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Old Mars by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois Book Review

oldmars

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is insane hubris even for George R. R. Martin who put out a hardcover collection consisting of things like his unpublished TV scripts.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On paper, unpublished paper, Old Mars sounds like a good idea.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.

The Dark Knight Returns’ Batman is Really Ra’s al Ghul

Nothing like Ra's al Ghul. At all

Nothing like Ra’s al Ghul. At all

Frank Miller’s Batman is bound to be an asshole. But what struck me when rereading The Dark Knight Returns is why he’s an asshole.

Batman may be dark and menacing, but he protects Gotham because he cares about the people. Miller’s Batman in Dark Knight Returns has nothing but contempt for the people of Gotham.

It’s a theme that develops subtly in the media coverage as the people turn one way and then another, the contemptible mayor who answers to the polls, the storekeeper itching to shoot the Mutant until Batman warns him off and finally the climax in which Batman allies with the former Mutants to fight… among other enemies… the people of Gotham.

It all climaxes in the showdown with Superman who let the people push him into being a weakling by comic book Reagan who is just another feeble minded projection of the petty people of Gotham and the United States.

The Batman of the Dark Knight Returns isn’t a hero because he cares about people, but because he follows some Randian imperative to be heroic. Eventually he leads an army of the ex-Mutants, the same guys who were murdering, raping and bombing Gotham, on a quest to build his own system. This Batman doesn’t fight for people. He fights because he’s a Nietzschean Superman. He’s just made to be superior.

And Superman is just a loser who takes orders from ordinary people. Like the people of Gotham and the media. He let them make him unheroic. That’s why Batman does so well against him. Superman doesn’t think he’s better than anyone. This version of Batman does.

Superman didn’t do his job of imposing the right system on humans. So he got stuck answering to Ronnie, a human leader. Batman is going to go down into the caves and emerge with some kind of new order to replace the pop psychology, push polls and political correctness.

It’s striking how different this Batman is from his usual self and from Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil. This is a Batman who belongs in Moore’s Watchmen more than he does in Gotham. He’s not just a fascist because he’s a crime-fighting vigilante. That’s a common comic critic mistake. He’s a fascist because he believes that society is corrupt and that he has the right to impose his own order on it.

The Dark Knight Returns gives us Batman as a Batman villain. This Batman has more in common with Ra’s al Ghul, right down to his own private army, a home in the caves and contempt for human society.

That contempt is what always separated Batman from Ra’s al Ghul. Batman knew that Gotham was corrupt, but he never completely gave up on it. Miller’s Batman has given up. He views Gotham with a cold eye. He treats its people with disdain. He thinks he’s better than them.

He knows what’s best for them. And he’ll punish them if they don’t obey. He is Ra’s al Ghul.

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