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Mars Probes, edited by Peter Crowther, DAW, 2002, 315 pp.

Mars Probes is an interesting collection, far more representative of the typical Mars story in science fiction than I was expecting. In my earlier survey of science fiction set on Mars (Letters from Mars in Issue 12), I was surprised to find that the kind of realistic examination of life on Mars as found in Kim Stanley Robinson’s much-celebrated Mars trilogy was mostly in the minority. Other books that started out as realistic, even such a book as Bear’s Moving Mars, usually postulated some form of strange life on the red planet, or at least some amazing history of life. Other books examined the cultural life of settlements on Mars, such as Jablokov’s excellent River of Dust. And since science fiction writers have been imagining exotic yarns for Mars for at least a century now, there’s a rich pop cultural history to play in. In my overview, this impulse was represented by Niven’s Rainbow Mars.

Mars Probes has all these types of story, and at least one more significant category: stories about Mars that are somehow set back here on Earth. I’ll talk about these stories in Mars Probes first. “Mom, the Martians, and Me” by Scott Edelman follows the life of a newspaper publisher in a small town. The man’s father runs off with another woman, and his mother slowly becomes convinced that the father was kidnapped by Martians. This is one of those stories where the crazy person might end up being right -- Edelman’s is an ok version of this chestnut.

“The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars” by Ian McDonald is a tour de force, already much anthologized, and worthy of any praise. It’s a longer story that follows two strands, as the title indicates. The cosmonaut is an elderly man now, and he thinks back regretfully to the high point of his life, which also turned out to be the low point: walking out to the launch pad for a mission to Mars, only to find out that the whole project has been a sham, a way for the Communists in power to show off to the capitalists and/or to fuel internal party politics in one direction or another. This alternate history is meticulously constructed but not that far off from our own. The second story is about a man from a poor family, trying to make his way up in India. He becomes one of the construction workers who are remaking Mars by way of advanced telepresence. He and his coworkers are basically the new slave labour, and while the projects that he is helping to build are awesome in scope -- they are currently roofing over Valles Marineris -- he knows that he will never go to Mars himself. The story takes us to a somewhat improbable ending, as the two meet. But it’s a painstakingly assembled story and one that captures the perfect amount of melancholy for us in our post-Space Age era.

“Under Mars” by Paul McAuley is set in a Martian theme park on Earth, and James Morrow’s “The War of the Worldviews” is set in NYC as two groups of tiny and violent Martians use the city as a battleground. Both achieve the modest satirical goals they set out to accomplish.

Three other stories use a connection between Mars and Earth as the main focus. “Out of the Blue, Into the Red” by James Lovegrove is an excellent epistolary story, as a father and son try to reconcile their differences as the son heads off to Mars. Allen Steele uses an alternate history in “A Walk Across Mars” where a joint US-Russian mission reaches Mars in 1976 to tell the story of what happens when two astronauts desperately want to get onto the mission but there is some private scandal between them. The story starts in astronaut training, follows them to Mars and a mishap that happens there, and returns to Earth much later as the surviving astronaut unburdens himself to a reporter. Stephen Baxter’s frightening “Martian Autumn” is about a scientific accident that causes sterility in any new generation of life on Earth. Will the same thing happen on Mars? Did the settlers get away in time?

I’ve already mentioned the second main category of stories about Mars: those that take as their playground the genre’s pop culture version of Mars. Two or three contributions in Mars Probes are direct homages. “Flower Children of Mars” by Mike Resnick and M. Shayne Bell follows what happens to a Burroughs hero as he comes back to Mars only to find some disconcerting 60s-style changes in Martian society. “Lost Sorceress of the Silent Citadel” by Michael Moorcock is specifically labelled as homage to Leigh Brackett. Paul Di Filippo’s “A Martian Theodicy” has an epigram from Stanley Weinbaum, and is about a rescue mission to Mars but the kidnapped person seems to have his own plans. Critically, there’s not much to say about these stories, as they are accurately written homages but necessarily don’t stand on their own.

The third category would be settled life on Mars with the addition of some alien life forms or other strange development. “Shields of Mars” by Gene Wolfe is the story of a young human named Jeff and a young alien named Zaa, and their friendship as the last two people left in the ghost of what was once a tourist town on Mars. They love their town and figure out a way to stay on. “Near Earth Object” by Brian Aldiss follows a crew on the boring duty of making sure Earth is safe from asteroids; an extraordinary encounter shakes them up. “The Me After the Rock” is a dialogue-only story by Patrick O’Leary. In it, two astronauts are speaking, one who has had a mystical encounter of some kind with Mars itself, and the other who is dubious.

Two other stories have no discernable category, at least of those already mentioned. Mars Probes opens with a Ray Bradbury story never before published in the United States (first published in 1982; the rest of this anthology is original material). It’s called “The Love Affair” and it fits in with Martian future history as found in Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. The story that follows it in Mars Probes reminded me immediately of some of James Tiptree Jr.’s best work. “Myths of the Martian Future” by Eric Brown is a society of different types of aliens living on Mars in the far future; we follow two Mountain Dwellers as they go on their prescribed journey to the Outside World at a certain age. They can talk to other species or races due to the floating Speakers, and they even run into some strange bipeds who they rescue from the Eaters. It’s an effective piece.

By my accounting, this leaves only one story with a strictly realistic take on Martian settlement and set entirely on Mars. A few stories in the earlier categories use both Earth and Mars as settings, but it’s left to Alastair Reynolds’ “The Real Story” to tell us about human life on Mars without aliens or pop culture references. In some ways, “The Real Story” is similar to “A Walk Across Mars,” as both stories are somewhat about the journey to get to Mars. In the case of the Reynolds story, the reporter talking to a veteran of the voyage already lives on Mars. Reynolds uses the backstory to warn about the psychological dangers of extended travel in space under perilous circumstances.

As my set of categories has hopefully demonstrated, Mars Probes has a wildly diverse collection of stories, all of which are well written. Crowther has put together another interesting anthology. Good work!

Last modified: September 15, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (

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