The fate of the final attempt is seen from the viewpoint of a young expedition member, who discovers that the planet is not quite dead after all.

Without Bugles by E.C. Tubb: first published 1952. The only human base on Mars is struggling to survive in the face of the severe conditions, and is threatened with closure. But there is a reason why that can't happen.

Crucifixus Etiam by Walter M. Miller, Jr.: first published 1953. Workers undertaking giant projects on Mars realise that they can never return, and mutiny is threatened until the reason for their presence emerges.

The Time-Tombs by J.G. Ballard: first published 1963. A writer as atmospheric as Bradbury but better known for "collapse of society" novels, this is an unusual story set on a dead Mars on which the former inhabitants have left elaborate, and very valuable, tombs.

Another interesting collection, none of which I had previously read except for Ylla. Nearly all of the stories downplay the severity of the conditions on Mars; presumably partly due to a lack of precise scientific knowledge, at least when the earlier stories were written, but possibly also because it would limit the scope of the stories.  The bitter cold at night is noted, but it is commonly assumed that while the atmosphere is very thin, it will be more or less breathable, perhaps with some assistance.

The main discovery for me was Marion Zimmer Bradley: I have been aware of her name for as long as I can remember, but seem to have read little or nothing by her. Measureless to Man is my favourite story from this group (followed by The Crystal Egg and Ylla) and and I will be looking for more stories from her. The other take-away for me was a reminder of just how beautifully Ray Bradbury could write: The Martian Chronicles is due another visit, after a long absence!


Mudpuddle said...

i've read "Crystal Egg" and "Martian Oddysey", but the others are new to me... i though i was quite grounded in early sci fi; i'm surprised and happy there's some more good stuff to look forward to... tx... i'll order this book...

Anthony G Williams said...

Glad to hear it! I await with interest news of what else the British Library is planning to publish in their Classic SF series.