Price: Several Slightly Less Mediocre Softcover Themed Anthologies
Number of Inner Light Ripoffs: 6
Number of Good Stories: 3
Number of Great Stories: 1
Number of Stories by Martin Pals: Too Many
Reason for Existence: George R.R. Martin Twinkie Fund
Themed anthologies are invariably bad. Asking readers to pay 30 bucks for a hardcover themed anthology is insane hubris even for George R. R. Martin who put out a hardcover collection consisting of things like his unpublished TV scripts. But here’s Old Mars anyway.
On paper, unpublished paper, Old Mars sounds like a good idea. A tribute to the Mars of John Carter that we lost when we saw the real Mars.
On actual paper, Old Mars is a miserable collection of bad writing from both good and bad writers. The worst offenders are Chris Roberson and Melinda Snodgrass with stories that are terrible and mediocre at the same time. But that’s also the overall tone of Old Mars.
Old Mars has more ripoffs of the Star Trek TNG episode The Inner Light than an entire fanzine. This collection is filled with humans encountering Martian artifacts and getting visions through them of the lost Mars that was.
Story after story of the same thing. And almost none of them are any good.
Aside from S.M Stirling and Mike Resnick turning in another overpulped homage, this isn’t John Carter’s Mars. It’s supposed to be Ray Bradbury’s Mars if Bradbury had been a hack who could barely spell his name. Countless stories of conflict between human settlers and Martian archeology. Countless stories of the one human who can magically detect the original Martians while no one else believes him.
That’s not even the weirdest part there. There are two, count em two, stories of 16th century British sailing ships traveling to Mars at the command of an English King. The second story was by Martin pal Daniel Abraham, but it’s still too much.
Some of the mess that is Old Mars can be put down to mediocre writers. Who picks out Melinda Snodgrass for a theme anthology? Or Chris Roberson, a guy whose story about pirates on Mars reads like something a six year old would come up with? But how do you explain Michael Moorcock’s pulpy entry which is bad enough to be pulp, well enough written to remind you that Moorcock can write, but still a bad story?
The closest to the advertised vision of Old Mars comes from S.M. Stirling’s Sword of Zar-Tu-Kan. But that’s just another story set in Stirling’s own Old Mars, an idea he had long before this anthology and extends from his novel, In the Courts of the Crimson Kings. Old Mars is just a paying market for an existing Stirling universe.
Phyllis Eisenstein’s The Sunstone is YAish, but is the best of the Inner Light reworkings because its Martians are understated tour guides keeping a hidden culture alive, instead of the ridiculous visions in other stories.
The Queen of Night’s Aria by Ian McDonald is the best and only genuinely great story of the lot. Martin and Dozois know it which is why they positioned last. And that means they also know the value of the rest of the lot. McDonald delivers a personal story of an eccentric Irish musician contrasted with a world in which War of the Worlds has been going on since the invasion, the British and the Ottoman Empire are trying to occupy Mars while dealing with a bewildering array of species and a ruthless Martian Queen plotting under the surface.
Queen does what the rest of the stories in Old Mars fumble to accomplish, casually tossing off locations, technologies and a war without infodumps and while keeping the focus on an eccentric character and his ambitions. It’s a masterful performance that only makes the rest of the volume seem that much worse.