Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet edited by Mike Ashley

Review published on April 6, 2018.

The notion of there being life on Mars (if not now, then at some point in the distant past) is both hugely popular and long established. In fact, belief in the likelihood of Earth having Martian neighbours arguably dates back to 1882, when Giovanni Schiaparelli published a paper discussing the “canali” or channels that he had observed on the surface of Mars. His discovery was misinterpreted as “canals” and the idea developed that Mars was criss-crossed with purpose-built waterways, which must of course have been constructed by some manner of alien race. [Semi-interesting side note: In Andy Weir’s The Martian, the Schiaparelli crater is intended to serve as the landing site for Ares 4, the fourth manned mission to Mars, which marooned astronaut Mark Watney must reach if he is to be rescued.]

Schiaparelli’s canali were further popularised and expanded on by Percival Lowell in a series of three [supposedly non-fiction] books (Mars, Mars and Its Canals, and Mars as the Abode of Life) in which he argued that the markings seen on the planet’s surface represented concussive proof that Mars sustained intelligent life forms. While the potential for life on Mars was being subject to dubiously rigorous scientific examination, it was also becoming firmly entrenched within literature, with writers such as H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs producing stories of Mars that thrilled and terrified readers worldwide.

There is an awful lot to say (and claim and counterclaim) about these early investigations of the possibility of life on Mars, both in the scientific sphere and from the perspective of fiction. It is therefore fortunate that Lost Mars, one of the launch titles from the British Library’s new Science Fiction Classics series (a sister series to the hugely popular Crime Classics series) begins with a lengthy introduction by editor Mike Ashley, in which he details the origins and development of Martian fiction and links the key works in the genre to the scientific discoveries of those such as Schiaparelli and Lowell. Lost Mars really is an informative and entertaining book from the outset.

Of course, however good the introduction, it is the stories that make or break an anthology, and Lost Mars collects ten diverse science fiction stories with Mars at the heart that were published between 1887 and 1963. Perhaps the three best known authors to contribute work to Lost Mars, at least from the point of view of contemporary readers, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury and J.G. Ballard, are found at the beginning, middle and end of the collection, respectively, with their stories nicely illustrating how interpretations of Mars and Martians have changed over the decades. In Wells’ “The Crystal Egg”, in a distinct departure from the doom-laden depiction of Martians found in The War of the Worlds, a man acquires a crystal that, if the lighting is correct, seemingly allows him to view the surface of Mars. Bradbury’s “Ylla” considers how Martians might view refugees fleeing Earth for the safe haven of Mars, reflecting themes that are still very relevant today (albeit on a domestic rather than an inter-planetary scale), while Ballard’s “The Time-Tombs” chronicles the exploits of a group of tomb raiders as they attempt to plunder long-buried Martian treasures. All three stories are excellent examples of the work of true innovators in the field of science fiction.

Among the works by lesser known authors, the standout stories include “The Great Sacrifice” by George C. Wallis, which includes a very different interpretation of Martians and their intentions towards Earth and earthlings, and “Measureless to Man” by Marion Zimmer Bradley, in which a human explorer makes contact with one of the original inhabitants of Mars. As well as exploring the more marvellous aspects of all things Martian, a number of stories in Lost Mars examine the potentially perilous consequences of dealing with alien environments. For instance, in “Without Bugles” E.C. Tubb considers the dangers of colonising Mars and attempting to exploit the planet’s resources, while in P. Schuyler Miller’s “The Forgotten Man of Space”, a miner who is abandoned on Mars has to make peace with the ecology of the planet in order to survive. Really, there is something for everyone in the stories included in this collection.

Lost Mars is a treasure trove of Martian fiction. It collects ten short stories, many of which have been long overlooked, that all offer different insights into life on both Mars and Earth. In keeping with the approach of the Crime Classics series, each story is accompanied by a short introduction by Mike Ashley, which puts the story in context and provides other examples of the author’s work that are worth hunting down. Between these mini introductions and the introduction to the book as a whole, a vast number of intriguing sounding sci fi novels and stories are made known to the reader, meaning that TBR piles across the land (sounds rather painful!) are likely to be increasing in the near future. Lost Mars represents a fine start to the Science Fiction Classics series and it will be interesting to see what books follow.

Erin Britton 4/4

Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet edited by Mike Ashley
British Library Publishing 9780712352406 pbk Apr 2018

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