Tag Archives: Mars (Planet) – Fiction

The Gods of Xuma

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gods of Xuma, or Barsoom Revisited [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by David J Lake.

Lake The Gods of Xuma

The Gods of Xuma is a mildly metafictional take on Burroughs’ Barsoom, framed by a “harder” SF scenario of attempted 24th-century emigration from the solar system. Instead of being the nearest planet in our system, as Barsoom was, Xuma is in the nearest star system that has an Earth-like planet. The explorers have read the old Barsoom stories, and they are intrigued by the arid planet with a canal-based civilization. The protagonist is the crew’s linguist Tom Carson (note the shared meter and assonance with “John Carter”), who is the first to land on the planet and engage the natives.

In an interesting counter, Carson is not given low-gravity superpowers by the below-Earth gravity of Xuma, because he (like all healthy surviving humans) has actually grown up in even lower gravity among the human settlements on the Moon and Mars. What the humans do have is excessive military technology. The Xuman natives, while suspiciously advanced with respect to cultural continuity and general sciences, have no automated transport or weaponry beyond a medieval standard. But the humans barge in with beam weapons, tanks, and orbital barrages. Thus the star-faring humans are mistaken, first by the natives, and later by themselves, for “The Gods of Xuma.”

Communications between the humans and Xumans are established quickly and easily, although without any cross-species telepathy or magical translation. Although superficially quite humanoid, the Xumans have a very different developmental and sexual cycle, which produces real but not insurmountable cultural distances from the explorers. The book does not shirk from an account of the first sexual encounter between humans and Xumans, along with the subsequent developments of this possibility.

The human characters are reasonably fallible, sometimes verging on pathetic, and the Xumans are a little incredibly benevolent. On the whole, the book is a pretty effective anti-imperialist fable. It has a sequel (Warlords of Xuma), but it doesn’t cry out for one.

The Man Who Loved Mars

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Man Who Loved Mars [Amazon, Abebooks, Bookshop (New), Local Library] by Lin Carter.

Carter The Man Who Loved Mars

This novel by Lin Carter is the first of his “Mysteries of Mars” stories inspired by the planetary romances of Leigh Brackett. He does nice work with the form here, playing up the political sensibility found in Brackett’s Mars yarns (especially the Eric John Stark ones). The anti-imperialist sentiment is probably more bracing for American readers now — or at least it should be — than it was when Carter wrote the story forty years ago. 

The characters are a little flatter than what I would expect from Brackett, but their motives are still interesting, and the planet is nicely realized. I have read complaints about the deus ex machina conclusion, but it was enjoyable as far as I was concerned, and it was almost necessary in order to make this story, told by the first Earth human to rule Martians as a Martian, more significant than the past events to which the narrator constantly alludes.

The science of the business isn’t really any more believable today than Burroughs’ Barsoom was in the 1960s, but for readers more interested in a good story than a historical forecast, this quick read justifies itself well enough.

Ares Express

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ares Express [Amazon, Local Library] by Ian McDonald.

McDonald Ares Express

Ares Express is classed as a sequel to the author’s wonderful far-future Mars story Desolation Road. As I anticipated, the continuous characters from Desolation Road are few and somewhat peripheral. It would be a fine stand-alone read, and no one should avoid it for lack of familiarity with the previous volume.

Unlike his first Martian book with its sprawling ensemble, McDonald really focuses this one on the single heroine Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th, and the time-frame of the story is much briefer, so McDonald doesn’t pull off the same astonishing combination of little stories adding up to a big one. Although he still manages to avoid the word Mars throughout the novel, he also furnishes a lot of additional information about the fourth planet and its history, religions, and relations to “Motherworld,” in ways that are more direct than those of Desolation Road

“Naked to our lens, human imagination had engineered its surface. Whether watered by slow canals, galloped across by green or red barbarians; contemplated by a wistful autumn people; the little world next one out, unlike the other globes in the system, rocky or smothered with steam, had always possessed a geography. Names were written on its skin.” (251-2)

Ares Express is full of thematic and iconic connections to Peter Pan. Sweetness kicks off the events of the book by fleeing her arranged wedding: she doesn’t want to grow up, at least not in the way dictated by her family — part of the engineer caste perpetually living on the massive nuclear-powered trains that serve as the principal long-distance transport on Mars. The Captain Hook role is occupied by Devastation Harx, a cult leader attempting to incite planetary cataclysm from his airship cathedral. The book is chock-full of urchins and micro-societies of voluntary castaways. 

While the central course of events in Ares Express make up a coming-of-age novel, the most significant secondary plot-line features the adventures of Sweetness’ Grandmother Taal in her efforts to rescue the girl (and the planet). As a counterpoint to the rollicking cinematic action of Sweetness’ journey, Grandmother Taal’s story is more literary and episodic.

It’s no wonder to me that McDonald took about thirteen years to finish a second Mars story — his vision is too fine to waste on a rush job, and it’s clear that he had the necessary inspiration to continue here. Maybe there’ll be a third someday!

Desolation Road

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Desolation Road [Amazon, Bookshop UK, Publisher, Local Library] by Ian McDonald.

McDonald Desolation Road

The jacket copy promising “every conceivable abnormality” had me expecting a more comical romp than the wry and profound storytelling McDonald provides in his first novel. Although in many ways the most science-fictiony of science fiction–a story set on Mars during a period of human settlement–there are many other literary veins enriching Desolation Road. The little serendipitous town by the train tracks certainly has a 19th-century-US Western feel to it that gave the book a steampunk vibe (this well before the coinage of the genre label). Some readers have accused McDonald of “magical realism” in this Martian novel, which nevertheless intensely engages religious and political themes. The net effect for me was something like a hybrid between Little, Big and Dune

There must be many influences and allusions that flew past me. Critics commonly point to homages to Jack Vance and Ray Bradbury. The 1985 Terry Gilliam movie Brazil is “sampled,” if you will, in chapters 25 and 35. Cory Doctorow notes that the Catherine Wheel in the religion/planetary administration of McDonald’s Mars alludes to the music of David Byrne. It’s clear that McDonald has taken the old Clarke “indistinguishable from magic” saw to heart, and thus lays himself open to the charge of fantasy in SF drag, but if time travel is acceptable as science fiction, the rest of this kit should pass muster.

Sometime around page 150 I started to wonder, “What’s with all the characters being sexually active at the age of nine?” It wasn’t until I read about the grandfather of mature grandchildren thinking “the thoughts a man of forty-five thinks” that I realized these are Martian years! There are no C.E. dates in the book, but the story must start in the 28th century at the earliest, given some information about the timescale of “manforming” Mars. It takes place over roughly three human generations, each of which conveniently corresponds to a “decade” in Martian reckoning (i.e. 18.8 of our years).

McDonald very comprehensively adheres to the framing of Mars as “the world,” with the word “earth” used only to reference soil and planetary surface, while planet Earth is called “the Motherworld.” And still the Martian milieu is full of clever evocations of 20th-century mass culture. 

The chapters are short and delicious, the vivid characters abundant, and the plot is so manifold that each of chapters 57 through 63 constitutes an independent climax, leaving room for a further half-dozen chapters of denouement and closure. It is a well-formed independent novel, and it does not in any way beg a sequel. The one McDonald eventually wrote (Ares Express) doubtless leverages the terrific world-building in Desolation Road, but I won’t be surprised if it is at a significant remove from the characters and events in its predecessor.

This is one of those books that I devoured rapidly, and then toward the end I started to feel sad that it would soon be over. I recommend it without reservation.