Book Review: Old Mars / Old Venus edited by George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois

Old Mars / Old Venus edited by George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois
Old Mars / Old Venus edited by George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois
Bantam Books, 2013 / 2015

I admit I waffled a bit over reading the George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois edited anthologies, Old Mars and Old Venus. These were put together as a nostalgic celebration of the Planetary Romance era of science fiction from the 1930s through the ’50s. Mr. Martin and Mr. Dozois grew up on that work, it forms the deep core of their love of SF, and it’s rather delightful how delighted they are to harken back to those times.

But I have no nostalgia for Planetary Romance. It’s not the SF I grew up on. I’m not intrinsically inclined to like these stories simply because they remind me of the bygone good old days.

I didn’t need them to be nostalgic, I just needed them to be good stories.

I admit, as well, that I was somewhat cautious about the premise of these anthologies: stories set on the versions of Mars and Venus we imagined before probes and exploration taught us otherwise—the canaled Mars of Burroughs and Bradbury; the hot, wet, jungle and watery Venus of Leigh Brackett and Roger Zelazny. I was skeptical of a premise that requires both authors and readers to ignore everything that science has taught us about these planets in the intervening 50+ years.

Both Mr. Martin and Mr. Gardner voice impassioned and persuasive arguments in their introductions which address this very issue. They point out that science fiction has always been a subset of fantasy (i.e.—fantastical) and romance (in the Ivanhoe / swashbuckling meaning of the term) has always been essential… etc., etc. Points well taken but I still contend the “science” part remains important.

Science fiction—even from the Planetary Romance era—begins with science. We start with what we know now and extrapolate possibilities from there. Discount the science too much, and the work ceases to be science fiction.

Back to the point—the essential questions for me regarding these two anthologies are:

  1. Are these stories good?
  2. Are these stories viable science fiction?

I’ll start by answering question #2—yes. I found my concerns over the scientifically regressive premise entirely irrelevant to my enjoyment of the work. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter if these planets are Mars or Venus—the point is to try and imagine the kinds of alien worlds that we used to imagine back in the era of high Planetary Romance. These stories do that. If you need a defensible scientific basis for these settings, it’s easy enough to forget that they’re supposed to be Mars or Venus and instead picture them as other alien worlds, or alternate Universes with different versions of our solar system. If nothing else, you can pretend you’re reading classic SF rather than new work.

It should also be noted that a few of the stories in these volumes trend more toward fantasy than science fiction.

These stories are compelling not because they’re set on Mars or Venus per se but because they’re set on worlds of the authors’ imaginations. The concept of these anthologies works because it’s fascinating to see how different authors imagine different worlds within the same set of basic parameters.

On this score, Old Mars makes a stronger showing than Old Venus. I’m surprised at how scientifically plausible many of the settings in Old Mars are. These authors mine some solid science here, and the Mars in many of these stories is similar enough to the planet of dust we know it to be in real life that I didn’t find the environments too dissonant. The settings in Old Venus require notably more suspension of disbelief.

So, the science isn’t really a problem.

Which brings us to the most important question: Are these stories good?

Sure. I suppose. As with all anthologies, some stories are better than others. Neither of these anthologies ranks as high as I would expect from editors of this caliber. A few of the stories are excellent and some are obviously not the authors’ best work. More disappointingly, a scant handful feel as though they were written to spec, to fit the theme.

Once again, Old Mars fares better on this score than Old Venus does. Neither anthology is quite good enough to earn my unreserved accolades, but the stories in Old Mars are generally better.

These anthologies are worth reading as collections of fairly entertaining and fairly imaginative stories from some exceptional authors. They’re fun reads. But they’re not great, overall, and there’s nothing very innovative or cutting edge to be found within these covers.

For those readers who do have nostalgia for the golden days of Planetary Romance, Old Mars and Old Venus may contain satisfactions that are lost on me.

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