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January, 2006 : Review:

Fourth Planet from the Sun edited by Gordon Van Gelder

Tales of Mars from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

[Fourth Planet from the Sun: Tales of Mars from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction edited by Gordon Van Gelder. Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005. 306 pp. ISBN 1-56025-666-4.]

What does Mars mean to mankind? How has it been portrayed in science fiction, particularly the science fiction published in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction? The anthology Fourth Planet from the Sun is created by the intersection of those two questions. Since the dozen stories contained range over the past 50 years — from Ray Bradbury to Alex Irvine — and were selected by Gordon Van Gelder, F&SF’s current editor, the anthology does a better job of answering the second question, but given F&SF’s enduring prominence in the field, it does a pretty good job of the first as well. Van Gelder’s introduction suggests that Mars has served as a reflection of human society: it is humanity reflected back at itself. This is possible, but not particularly convincing, unless we reduce “humanity” to “a subset of white male Americans working in a particular tradition” (plus a few Brits and the glorious Leigh Brackett), and even then, it seems a stretch. This is just a dozen stories, from one magazine.

That said, these are fine stories, and it is interesting to see how differently Mars has been represented over the years, and to speculate on what these changes might mean. Bradbury’s story “The Wilderness” opens the collection, and who could be more appropriate? The Martian Chronicles colored America’s view of the Red Planet for some time, gently slipping Middle American rose colored glasses in front of older visions (Lowell’s, Burroughs’) in a series of stories, many of which weren’t really science fiction, but couldn’t really be called anything else. (Now I suspect they’d be called slipstream. Though its details are much more realistic, I’d suggest that Michael Cassutt’s “The First Mars Expedition” is a contemporary Bradburyesque piece. In it, a “trip to Mars” made by boys from their backyard later proves to have been somehow real.) As with many Bradbury stories, “The Wilderness” evokes analogies between a future Mars and a mythologized America; Mars here is the frontier, and America when sailing ships from Europe took forever and separated lovers for just as long a time.

It’s also the first of several stories that I’d group together as displaced stories that are really about familiar settings, all of which suggest that the future will be much like the past. The second story, Alfred Coppel’s “Mars is Ours” is a tightly written, realistic war story that suggests that warriors will find themselves wearied by both battle and politics on Mars as they do on Earth. The third story, Arthur C. Clarke’s “Crime on Mars” is essentially a caper story, the sort of science fiction that works well for readers of cozy-style mysteries: Mars is just a new setting for complex crime stories and yarns about them.

Clarke’s story provides a bridge to another set of stories. “Crime on Mars,” Jerry Oltion’s “The Great Martian Pyramid Hoax,” and, in a slightly more paranoid vein, Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” are all tall tales. The Martian setting works largely to add the spice of the new, and to provide arenas where the overly innocent can be duped in various ways. The only reason to have these stories set on Mars is its accessibility. It is close enough that humanity might reach it easily, but unlike the familiar moon, distant enough for mystery.

It is this mystery, and a deep yearning for alien glory, that power my two favorite stories of the anthology: Leigh Brackett’s “Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon” and Roger Zelazny’s “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.” As Van Gelder’s preface to the story notes, Brackett’s tale was inspired by a joke about Brackett’s ability to write “flamboyant interplanetary adventure” that fans hounded her about until she made it real. I’m glad she did, as “Purple Priestess” brings the rich wonder of the pulps to life. Brackett’s Mars is very much an alien world, so much so that it comes close to overwhelming the characters. It hangs in their minds after they leave it, just as her story will hand in the reader’s after its formal ending. Zelazny’s story of an arrogant poet who comes to Mars for glory, only to find an obsessive poetic inspiration, a kind of love, deception, and himself as part of a myth that began to unfold long before he was born. Both stories fit Mars as a source of myth, creating a world that is itself breathing myths more vivid than its thin atmosphere.

By contrast, Gordon Eklund and Gregory Bedford’s “Hellas is Florida,” John Varley’s “In the Hall of the Martian Kings,” and Michael Cassutt’s “The Last Mars Trip” all accent the realistic exploration of Mars. Each delves into the biological possibilities of life on Mars. Interestingly, each also explores realpolitik, both here on Earth and on the Red Planet, and each story examines different ways in which the two forces (biology and politics) will intersect. Unfortunately, describing them that way suggests that these stories are a bit abstract, and that’s not the case. Each is interesting, and the Varley in particular does a fine job of trying to blend the sense of wonder of the Golden Age with harder scientific speculations.

However, it is Cassutt’s “The Last Mars Trip” that provides a link to the last set of stories about Mars. In Cassutt’s story, the humans exploring Mars are not the distant, lonely explorers of the Golden Age, but instead remain connected to a population back on Earth via a media umbilicus. The mission’s success or failure may be less important than the spectacle it provides for a troubled population back on Earth. Cassut’s story is solid, but it is a mere shadow of what can be done with this premise, as Alex Irvine demonstrates in the collection’s final story “Pictures From An Expedition.” “Pictures” is a detailed, realistic, OK, cynical portrait of a media-rich world in which even the space program is run by focus groups and casting directors. “Pictures” may be the best example of the validity of Van Gelder’s premise that fictional portraits of Mars have served as reflections of humanity, for Irvine’s world is essentially our own, projected outward and larger. I have to admit, I found the story solid, but depressing; I want more from my Mars than this.

So, if this dozen stories is looked at as a collection, what does one see? First, of course, one sees an anthology that is a good read, and that cuts a fine swath through the history of the last fifty years of science fiction. Most of the writers included here have influenced science fiction powerfully, and the contemporary writers promise to do so. Beyond that, one is less able to track humanity’s self-image (as Van Gelder suggests) than, unsurprisingly, trends within science fiction, some of which, like the emphasis on media in the most recent stories, directly reflect currents in the larger society, but others of which don’t. (This includes my favorite stories in the collection, by the way, so this isn’t meant as a slam.) At times one can see a tension between an author’s own concerns, the history of the genre, and some of the new scientific discoveries; one can easily see this in the Varley and the Irvine.

One of the uses of a collection like this — thematic stories over time — is that it points to potential openings for new stories. Some openings are basic; where are the stories about Mars written by women? By people of color? Others are more complex. I for one would love to see more stories that follow not the path marked by Irvine (realistic fiction reflecting our current society) but rather more stories that blend the Varley’s goal of putting foundations under earlier castles in the air with the mythic energies of the Brackett and Zelazny. But that’s a personal preference, and all readers will find pleasure in the stories from Fourth Planet from the Sun.

Copyright © 2006, Greg Beatty. All Rights Reserved.

About Greg Beatty

Greg Beatty lives with his wife in Bellingham, Washington, where he tries, unsuccessfully to stay dry. He writes everything from children's books to essays about his cooking debacles. He has a particular fondness for speculative poetry; he won the 2005 Rhysling Award. Greg recently published his first poetry chapbook. Titled Phrases of the Moon, it is available from Spec House

For more information on Greg's writing, visit


Jan 9, 21:34 by IROSF
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