Pack up your blaster pistol and sharpest sword: In just a few short weeks editors George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois will be taking us to Mars in the new fiction anthology Old Mars!
What’s Old Mars, you might ask, and how is it different from “New Mars”? Good question, my persistent but oddly quiet reader: Old Mars is the Mars of pulp fantasy and science fiction: A place of adventure, aliens and mysterious cities in the red dust. Or, as the book description puts it:
Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars. Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Heinlein’s Red Planet. These and so many more inspired generations of readers with a sense that science fiction’s greatest wonders did not necessarily lie far in the future or light-years across the galaxy but were to be found right now on a nearby world tantalizingly similar to our own—a red planet that burned like an ember in our night sky . . . and in our imaginations.
This new anthology of fifteen all-original science fiction stories, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, celebrates the Golden Age of Science Fiction, an era filled with tales of interplanetary colonization and derring-do. Before the advent of powerful telescopes and space probes, our solar system could be imagined as teeming with strange life-forms and ancient civilizations—by no means always friendly to the dominant species of Earth. And of all the planets orbiting that G-class star we call the Sun, none was so steeped in an aura of romantic decadence, thrilling mystery, and gung-ho adventure as Mars.
Join such seminal contributors as Michael Moorcock, Mike Resnick, Joe R. Lansdale, S. M. Stirling, Mary Rosenblum, Ian McDonald, Liz Williams, James S. A. Corey, and others in this brilliant retro anthology that turns its back on the cold, all-but-airless Mars of the Mariner probes and instead embraces an older, more welcoming, more exotic Mars: a planet of ancient canals cutting through red deserts studded with the ruined cities of dying races.
Sounds pretty awesome, right? It is!
Since we’re talking already about fictional portrayals of Mars, let’s look at one of the most prevailing modern myths about the planet: That there’s an artificially constructed “face” on its surface.
On July 25, 1976, the NASA orbiter Viking I snapped a surprising image while surveying a region of Mars known as “Cydonia”. Scattered among a cluster of craters and small mesas was what appeared to be a humanoid face wearing a headdress. At first dismissed as a trick of light and shadow, the “face” was revealed to be consistent in several shots from different angles.
The face captured the public’s imagination, and various “fringe” researchers claimed it to be possible evidence of a long-vanished civilization. A cottage industry was born, with amateur researchers cranking out books and documentaries about the supposed face and what it meant.
Among them was Richard Hoagland, author of 1987’s The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever. Hoagland, in short, proposed that the face – as well as other structures – were built by a long-vanished race of Martians who then deserted the planet in advance of a catastrophic event.
Decades later, NASA spacecraft returned to survey the planet’s surface. Imaging technology had improved since their last visit, and the “face” was revealed to be nothing more than a natural feature. The face that many people saw purely a matter of pareidolia: A term describing the tendency of human beings to see patterns in randomness. It’s not too different from looking up at a cloud and seeing dragons and faces.
Meanwhile, Hoagland said that debunking attempts by NASA were part of a conspiracy to cover up the presence of alien life on Mars and elsewhere. While Hoagland’s beliefs have found an audience among some readers, the scientific establishment considered the author’s research to be pseudoscience.
In some corners of the conspiracy world, people joke that the acronym stands for “Never A Straight Answer: Hoagland continues to maintain that there’s a conspiracy afoot at NASA, and other writers like Jim Marrs and Nick Redfern have joined him in questioning the official story about Mars and other celestial objects. So have others.
Regardless, the weight of scientific evidence and scholarly consensus is that the Cydonia’s face isn’t a face at all. Scientist Carl Sagan, who researched the Martian face phenomenon at length for his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle In the Dark, referenced it in a line about life after death: “If some good evidence for life after death were announced, I’d be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real scientific data, not mere anecdote. As with the face on Mars and alien abductions, better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.”
The face, it seems, is a wash, scientifically, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t inspire us to continue to search deeper to discover the mysteries of the world around us. It can also inspire wonderful works of art – like the short stories of Old Mars – that have their own truths to impart, so long as we understand the difference between fact and fantasy.