The British Library has been reissuing vintage crime stories under their BLCC section for several years now and have many excellent titles under their belt. When they asked on Twitter for book bloggers who like science fiction to take copies of their two new science fiction anthologies, for review, I jumped at the chance. This is the first of the two, Lost Mars, edited by Mike Ashley, which I've been reading and savouring over the past few weeks.
1. The Crystal Egg - H.G. Wells. Two customers try to buy a crystal egg from a dealer in antiquities but the owner is curiously unwilling to sell. He hides it away at the home of a scientist friend and together the two discover some of the egg's secrets. I read a lot of H.G. Wells as a teenager, but I don't remember this story, though that doesn't mean a lot. I'd forgotten what an amazing writer Wells was, here he creates that curious Victorian atmosphere of academia mixed with dark weirdness. Loved this to bits, perhaps it's time to reread The War of the Worlds... of which this story is apparently a kind of precursor, and maybe look for more of his short stories.
2.Letters from Mars - W.S. Lach-Szyrma. Aleriel is a winged native of Venus who travels the Solar system and writes about his adventures. He describes Mars as being a planet of very wide canals that the inhabitants use to traverse their world. Amazing imagination displayed in this story, it felt very much like a travelogue. Oddly, the author, the son of a Polish immigrant, was vicar of St. Peter's in Newlyn in Cornwall in the late 1800s or early 1900s... a church I went to for a time as a child.
3. The Great Sacrifice - George S. Wallis. Something's wrong in the Solar system. Astonomers have noticed that some of the outer planets are hundreds of miles off track. One of them witnesses one of the moons of Mars exploding and then messages arrive from inhabitants of that planet that no one knew existed. And it's a dire warning. This is one of those stories that reminds you how insignificant we are in the cosmos and how helpless we would be in the face of some kind of natural planet-threatening disaster originating from space.
4.The Forgotten Man of Space - P. Schuyler Miller. A miner is left behind on Mars by his two fellow miners, susposedly so that they don't have to share the profits of their latest trip three ways. The man, doomed to die, doesn't because he's rescued by the indigenous race who live on the planet. Good story with a nice twist at the end.
5. A Martian Odyssey - Stanley Weinbaum. A member of an exploration team gets stranded on Mars, it's either walk the 800 miles back to his ship or die. Off he sets and meets a rather strange ostrich-like creature, with whom he's able to communicate on a very basic level but who is clearly from an intelligent race. The Earthman calls his new companion 'Tweel' and the two keep each other company on the long journey. Loved this one for its 'friendship with others no matter what they look or sound like' theme. It's also quite the adventure and I felt would have made an excellent full-length novel.
6. Ylla - Ray Bradbury. Ylla, a Martian woman, starts to have strange dreams concerning a handsome visitor from their neighbouring planet, Earth. But everyone knows Earth cannot support life so what are these dreams? Her husband starts to get jealous but Ylla is unable to stop these dreams happening. This story is part of Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles collection. I must confess I've not read them but did watch the TV dramas eons ago. (!970s maybe? With Rock Hudson or is my memory deceiving me?) Judging by this beautifully written, reflective story, I really should.
7. Measureless to Man - Marion Zimmer Bradley. Two former expeditions to Mars,trying to discover the secrets of the fantastical city of Xanadu, have failed, the members disappearing without trace. It seems no one is able to get inside the city, but why? A new expedition is hoping for better luck, one of its number being Andrew Slayton, a human born on Mars, seven foot tall. He alone is destined to discover what happened to the inhabitants of the lost city. Loved this! Another that I felt would've made an excellent novel. I loved the concept behind it but I won't say what that is as it would spoil it. 'But'... really good story, good writing - as you would expect from Marion Zimmer Bradley.
8. Without Bugles - E.C. Tubb. A small settlement on Mars has been there for five years looking for precious metals or minerals. It's hard, unrelentling work and one particular aspect of it has affected the workers' health badly. Earth sends someone to see if it's worth keeping the place going, but there's a problem... This was a powerful story about unforeseen consequences. I think of all the stories in the book this and the next story are probably the most realistic. It's gritty, honest and quite affecting.
9. Crucifixus Etiam - Walter M. Miller Jr. Manue Nanti has joined a project working on Mars to earn good money. He wants to travel on Earth, visit some of the amazing sites, so the hard earned money will enable him to do that. He is Peruvian and it's thought that being used to breathing at high altitudes will make it easier for him to breathe on Mars. But he still needs the adaptations to his body which will take over his breathing for him. He knows though that if he doesn't also breathe for himself, once back on Earth he'll be a wreck healthwise. Naturally this is easier said than done. This is another gritty, realistic story... quiet scary I thought, uncomfortable reading, poignant... but that's good in my opinion. Well written too, which of course increases its effect.
10. The Time-Tombs - J.G. Ballard. This story works on the premise that there was a very ancient civilisation on Mars who left a sort of digital imprint of themselves in their tombs rather than actual remains. Tomb robbers from Earth have been busy raiding the tombs for 'tapes' for many years and there are almost none to be discovered now. Or are there? Not J.G. Ballard's normal fare, he was more of a 'social collapse of society' writer (as the intro blurb puts it). This story was one of his earlier works but still has a rather bleak outlook about it. Very well written indeed.
Like all short story collections this one has excellent stories and a few that don't appeal quite so much. But that's quite a personal thing I think, those stories might be other people's favourites. None are less than very readable though, which for me makes it an excellent anthology. Usually there are a couple in every collection that I just can't get through but there were none like that in Lost Mars. My favourite story was Measureless to Man by Marion Zimmer Bradley, probably because of its fantastical city element as I do love a bit of that... where you never quite know what's going to happen. Other favourites were the H.G. Wells offering, The Crystal Egg, for its Victorian atmosphere (rather Dickensian at the beginning I thought), A Martian Odyssey by Stanley Weinbaum as I loved 'Tweel', and Ylla by Ray Bradbury which made me want to find his Martian Chronicles and read them.
All in all this was a superb science-fiction anthology and many thanks to Abbie Day at The British Library for giving me the chance to read and review the book before it's published on the 16th. April. I'll be reading the second book, Moonrise very soon.