David Bowie would be so proud

Another anthology from the prolific Jonathan Strahan, Life on Mars invited authors to consider just that topic. A range of approaches has resulted in this collection, from stories dealing with the initial landing on and colonising of Mars, through to stories that investigate what it would be like to be a later-generation colonist – especially for the children, born to Mars, at least some of whom would almost certainly take a cynical or world-weary view towards what we think of as the amazing. I have a number of favourites.

The idea of a story having a clear moral has become dreadfully unpopular in the last few decades – despite the fact that many authors clearly do have a message, it feels like it’s often rather improper to make it too obvious. To my mind, this is at least partly because stories with messages are too often teamed with boring writing. Cory Doctorow is definitely not one to shy away from writing a story with a clear moral message, and in “Martian Chronicles” he teams it with a fascinating story that takes places entirely on a ship heading to Mars. It has a remarkable backstory that’s only hinted at, of a world that’s a logical extension of our own and hideous for it, with capitalist virtues writ large and destructive and playing out even in the interactions of teenagers. Three teens from rather different backgrounds are the centrepiece of the action, and their relationships are a microcosm of social interactions and perceptions.

Alastair Reynolds offers a quirky take on Hemingway in “The Old Man and the Martian Sea.” Running away while on a non-terraformed Mars doesn’t seem like the wisest decision, but it certainly leads to a rather interesting experience for first-generation Yukimi. She encounters a rather weird fellow-colonist, and discovers some rather interesting things about her taken-for-granted home. I enjoyed the broad description of Mars, and the intimate details of spacesuits and life.

On a very different note is “Wahala,” by Nnedi Okorafor. It’s different because it’s set on Earth instead of Mars, and it’s different for the attitudes towards Mars, and for the attitudes of the Mars-people too. This is a really fascinating take on what drives people to visit and colonise new places and how it might change them. Mostly, though, it’s about the prejudices of those still at home, how they impact on relationships and how they might be overcome. I really loved this story for combining complex ideas with simple, lovely prose.

Ellen Klages contributes the short “Goodnight Moons.” One of the decisions that writers of science fiction, as well as daring science ‘fact’, have to confront is the gender mix of future exploratory space missions – and the attendant problems that can result from any of the possible decisions. Klages confronts one of those problems – but I won’t spoil the story by discussing which. Suffice to say for all its brevity, she invests emotion, and insight, and some horror as well which actually only occurred to me on reflection – one of the marks of a good story.

Returning to the theme of Mars colonisation, but further into that process than many of the other stories, is Rachel Swirsky’s “The Taste of Promises.” I’ve become a huge fan of Swirsky’s recently, and while this is very different from many of her other short stories the beautiful prose and complex characters are here in full strength. Tiro and Eo – brothers – trying to make their way under difficult circumstances. What begins as an unfortunate encounter with a remote settlement has far-reaching consequences for all involved. As with the other outstanding stories in this anthology, Swirsky takes the foreign landscape of Mars to think about some of the most important themes in SF: in particular, what makes us human.

Finally, for me, there’s Ian McDonald’s “Digging.” One of the themes considered in varying degrees throughout most of the stories in the anthology is how Mars might be made genuinely habitable for humans. McDonald builds his entire story around this idea, with a very complex plan that involves a lot of, well, digging. It also involves an intricate family and social structure that Tash, the protagonist, has to navigate and occasionally circumvent as she grows up. The exploration of the social implications inherent in one possible mode of terraforming is exquisitely drawn out through one young girl’s eyes, through her relationships with both the people around her and with Mars itself. It’s wonderful.

These are half the stories in Life on Mars. The other half are all fascinating in their own way, but didn’t grab me in the same way as these. There are certainly no clangers, and I have no hesitation in recommending the anthology as a whole.

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