I’ve neglected the British Library Science Fiction Classics series ever since I read Moonrise, so now I’m trying to play catch-up. 😀 Lost Mars edited by Mike Ashley contains ten stories focusing on one of Earth’s planetary neighbors, and it’s an insightful read if you are interested in finding out how SciFi writers’ perceptions of life on Mars changed over time.
As customary with the books in the British Library Classics series, Lost Mars begins with Mike Ashley’s introduction. His illuminating foreword goes to discuss how SciFi writers came to adopt the notion that some form of life lives on Mars after Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s observations of “canali” on Mars. Schiaparelli used the term “canali” to describe the straight lines on the Red Planet, however, in the public domain this was misinterpreted as canals, giving birth to the possibility of Martians’ existence.
H. G. Wells’s The Crystal Egg (1897) is the opening story in Lost Mars. The story’s main protagonist Mr. Cave is an antique shop owner in London. He has a crystal egg in his possession, and he clearly doesn’t want to part with it! When a keen collector comes to the shop to buy the egg, Mr. Cave first tries to dissuade him by putting an exorbitant price tag on it. But when it fails to work, Mr. Cave stages a robbery and takes the crystal egg to Mr. Wace for safekeeping. What’s so special about this crystal egg and why does Mr. Cave go into so much trouble to keep it? It turns out Mr. Cave could see another world through this egg – a strange world with two moons, where grotesque-looking birds live – which he deduces to be Mars with the help of Mr. Wace! While the description of these alien birds gave me heebie-jeebies, this story is utterly riveting!
Letters from Mars (1887) by Reverend W.S. Lach-Szyrma chronicles the adventures of a Venusian named Aleriel. Aleriel is an interplanetary explorer, and his latest mission has been taken up with the blessings of the Venusian congress who wants to him and a few other scientists to visit Mars and Earth to find out more about the “wondrous works of the great Creator.” Aleriel’s trips to Mars reveal an extraterrestrial species with advanced technologies, so it is interesting to see him compare the lives of Martians and Humans in these letters.
My favorite story in Lost Mars is George C. Wallis’s The Great Sacrifice (1903). It begins with Earth’s astronomers becoming distressed over unexplained perturbations of the outer planets of the Solar System. This has been going on for a week when they witness the destruction of Phobos, a moon of Mars. This latest development sends shock waves through the scientific community, and that’s when they receive a message from Martians. Their message sent to Earth inside small, metallic balls – the first sign of intelligent life on Mars – informs humans of an incoming meteor stream that is bound to overheat the Sun and destroy the entire Solar System, and how Martians are planning on countering the threat, revealing their altruistic nature.
In his story The Forgotten Man of Mars (1933), P. Schuyler Millers shows some of the worst aspects of human nature. Cramer, who is on the Red Planet to mine Radium, finds himself stranded one day and avoids dehydration only thanks to the Maee, small rabbit-like creatures of Mars. Even though the Maee risk their own survival by nursing Cramer back to health, they do so without abandoning him. And Cramer returns the favor the first chance he gets by revealing the Maee’s mineral-rich cave to humans! Despicable! 😡
A Martian Odyssey (1934) by Stanley G. Weinbaum tells another story of a human stranded on Mars. Dick Jarvis is the chemist of a four-person Mars exploration team who sets out in an auxiliary rocket to survey the Red Planet’s surface. Jarvis has orders from his Captain not to land on Mars, but when his rocket meets an accident, he decides to walk 800 miles back to the base. He doesn’t end up going on this journey alone though – he becomes friends with Tweel, an ostrich-like Martian creature who picks up a few English words and manages to communicate with Jarvis as they pass a string of strange creatures on their way.
In Ylla (1950) by Ray Bradbury, Mr. and Mrs. K are a married Martian couple. They are still young, but Mrs. K feels that their marriage has made them “old and familiar,” and that is when she starts dreaming about Nathaniel York and his friend, Bert – two men from “the third planet” who are on their first trip across space. Mrs. K is quite taken by Nathaniel – she describes him to her husband as a strange, handsome man with black hair, blue eyes, and white skin (in contrast to Nathaniel, Martians have yellow eyes and brownish skin) – and she seems chirpy after these dreams, singing songs in a strange language. This irritates Mr. K endlessly, who instantly becomes jealous of Nathaniel! According to Ashley, Ylla is taken from The Martian Chronicles which is apparently a tale about humans fleeing planet Earth to escape the threat of a Nuclear war. Now that’s a book I plan on checking out in future.
Measureless to Man (1962) written by Marion Zimmer Bradley reads a bit like a thriller. After discovering the lack of heavy metals in the Red Planet, funding for Mars explorations had stopped with the Geographical Society routing resources to other planetary expeditions. However, a retired Major in the Space Service has somehow managed to get approval to explore Xanadu, the lost city of Martians. But his team will have to proceed with extreme caution as the previous team who undertook this quest had ended up killing each other.
In Without Bugles (1952) by E. C. Tubb, a workforce of 200 men who had arrived at Mars five-years ago to conduct expeditions face harsh living conditions. Now Anders, a bureaucrat appointed by the Congress is there to investigate their progress, and he is not pleased with what he sees. The team had laid the groundwork for their explorations in the first year but hadn’t done anything “worthwhile” after that. So he plans on recommending that they scrap the project, before realizing why it is impossible.
The penultimate story in Lost Mars is Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s Crucifixus Etiam (1953). In it, Nanti, a Peruvian laborer is sent to Mars because people from rarefied atmospheres are considered the best candidates to work on the Red Planet. Despite being consumed by wanderlust, Nanti has never stepped outside his village in Peru. So he figures the paycheck he’ll be getting at the end of his five-year contract will help him travel the world. But that is before he realizes his job of making Mars a livable planet for future generations has seriously jeopardized his health.
The final story in this collection is The Time Tombs (1963) by J. G. Ballard. It concerns four grave-robbers from Earth who raid crypts on Mars to find the souls of Martians they had left in digital form. These “tapes” containing the souls are very rare and valuable, and the story takes an interesting turn when one of the robbers fall for an “enchantress” of sorts.
Probably because all these stories were written prior to 1965 – before photos taken by Mariner 4 (the first spacecraft to take photos of another planet from space) showed Mars to be a desolate wasteland unlikely to support any form of life – they feel dated. Nonetheless, most of them turned out to be amusing reads. 3.5 stars.