Kickin’ it old school on the Red Planet

Mark Vaughan-Jackson
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Those pesky scientists have a lot to answer for.

Old Mars anthology

Don’t get me wrong — scientific discoveries have long added creative fodder for many sci-fi authors.

But, as the saying goes, one hand giveth and the other taketh away.

Take space exploration, for example.

Once upon a time, an awful lot of people on this planet turned their eyes to the skies and dreamed up stories about our own solar system.

Mars, in particular, came in for a heavy share of the stories spun by storytellers and the earliest of what we’d now call science fiction writers.

And oh, what tales they were.

Alien princesses, sword swinging Martians, mysterious canals and bejewelled desert cities nestled in the red dust of Mars.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury — to name but a few — wowed us with their own take on the red planet.

Then, along came those pesky scientists.

The space race expanded mankind’s knowledge of this neck of the galactic woods, and put a serious crimp in many authors’ style.

After all, once a fly-by or a landing has proven there is no life on Mars, let alone any canals, waters, nomadic warrior tribes, bejewelled cities or otherwise, it’s a lot harder to write stories in that vein.


Since then, let’s face it, the genre hasn’t suffered too, too much. Authors have just moved on to richer creative pastures, pushing their imaginations out further, past the boundaries of our own solar system into unexplored — and thus, infinitely rich — narrative pastures.

But there’s a sore spot. A void. A missing bit, these days.

I never did read a lot of the old-school Martian tales, but the ones I did always struck a chord.

Perhaps it was just something magical about a tale set within our own celestial neighbourhood rather than in some galaxy far, far away.

Enter “Old Mars,” a collection of short stories edited by two of the best in the editing game — George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois (a well-known editorial tag team for anthologies, not to mention pretty bloody amazing authors in their own right).

I almost didn’t read this one when it arrived form the publisher — not because I didn’t want to read Martians tales but because, as usual, of my ongoing love-hate relationship with short stories as a literary form.

(Regular readers will be familiar with this. I have nothing against short stories, per se. It’s just that the really good ones always leave me a little saddened that there isn’t more — like, say, a novel-length continuation of the story.)

Be that as it may, Martin’s foreword in the book really sparked my interest.

Here are a collection of 15 very different stories where the only rule seems to have been to forget what scientists have been telling us about Mars.

And, by God, it’s good stuff.

Forget Curiosity and it’s panoramic images of a barren, lifeless red rock.

Instead, thrill to the wonderful descriptions of hard-scrabble life amid the red sands by the likes of Michael Moorcock (damn, it’s good to read something new from him), S.M. Stirling, Allen M. Steele, Mike Resnick and a host of others.

The number of awards (from Hugos and Nebulas on down) this crew have amassed is impressive.

And so, too, are these short stories.

So good, in fact, that I’m being gradually convinced of the enjoyment that can be had in a short story over a novel.

Each story is very different, the only unifying factor being the setting on a Mars where water and life do exist.

From the mysterious songs and visions of a hidden Martian civilization in Mary Rosenblum’s “Shoals,” to the rather pre-Burroughsian adventures of Captain Kidd and his crew in David Levine’s “The Wreck of the Mars Adventure,” these stories offer delightful images of the Mars of my childhood, the true Mars of the imagination.

There’s something for everyone — sword swinging, bounty hunters, Martian “ghosts,” crystal cities, hidden tombs, multiple alien races, love, death and more.

My feeling toward short stories were very quickly erased as I got into this collection.

The wonderfully different touches each author delivers captured me to the point that I ended up chomping through the entire book in a six-hour orgy of fiction feasting.

Each tale is unique. 

Each is jewel-like — at times lyrical, at others hard-edged gritty and at still others utterly beautiful in their simplicity.

For anyone looking for a little change in their regular reading fodder, anyone who cut their teeth on tales of John Carter and Dejah Thoris et al., anyone who simply enjoys having their imaginations sparked — this is a collection well worth reading.

I have my favourites — and I already know I’ll be going back and reading some of them (if not all of them) again and again in future years.

But above all else, this is a collection that reminds us that this thing that we love is science-fiction.

Mars landers and curious rovers may tell us one thing about Mars or, indeed, anywhere else out there.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy well-told tales that don’t precisely jibe with the evidence those scientists serve up.

Henceforth, I’ll try to enjoy both — kind of a cake and eating it


Mark Vaughan-Jackson is The Telegram’s features editor. He can be reached via email at

Twitter: @Telebookmark.

Geographic location: Mars

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