Terry Bisson’s Planet of Mystery (PS Publishing 2008) transports readers to Venus, not the lifeless planet we know, but one filled with strangeness and, well, mystery. The novella harkens back to the days of pulp planetary romances, but it’s not the first time Bisson has left mother earth, and hopefully no the last. Anyone who has read Planet of Mystery, or who is just discovering this wonderful and insightful author, may want to check out his novel about the red planet.
In Voyage to the Red Planet (Avon, 1991), Terry Bisson rediscovers the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury. He describes the red planet as an ancient, dying world filled with beauty, awe, and mystery, a place where man can uncover the truth about himself and his place in the cosmos. There’s only one problem: grand revelations aren’t very profitable.
The novel is set in the near future when America is finally recovering from the Grand Depression thanks to giant corporations that have bought all of the national parks and government agencies.
Just prior to all the financial woes, NASA scrapped the first manned mission to Mars. Twenty years later, the mission is given the green light – by Hollywood. A roguish producer wants to make the first film on Mars, not about Mars, but set on Mars. To that end, he “acquires” a moth-balled ship, the Mary Poppins, and hires the two original pilots who trained under the joint NASA-Soviet venture, a top cinematographer, and some “pure-bred” actors.
While the Hollywood crew tackles the important task of filming, Bass (the pilot) and Jeffries (the doctor who developed a serum for bear-like hibernation that can have some interesting side effects) stumble across ancient ruins and evidence that their arrival has been anticipated. Both men are stunned by their discovery and must decide what’s to be done with it. They know that if they tell anyone in America, the discovery will be exploited for every cent it can possibly generate. On the other hand, to keep it to themselves means years of waiting with little hope, if any, that the discovery will be used to further man’s knowledge.
Bisson’s novel is remarkable on many levels. The characters are real and motivated by real concerns. Man is shown at his best (moved by compassion) and his worst (compelled by greed), and the story is an exciting, adventurous romp that pays tribute to the glorious pulp fantasies of the past. At the same time, it is a biting satire about commercialism in America, and while the novel is filled with many humorous scenes, the laughter is often cut short. In this land where theme parks and sports arenas have become nothing more than gigantic billboards, Voyage to the Red Planet doesn’t seem too fantastic.