Lost Mars – edited by Mike Ashley
This isn’t really a Beach House Book. It hasn’t been on To Be Read Mountain for months or years. It turned up in the post and I read it at once: it was exactly the right book at just the right moment. It’s a perfectly succinct, beautifully designed and presented anthology of stories about Mars, from HG Wells in the 1890s to JG Ballard in the 1960s. It’s the first in a series of SF reprints from the British Library; a series hopefully to rival the popularity of their delightful British Crime golden oldies.
I had a terrific couple of days revisiting Mars in all its aspects via this collection. We are taken from the realms of quaint and gentle Edwardian mystery through the rather more rambunctious era of Space Opera and into grittier, more hair-raising days when writers were paying more attention to what living conditions on Mars might actually turn out to be like.
Like all the best SF this collections gives us both the cosmic and the domestic under the same covers. We have stories that are both unnerving and whimsical by rapid turns. I already knew and loved several of them – Wells and Bradbury, of course. But then there were gorgeous surprises from the days of early Pulp magazines. There’s a story I found almost unbearably moving, about a man stranded alongside a race of Martian rabbits known as the Maee. They live in caverns and harvest peas, and weave little burlap sacks for collecting them (twice in this collection, the true sign of a civilized race is seen as the ability to manufacture carrier bags.)
‘Here in the hidden crater was the secret sanctuary of the little red-brown rabbit men.’ The story is ‘The Forgotten Man of Space’ by P. Schuyler Miller. Abandoned by his own ruthless fellows, Cramer is befriended and looked after by the rabbits until he grows very old. His own kind eventually find him once more, and they’re astonished to discover him alive in the middle of a richly sustainable food source. (They don’t mean the peas.) The men blow up the caverns and here comes the bit I found painful:
‘The Maee watched too, from the dark – myriads of round eyes watching from the dark. He ran with the other men when it was time, but the Maee did not run. They sat and watched from the dark, till the glare came, and the noise. The black-striped one was killed. Others died, too – others he had known for a very long time…’
Filled with remorse and anxiety, reading this. Anxiety because, as I read, I was hoping Cramer would know what to do for the best. And wondering if I would know what the morally courageous response would be? Hopefully he or I wouldn’t simply return meekly to his own kind, implicitly condoning their murderous actions. Science Fiction – the best kind – always puts us in the thick of moral quandaries.
In the end Cramer sacrifices himself and we are told that the remaining Maee know why he does so. They understand that he’s preventing the humans from coming to eat them all. So it works out kind-of okay in the end… but only just.
Many of these stories are terribly sad, I found.
There’s a story by Walter M. Miller Jr about a man from Peru who wants to work for five years on Mars, breathing thinly, being careful not to let his lungs atrophy, so that he can return home and eventually explore the wonders of Planet Earth. He realises that the changes wrought by the work he is helping with have ruined him forever. Yet by the end he finds a kind of contentment in the idea that eight hundred years in the future mankind will be able to live easily on Mars, and so his miserably wasted life actually means something…
There are other tales of stoicism and various forms of suffering, of viruses and radioactive dust storms and intangible Martians emerging from plants to possess unwary human visitors. There’s a rather lovely story (‘A Martian Odyssey’ by Stanley G. Weinbaum) about a man who befriends Tweel, a Martian ostrich (one with a habit of dive-bombing the dusty ground, beak-first, rather like Road Runner in the cartoon.) The story is really an amazing natural history lesson offered by a native to a visitor, as they struggle to communicate with a few words and gestures. It’s a very sweet story, with a few scary moments and its message of cautious cooperation and exploration stands at the very heart of a collection that is by turns lurid, gritty, dreamlike and harrowing.