Edited by Gordon Van Gelder

Thunder's Mouth Press


307 pp/$15.95/April 2005

Fourth Planet from the Sun

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Most theme anthologies only attempt to present stories that are related to each other by that link.  In Fourth Planet From the Sun, Gordon Van Gelder not only has selected stories about Mars which have previously appeared in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but has also selected those stories with an eye towards a thesis he lays out in his introduction.

Van Gelder posits that literature uses Mars to reflect the current state of humanity and civilization.  This is, of course, what much of literature does, not just science fiction.  Van Gelder decided that this was also too simplistic a theory to fully explain how Mars was used in literature, and specifically in the stories published in Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Nevertheless, as he also points out, the perception of Mars has changed over time from the fantasy settings of Leigh Brackett and Roger Zelazny to the more scientifically rigorous versions of Mars which post-date the landings of the Viking probes.

Although several authors have written about the red planet, one of the three names which immediately springs to mind when Mars is mentioned is that of Ray Bradbury, whose Martian Chronicles made him an instant sensation.  Van Gelder opens the anthology with Bradbury's "The Wilderness," set not on Mars, but on Earth in May 2003.  The story depicts a Mars which is just an extension of the American West as Janice and Leonora make their final plans to leave Earth behind to join Janice's husband, Will, who has set about to homestead on Mars.

Many of the earlier stories set on Mars, notably Leigh Brackett's "Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" and Roger Zelazny's "A Rose for Esslesiastes" feature a Mars which owes as much to the model created by Edgar Rice Burroughs and the theories of Percival Lowell as it does to anything else.  The Mars of these tales could easily have been any imaginative world created by the authors.  The power of these tales comes not from setting them on Mars, but rather the ability of the authors to tell good stories.

By later stories, the Mars depicted becomes as much of a character as any of the speaking characters. As Mariners and Voyagers and Rovers began sending more precise information about conditions on Mars,  authors began to find the planet as worthy of exploration as the worlds of their imagination.  Nevertheless, as Jerry Oltion demonstrates with "The Great Martian Pyramid Hoax," just because we know that Mars is a dead world, it doesn't mean that there can't still be Martians.

Whether or not the reader buys into Van Gelder's thesis, the important thing in Fourth Planet from the Sun is the selection of stories, which range from 1952 through 2003.  They do demonstrate a changing sensibility about Mars over the years, but even as the purpose and character of the red planet changed over five decades, its ability to be used as a setting for evocative and well written stories remained.

Ray Bradbury The Wilderness
Alfred Coppel Mars Is Ours
Arthur C. Clarke Crime on Mars
Leigh Brackett Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon
Roger Zelazny A Rose for Ecclesiastes
Philip K. Dick We Can Remember It For You Wholesale
Gordon Eklund & Gregory Benford Hellas is Florida
John Varley In the Hall of the Martian Kings
Robert F. Young The First Mars Mission
Michael Cassutt The Last Mars Trip
Jerry Oltion The Great Martian Pyramid Hoax
Alex Irvine Pictures from an Expedition

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