Life on Mars: Tales from the New Frontier

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Life on Mars: Tales from the New Frontier
Edited by Jonathan Strahan
(Viking, April 2011)

“Attlee and the Long Walk” by Kage Baker
“The Old Man and the Martian Sea” by Alastair Reynolds
“Wahala” by Nnedi Okorafor
“On Chryse Plain” by Stephen Baxter
“First Principle” by Nancy Kress
“Martian Chronicles” by Cory Doctorow
“Goodnight Moons” by Ellen Klages
“The Taste of Promises” by Rachel Swirsky
“Digging” by Ian McDonald
“Larp on Mars” by Chris Roberson
“Martian Heart” by John Barnes
“Discovering Life” by Kim Stanley Robinson

Reviewed by Robert E. Waters

Jonathan Strahan’s new anthology is a kind of companion piece to his 2009 The Starry Rift, which was a collection of young-adult science fiction stories. So too is Life on Mars, featuring 11 new stories with young heroes and villains trying to make it on the Red Planet. The last story, Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Discovering Life,” is a reprint and will not be reviewed here due to Tangent’s policy on reprints in otherwise original collections.

The late Kage Baker gives us one of her last stories with “Attlee and the Long Walk.” The first terraforming families have arrived on Mars. It’s a hard-scrabble life, eked out in a harsh environment that will eventually support tens of thousands. These tough families are the pioneers of a new age, but their children have it even rougher. Attlee is part of a secret society of children who require their new members to face a cockroach that survived the trip from Earth and has mutated into a hideous monster (or so the stories say). Attlee meets this challenge with bravery and skill, and what she discovers in place of the cockroach is far more interesting and satisfying than she could have imagined. Attlee’s journey serves as a coming of age piece, and I can’t help but think that, given the nature of Baker’s passing, she probably considered this story therapeutic, and I hope with its writing she found a bit of peace and comfort in the end. I certainly enjoyed reading it.

Next up is “The Old Man and the Martian Sea” by Alastair Reynolds. Yukimi is a frustrated and confused stowaway trying to escape her troubled life on Mars. Her plans are thwarted, however, as her ship makes a supply stop deep in the Martian wilderness. There she meets Corax, a man who, in the twilight of his life, has been hired to keep an old terraforming machine functional for historical precedence. Yukimi is nervous about Corax at first, for he wears a large and dangerous-looking armored suit that makes him seem a monster. But as the story progresses and as their relationship blossoms, Corax becomes a kind of therapist for the girl as they discuss her life, her hopes and dreams, her fears and troubles. Some may consider their relationship (and the ending in particular) too sentimental. I found it delightful, and hope that Mr. Reynolds considers expanding this story into a full novel. My feelings would not be hurt if he did.

Nnedi Okorafor tells us that “Wahala” is Nigerian Pidgin English for trouble. Our main character Fisayo is trouble. She’s a shadow-speaker, a psychic that can look into the eyes of a person and read his/her soul. She’s a mutant and presumed dangerous, as are many other Earthlings that exhibit strange qualities after suffering devastating nuclear and bio-wars. Fisayo is traveling across the Sahara when she learns of a shuttle arriving from Mars…and it happens to be landing in the very place she’s crossing. She goes to visit these Martians, meets up with another mutant who’s overly hostile towards her, and they join forces to enter the ship and greet their new guests. What happens next, unfortunately, did not jive with my expectations. I was expecting a kind of “first contact” scene where mutant Earthlings meet Martians that are far more human than their Earthling counterparts. And in a way, that’s what happens. But the author throws in this globular alien that has seemingly high-jacked the ship. It and Fisayo have an interesting confrontation in the end, but the point of it all fell flat for me.

“On Chryse Plain” by Stephen Baxter is about Jonno, Vikram, and Natalie, two Martians and one Earthling whose vehicles are engaged in an accident that forces them to join up and try to survive the brutal Martian environment. While on the Chryse Plain, they come upon the old Viking One lander and use it to help them survive the night. There are other little hard science tidbits here and there that make the story interesting, but it all boils down to a short survival piece. Not terrible, not great.

Nancy Kress’ “First Principle” is undoubtedly one of the best in the book, as we meet Gina and her friends having to deal with a nasty, disrespectful young human come to Mars from a dying Earth. David Hansen is dying as well and he’s angry about it; angry about a lot of things and no joy to be around. Gina and David strike up a contentious relationship over chess. He thinks Martians are ugly (multi-limbed freaks of nature), and she thinks humans are gross (Neanderthal goons). But over time, they come to some sort of understanding and acceptance. An old alien artifact is discovered which plays into their relationship, and it’s all written with such subtlety and aplomb that I was enthralled from beginning to end.

