The Mars of wonders ceased to be an active literary trope in the early 1960s, when Leigh Brackett published her last shortstories of that type. They aptly described how Mars was transformed by the arrival of Terran technology: its dramatic era ended and the red planet became a part of an interplanetary civilization dominated by its blue sibling. Real-world astronomy had simply advanced too far for the fiction to be viable for the readers. Later, a few writers experimented with books in the genre, but then only as deliberate pastiches (e.g. Michael Moorcock, Lin Carter and S M Stirling).
On the other hand, there have been several gameworlds published with wonderous Mars as the venue: GURPS Mars, Space 1889 and other. Some designers go for the Burroughsian “high” style, whereas e.g. GURPS Mars is more suitable for the Brackettian “low” style. When I wrote the Red Sand (Röd Sand) campaign world for Saga Games and the Fenix magazine a few years ago, I deliberately aimed for the low style, because that gives better openings for adventures. I also adhered to the D-list of components that I introduced in my previous blog post.
Three years ago, on September 2, 2008, I flew from New Delhi to Kabul. I had gotten a six-months contract as a civilian press officer in a EU mission in war-torn Afghanistan. When the jetliner crossed the Hindukush mountains, I looked out at a landscape that was utterly alien: desiccated brown mountains, peak after peak, as far as the eye could reach. When the plane approached Kabul and descended towards the ground, I spotted ruins and scars of war around the city. To me it was like seeing a shadow of the Mars of my dreams. Half-way there, so to speak. Well, at the ground level, today’s Kabul was very much an terrestrial city with Nokia cellphones, Toyota cars and Kalashnikov-toting policemen and soldiers.
But still, that impression from high above the ground remains in my heart. Then what to do with it? I cannot make Brackettian pastiches, because they would not ring true — I do not write hardboiled pulp prose. Planet Mars is another thing today, too, the abode of the hard science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson et al. So instead, I will have to find another way of putting my dreams to paper. I am working on that.
Addendum: One of Leigh Brackett’s gritty Martian stories from Project Gutenberg (link >>>)