In 2008, NASA’s unmanned Phoenix lander arrived on Mars. Among its components was nestled an archival silica-glass mini-DVD called Visions of Mars. This multimedia compilation includes a vast legacy of art, sound, and literature: some of humanity’s thoughts about the red planet. Among the many novels and stories is Allen M. Steele’s 1988 debut Science Fiction story, “Live from the Mars Hotel”. This is the work I’ve chosen to explore next for the Great Balticon Readathon.
Allen M. Steele was a journalist before he started publishing Science Fiction. The precision of detail and careful descriptions required for his earlier profession has carried over into his fiction writing. “Live from the Mars Hotel” has for its structure a series of interviews carried out over time, regarding the first musicians to be recorded from a near-future human habitation of Mars. An interesting conceit: it gives Steele the opportunity to use several first-person narrators, to build the story from largely second-hand accounts. Included in this assemblage of second-hand accounts, opinions and conjectures (although perhaps unnoticed), is the reader’s own position at the end of the story. The reader is left to decide which of several possible themes is primary. Is this a story about what home means? The immigrant experience? Corporate interference in the arts? The wellspring of creativity?
Using multiple first-person narrators gives Steele room to create, in a single story, a wide variety of environments. From a radio control room in St. Louis to the isolated Arsia Base on Mars, Steele presents vivid pictures in few words, setting up frameworks for the reader’s mind to fill in. It’s very well done. Minimal but evocative description leaves more space for the leapfrogging of narrators. He then lets a different narrator fill in a bit more description where needed, paint a little bit more of the plot. The story spirals along, rather than falling into a direct line. It requires an engaged reader. Not a bad thing, I think, to have the reader as an active participant in the story.
“Live from the Mars Hotel,” with its easy familiarity with the music and radio industries, was a most fitting entrance into the genre for this guy from Nashville. His lengthy and prolific career has taken him from having a “best young author” tag to being cited by many new writers as a major influence. And who knows which future entity, human or otherwise, will be reading this story, tucked away in humanity’s message on the red planet? If I happen to meet him at Balticon 50, I think I’d like to ask him who he envisions discovering or engaging with that Visions of Mars DVD in the future.