Lost Mars – Mike Ashley, Editor

Published alongside their retrospective consideration or our nearest celestial body, Moonrise – The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures, the British Library also look further afield to our next neighbour out in the solar system, a body smaller and colder than Earth with a tenuous atmosphere which for the longest time was believed might still harbour intelligent and possibly benevolent life in their second anthology of classic science fiction, Lost Mars – The Golden Age of the Red Planet.

The collection and each individual story comprehensively introduced by Mike Ashley, despite or possibly because of less being known about Mars than the Moon there are recurring strands in Martian fiction, many of them influenced by the writings of the astronomer Percival Lowell who misinterpreted the work of his Italian peer Giovanni Schiaparelli.

The word “canali” being translated to English as “canal” rather than the more correct “channel,” carrying with it the connotation of design and construction by an intelligent agent rather than a natural phenomenon, such a global endeavour would require a unity of purpose unknown on Earth leading to the presumption that Mars was perhaps home to an enlightened civilisation, possibly a paradise populated by a deeply religious people as befitted the position of the planet closer to the heavens.

One of the major works which flew against this belief was the Martian invasion of H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds, though Wells’ story which opens the collection is more benign, The Crystal Egg as originally published concurrently in The New Review even as his novel was serialised in Pearson’s Magazine in the summer of 1897, the story a curiosity built around a curiosity, the titular artefact which sits in the window of an antique shop.

Jealously guarding the item from any who would enquire about purchase to the consternation of his wife and stepchildren, domestic harmony is absent in the largely superfluous preamble before the reason for Mr Cave’s obsession with the object is revealed in his collaborative endeavours with his scientifically inclined associate Mr Wace as it allows them to see through it as though it were a window to the surface of a planet which they identify as Mars.

An idea around which Wells seems to have been unable to conceive a workable story, there are aspects which remind of H P Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark written sixty years earlier, though supernatural horror is not tied to the same restrictions as science fiction, but it is notable that Wells, decades before the concept was described, far less demonstrated, conceived a communication device whose function in the modern vernacular is apparently mediated through quantum entanglement.

Told first hand by the winged correspondent Aleriel to his terrestrial reader, W S Lach-Szyrma’s Letters from Mars simplifies the mechanics of communication across the gulf by sidestepping the question completely, a fantasia of the geography, architecture and culture of a dreamed-for Martian utopia.

A template for Ashley’s observed theme of harmonious redistribution of resources on a planetary scale, Lach-Szyrma describes the harnessing of geothermal energy and tidal power and the industrial farming of fish and algae as a staple diet; “Since we have had no wars we have been able to devote our force to the arts of peace.”

Emphasising the diversity of species which share the same planet as the reader, while there may be parallels across the worlds there will also be huge divergences, a common-sense idea to those raised in a scientifically aware time but perhaps an eye-opening concept to many in 1887, an extension of Darwin’s theories published less than three decades before.

A tale of possible astronomical Armageddon which far pre-dates When Worlds Collide or Deep Impact, George C Wallis’ The Great Sacrifice records an unaccountable disturbance in the orbits of the outer planets, a violation of the laws of Kepler and Newton which if correct could have bearing on the Earth itself, but worse is to come when a message from Mars indicates the true threat to life lies elsewhere, a catastrophe approaching swiftly from beyond the limits of the solar system.

Where the opening stories are largely observational this is a narrative of excitement and momentum, considering the reactions of the population to their scientifically predicted fate when the news breaks, those who continue to undertake their duty calmly and solemnly, those who give themselves to panic and madness, and those who deny and decry and debunk in the face of mounting evidence that their world will soon become too hot to sustain life.

Though on the whole Wallis’ writing is well-informed and scientifically literate the details of his crisis and its resolution are fanciful, but more regrettable is that the precedent he describes is one which too many modern policy makers follow when discussing long-term solutions to concerns of climate, population and resources, that an external saviour will intervene and save them the responsibility.

