Monday, March 03, 2014

Mini Review 2 - The Martian War, Red Planet Blues, Old Mars

It seems Mars has been getting a lot of attention over the past year or so. Every time I turn around, it's as though there's a new media headline from the Mars Rover or Curiosity robots, or updates about candidate selections for the much-hyped Mars One Project reality show/possible-colonization-attempt. Then there are the books.

Mars has been a staple of science fiction since the beginning, and, while there are occasional years that are dry spells where you don't see much on the shelves, it feels like there was a burst of stories focussing on the red planet recently. Or, at least, there were a bunch that caught my attention.

For that reason, I've decided to dedicate this edition of the Mini Review to a trio of books that I went through last year, starring Mars: Kevin J. Anderson's The Martian War, Robert J. Sawyer's Red Planet Blues, and the Old Mars anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.

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What if author H. G. Wells didn't completely invent The War of the Worlds as a work of fiction? Imagine a young Wells and a gang of real historical figures like Percival Lowell, along with fictional characters come to life - such as Dr. Moreau - racing against time and through space to thwart the Martian menace before it's too late for Earth.

That's the basis for Kevin J. Anderson's The Martian War, a rollicking mash-up that's reminiscent of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - volume 2, without the dark overtones to the characters or plot; the explicitly, visceral brutality; or the gritty feel to the setting. Instead, Anderson just gives us a fun adventure that a reader can jog through fairly quickly without feeling unsettled - like a walk through an amusement park funhouse, rather than Moore & O'Neill's tour of a morgue.

You may remember the War of the Worlds - Global Dispatches anthology that Anderson edited back in '96, and, if so, The Martian War certainly makes a good companion piece to it, or, at least, a sort of solo retake on the idea that has a similar feel.

It's not a book I'll be rereading on a regular basis, but it's certainly worth keeping and I'll revisit it someday. And, it's a book that I'd recommend buying if you're looking for a quick read to take on a plane flight.

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I really wanted to like Robert J. Sawyer's Red Planet Blues. I enjoy most of Sawyer's fare, including the novella "Identity Theft" that forms the basis of this book, but unfortunately, drawing it out into a longer form just didn't seem to work.

The noir-style story follows Alex Lomax, a private detective on a Mars colony where the only real industry left is fossil-hunting, and the population is a mix of those searching for the elusive motherlode of long-lost Martian life, and those trying to make money off of them - one way or another. Those with enough money get themselves uploaded into nearly impervious robot bodies, or buy flights home, while those who don't try to get their share any way they can. Lomax finds himself caught in a mystery involving the discovery of the biggest and best fossil bed in history, and dealing with people who are willing to kill to get their hands on it.

Problem is, as hard as the novel tried, it just wasn't as gripping as it wanted to be, and didn't have any real depth. Remember that line from The Lord of the Rings where Bilbo, having possessed the One Ring for too long, says he feels like butter that's been spread thin over too much bread? That's what Red Planet Blues felt like. And, no matter how many new twists and turns Sawyer tried to jam into it, the story just didn't get any more substantial - I never escaped the feeling that it just should have ended a lot sooner. I didn't really care about Lomax - he had the trappings of a classic gumshoe character, but there was no real depth to him or reason to care that he came out on top, instead of one of the secondary characters who occasionally throw their support behind him. It was like he was more of a caricature than a character. And even some of the supporting cast members weren't as believable as they needed to be... a big-time player on the fossil-dealing scene who's said to have connections with bad people, but who goes into a dangerous situation in the desert without bringing some hired muscle for support? I don't think so.

In the end, I think it would have been a better book if Sawyer had just started from scratch. Rather than trying to inflate an existing novella, he could have used his considerable talents to write an entirely new story with a different character in this setting. As it stands, the story that he has (re)written for us is one that I didn't hate, but, unfortunately, it's one that I can't recommend either.

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Old Mars. Of the three books in this Mini Review, this is the one I liked the most. Liked? No. Loved.

This herd of stories that George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois managed to corral is just bursting hugely with so much energy and wild imagination that it needs its own soundtrack, and I'm not talking some safe, run-of-the-mill soundtrack from most films these days; I'm talking about something massive and intricate and brain-slapping, like the operatic tidal wave Basil Poledouris threw at us for the original Conan the Barbarian, or James Horner's raucous aural assault from Krull (as terrible as the movie was, you have to admit, the soundtrack kicked ass). But I digress. Old Mars is one fucking great collection.

These are stories in the vein of Wells, Burroughs, Brackett, Bradbury, Wollheim, Lewis, and others from the good old days of SF when the science was still sketchy and Mars and the rest of the universe were wide open to possibilities; where authors could share imaginations of ancient civilizations in the dust just one planet over. This is a collection of stories where, because the editors have given the writers and the readers permission to ignore the hard science of today, there is unbridled energy and a boundless potential for wonder.

And you needn't look any farther than Martin's introductory essay to find an expression of that wonder that SF used to have, and the deep longing for a return to it that's felt by so many of us. Hell, Martin's intro is so good, it deserves to be published and honoured on its own - one of the reasons why I nominated it for the "Best Related Work" Hugo this year.

The book pulls together stories from a range of talented authors, including Matthew Hughes, Ian McDonald, Allen M. Steele, Mike Resnick, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Michael Moorcock, and others, and nearly every one of them is really, really good. In fact, the only one of the bunch that I could have done without was Joe R. Lansdale's "King of the Cheap Romance", which felt like an overly-long and poorly-executed young adult piece. I think the collection would have been much stronger if it would have instead had a story like Camille Alexa's beautiful and heart-rending "Seeds of the Lotus" from Ace Jordyn, Calvin D. Jim, and Renee Bennett's Shanghai Steam anthology (which I would also highly recommend).

Go out and buy this book. If you can still get it in hardcover, it's worth every penny. If you've gotta take a softcover or e-book version instead, that's fine too. Just buy it, read it, and treasure it - treasure it the way you would if you managed to catch a half-understood glimpse of a Martian in the shadow of a ruined wall mostly buried by sand in some forgotten corner of the red planet.

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