I liken “Martian Chronicles” by Cory Doctorow as a cross between Ender’s Game and a financial seminar. David, Vijay, and Helene are three kids en route to Mars, where they will (hopefully) begin a new life. But their days are spent playing a game called Martian Chronicles, and in this game, they are considered quite important. So important, in fact, that they have accumulated vast quantities of wealth, which cannot be used in the real world, but in this milieu conceived by Doctorow, the game is reality. A version of MC is played on Mars as well, and it’s quite different than the one on Earth. So these young people have to figure out how to change their play style to fit the rough and tumble corporate fat-cat reality of the Red Planet. This is the longest story and unfortunately has the problem of meandering somewhat. The concepts are interesting but tend to bog down in the middle.

Ellen Klages gives us a warm (albeit short) look into the first child born on Mars in “Goodnight Moons.” A woman on expedition to the fourth planet realizes she’s pregnant. The baby is born and becomes the jewel in the eyes of all the crew-members, but when it’s time to go home, things get serious real quick. She’s a baby born in low-g and she’s at that critical developmental stage. The trip home, and conditions on Earth, could kill her. So what do they do? I won’t tell you, but it’s a cute little tale.

“The Taste of Promises” by Rachel Swirsky is one of those stories that does not require the environment of Mars to tell. It could have easily been set on an alien planet or even on an Earth gone awry. Tiro and Eo are brothers. Tiro is flesh and blood; Eo died young and has been “lifted” into the aether as a kind of cyberpunk ghost-in-the-machine. Tiro is desperate to suborn himself to indentured servitude to win Eo a body… even if it’s a fake one. But is that what Eo wants, and is it the right thing for him? This and other moral, ethical dilemmas plague Tiro as he works his way across the arid surface of Mars, falling into gangland and nearly getting killed. Again, it doesn’t require Mars to tell, but I rather liked it. It possesses a good heart and a good message.  

Ian McDonald is known for his marvelous prose style, and “Digging” fits the bill. Tash Gelem-Opunyo is a young lady whose genetically-controlled “extended” family is one of several excavation groups that dig and dig and dig through the crust of Mars, all in an attempt to terraform the planet and make a life for themselves. When she’s given the chance to go to the surface on a mission with one of her most-important relatives, she jumps at the chance. But the Red Planet is no Disneyland, and its harsh environment quickly puts our two adventurers in desperate circumstances. Tash has to make quick and life-changing decisions before all is lost. McDonald’s prose is vivid, lush and marvelous and brings to life Mars in a way that (quite frankly) few of the other stories do.

“Larp on Mars” by Chris Roberson is all about gaming. Jace, Ravi, and Penn are three young men who, by virtue of proximity, are thrust into a friendship that finds them toiling away their doldrums by playing video games, role-playing games, board games, and in this story, Live-Action Role Playing (or LARP as the title suggests). Their seemingly endless boredom (they’re teenagers, after all) is delayed one afternoon by going to the Martian surface and playing out a zombie-ninja attack in a cave. But when they make a harrowing discovery in that cave, their lives are immediately thrust into the limelight… at least for a few hours. Roberson is a good writer and he sets up the scenes well enough to make his young Martians interesting, but there’s really very little to this story. Three kids find a body. That’s all.

We end on John Barnes’ “Martian Heart.” Cap and Samantha are homeless teenagers who are taken to Mars as indentured servants. They wind up becoming prospectors as their little land rover, the Godspeed, trucks them across the Red Planet in search of precious gems and metals. But Sam suffers from a debilitating condition where the heart atrophies due to low gravity and calcium build-up in the blood-stream. As you might expect, things don’t end well with Sam, and Cap has to survive on his own in a desolate frontier until he can make it back to civilization. All of this is told far after the fact, as Cap is an old man (and a very rich one) telling his tale to an interrogation robot. His story is supposed to inspire the next generation of Earthlings come to the Martian frontier. I don’t know if it will inspire them, but it certainly inspired me. Though the emotional ending comes before the real one, I enjoyed Cap’s tale and was glad to see him ultimately succeed, just as he had promised Sam he would. A nice rags-to-riches ending for a pretty good anthology.