Gordon van Gelder, editor,
Fourth Planet from the Sun:
Tales of Mars from the
Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

(Thunder's Mouth, 2005)

Gordon Van Gelder set out to show a pattern in the development of stories about Mars through the decades. He admits the stories he found wrecked his neat theory. But in laying out a fine collection of stories chronologically, Fourth Planet from the Sun: Tales of Mars from the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is still a representative survey of science fiction through time.

Fourth Planet from the Sun is also a flat-out great collection of short stories. The thrill of seeing old works in print is especially thrilling for those of us who missed the early age of science fiction through the unfortunate failing of being too young. Ray Bradbury's "The Wilderness" can always expect to be anthologized, but Leigh Brackett's "Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon," while occasionally mentioned in the sort of retrospective articles that like to taunt younger readers with all we've missed, doesn't have that assurance in posterity. In a collection with Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" and Roger Zelazny's "A Rose For Ecclesiastes," it may finally get the sort of permanence it deserves.

Because these are all great stories. If Arthur C. Clarke and John Varley get a great deal of attention from the genre's historians, it is because they deserve it. Every story in Fourth Planet from the Sun combines hard science, humor and unabashed humanism for results that resonate across as much as half a century. "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" is a dark look at a future when memory can be purchased and the sins of government erased from public mind and record, and an optimistic look at the motives of a most average man. "Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" was written almost a as joke, but is one of the most frightening, sobering tales in the collection. "The Wilderness" feels both technologically naive and smacks of outdated sexism, but Bradbury weights his own very era-specific speculations with the record of human history, creating a balanced tale that still feels believable.

Van Gelder arranges his collection with an eye towards that lasting balance. "The First Mars Mission" stands off against "The Last Mars Trip." Heroic efforts against public apathy in "The Great Mars Pyramid Hoax" are answered by the frightening press of public voyeurism in "Pictures from an Expedition." Balancing light and dark visions, charting the voyage to Mars through the decades, Fourth Planet strengthens each story by its connection to the others, a feat that should be common to all anthologies, but which only occurs in the very best.

Whether Fourth Planet from the Sun is your first exposure to the stories within or an overdue visit to old favorites, it's a trip not to be missed.

by Sarah Meador
22 October 2005

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