Three books set on Mars

May Books 11) The Finches of Mars, by Brian Aldiss
May Books 12) The Empress of Mars, by Kage Baker
May Books 13) Out Of The Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis

I have read not one, not two, but three books set on Mars this month. Two of them were relatively new acquisitions – The Finches of Mars is billed as Aldiss’s last book, and The Empress of Mars had been on my reading list since I enjoyed the first instalment ten years ago; I had of course read Out Of The Silent Planet years ago, but it is now a nominee for the 1939 Retro-Hugos so I have returned to it.

Alas, The Finches of Mars disappointed me. There are several welcome flashes of Aldiss’s brilliance, but the basic plot – that human babies on Mars are mysteriously stillborn – required perhaps a more sensitive handling in this day and age. The concept of inhabited Martian towers each sponsored by a different Earth geographical zone was interesting, but failed to avoid some of the obvious traps. And the characters just weren’t terribly engaging. I return to Aldiss’s classic writing often, but I won’t to this.

I enjoyed The Empress of Mars every bit as much as I had hoped to. It’s basically a colonial adventure in space, with the poor but honest Irish immigrant being threatened off her homestead (which is a pub) by the English plutocrats. Some of the jokes are a little obvious and/or laboured, but I was greatly entertained by it all. There’s a splendidly creepy yet incompetent religious cult towards the end.

Having been reading so much about Tolkien over the last few years, Out Of The Silent Planet has acquired a new depth for me – especially since the hero, Ransom, is rather obviously meant to be an alternate bachelor version of Tolkien himself, free to go and explore Mars (well, to be kidnapped by an evil former schoolmate and his evil rich sponsor) without being burdened by family commitments. It is partly intended, of course, as a moral parable, a thought experiment of exploring a world which has not experienced the Fall; but I think it’s interesting that Lewis does locate it in the wider sf genre precisely by invoking it scornfully (in the words of the characters) and then apologising to HG Wells in a note at the very end. The Retro-Hugo for Best Novel is going to be between this and The Sword in the StoneOut Of The Silent Planet is deep but with some sense of fun; The Empress of Mars is fun but with some sense of depth; and I’d rather not think too much about the other one.

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