There is also help on hand in P Schuyler Miller’s The Forgotten Man of Space of 1933 though of a more humble sort, as following a double-cross in the desert, a prospector betrayed by his partners and left to die with no witnesses and no evidence, he is saved by the Maee, the red-brown rabbit-men of the Martian desert who show him more humanity than his own kind. The desert passages reminding of Dune as he ekes out a living in the sand and the rocks, with a terrible mistake made, like Wallis’ tale it involves sacrifice.

Also published in Wonder Stories the following summer, Stanley G Weinbaum’s A Martian Odyssey follows in similar footprints as Dick Jarvis is stranded far from his fellows from the Ares when his rocket malfunctions; trekking back to base he meets an almost incomprehensible but friendly native whom he comes to know as Tweel, and as the name suggests it is the chronicle of Jarvis’ passage across the uncharted territory in this strange company and his encounters along the way, all of them alien, some of them dangerous.

A tale of expectation, of waiting, of a grand and beautiful present all the more radiant for the knowledge that it is about to come to an end, Ray Bradbury’s Ylla was originally published under the name I’ll Not Ask for Wine in 1950 and would later form part of The Silver Locusts or, under the title the collection is better known, The Martian Chronicles.

A flight of fancy of exotic trappings and a bizarre displaced domesticity, the vaporous cushion on which Ylla levitates as she sleeps, the crystal wall from which she plucks fruit, she and her husband Yll are trapped in a stifling suburban conceit of the era in which it was written, a flirtatious wife whose jealous and controlling husband is enraged by her possibly prophetic dreams and elects to punish her, thwarting her desire to see if her imagining had any correlation to reality.

Another frontier tale transposed to a new world, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Measureless to Man has prospectors scrabbling in the dirt on the outskirts of an ancient Martian city where Andrew Slayton, a human born on Mars, is sent back to base when the leader of the expedition doubts his sanity after he reports “a presence,” but through telepathic union he is able to establish contact in this optimistic piece marked by kindness in the face of resistance.

Unlike the lunar tales of Moonrise, a world relatively well understood in gross anatomy if not detail, there is a conceptual gap between these early imaginings of the surface of Mars and the reality broadcast home by the later Viking, Spirit and Opportunity explorers, though as the collection progresses an awareness of the harsh and alien environment indicated by observation begins to make itself felt, that Mars is far from a distant reflection of home.

Two stories back to back focus on this truth, E C Tubb’s melancholy but slightly sentimental Without Bugles of 1952 and Walter M Miller Jr’s bleak Crucifixus Etiam of 1953, both concerned with the human cost of a Martian settlement balanced against the pitiful returns offered, Tubb’s told from the point of view of the failing expedition but considering how they will be presented and understood by those back home, as heroes or tragic figures to be pitied.

Best known for his 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, told over the generations, Miller also takes the long view in this earlier work which describes the irrevocable adaptations necessary to endure the hostile Martian environment, but where the protagonist of Frederick Pohl’s similarly themed 1976 novel Man Plus was a pioneer, here the subjects are effectively slave labour.

While both end on a hint of optimism it is bitter, a hope for others in the future rather than those who toil in the present, while the closing offering J G Ballard’s The Time-Tombs looks to the past as the archives buried under the shifting sands are sought and plundered by a group of men competing with each other and the authorities who seek to put a stop to their illegal and immoral activity.

In contrast to the Moonrise collection where on occasion women are included as expeditionaries to the Lunar surface their inclusion as pioneers in the dusty realms of Mars is so rare as to feature as a plot point when it arises, their infrequent presence a reminder of all that the rugged men have left behind.

A planet shrouded in ice, dust storms and mystery which still inspires speculation as an anchor for humanity’s expansion into the solar system and the exploration and exploitation of the resources of the minor bodies, the outer planets and beyond, these varied visions of Mars remind that whatever is found, what those hardy travellers take with them will be just as important.

Lost Mars is available from 5th April from the British Library and there is a launch event in London on Monday 16th April

For further reading on Martian explorations, we would recommend Arthur C Clarke’s The Sands of Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and its sequels and Andy Weir’s The Martian



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