13 December 2014

Book Review | Iris Wildthyme of Mars edited by Philip Purser-Hallard

Men are from Mars - which is probably why Iris Wildthyme has spent so much of her lives there (not that any of her adventures would fail the Bechdel test, mind). Indeed, it is the fourth Iris’s adventures on the planet “even bigger and even redder” than her beloved bus that are the focus of Obverse Books’ most recent anthology.

Under the stewardship of editor Philip Purser-Hallard, this volume concerns itself exclusively with the transtemporal adventuress’s Martian frolics back and forth across the aeons (and, of course, sideways too), from Seth’s verdant jungles of the early 20th century to the “real” and fusty Mars whose green-man legends prop up the multiverse. It’s even got a map.

And the perfect story to open such a collection is, surely, Ian Potter’s mercurial effort, “Wandering Stars”. Quirky, contentious prose delivers the book’s introduction to “meat and attitude” Iris and “stuffing and thwarted ambitions” Panda as they come face to face with the Greek Pantheon in a terribly clever and cheeky tale about science, mythology, UNIT dating and sexual submission. Daniel Tessier’s “Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Bad Weekend” begins in more Earthly surroundings, before quickly carrying its readers to the domain of the delightfully-named Hither and Thither-folk atop a Zalbreckian travelling mat. Worth reading alone for its author’s almost Arthur Conan Doyle-esque description of Iris’s beloved bus, Tessier’s wry homage to Edward Lester Arnold’s seminal Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation is a lyrical delight.

Narrated by its eponymous protagonist, the yarn allows us to see Iris through the eyes of an American soldier - one who’s instantly enamoured with this seldom-seen Barbarella incarnation’s beauty. Tessier has great fun highlighting the gulf between Gullivar’s romanticised views of this particular iteration of Iris, and the actual, “Oh, bloody hell!”, Blue Oblivion-imbibing harridan that we all know and begrudgingly admire. The story’s caustic comedy thrives on the juxtaposition of this upright, verbose adventurer and the common-as-muck, time-travelling adventuress - as does its heart. Beneath its laughs and its derring-do, Tessier’s tale captures perfectly the weekend dilemma of every red-blooded man: the conscience’s struggle against libido and wanderlust, both of which this particular Iris catalyses.

The story is also remarkable for Gullivar’s vivid description of the Martian jungle, which Tessier has crafted almost entirely from anachronistic simile. And you’ve got to give it to Dan, in his very first paid-for piece he even manages to squeeze in a sly nod to the Doctor Who novel that begat this “Jane Fonda” Iris, not to mention my favourite Panda line to date: “I say!” he cried. “Totty!”

Simon Bucher-Jones’s “Iris: Chess Mistress of Mars” is a much more sober outing than the first two, focusing less on sado-masochistic gods and human libido and more on chess; Martians; and the way that we view both. Selina Lock’s “Death on the Euphrates”, whilst a much livelier affair than Bucher-Jones’s, is perhaps the least Mars-y story in the collection. A whodunnit typified by some novel asides (the universe’s need for “Nobbys” and the hospitalised Iris’s longing for grapes “in fermented, liquid form” being my favourites) as well as the collection’s first female, modified-outfits-and-lipstick take on our heroine, the ship-bound tale feels a little at sea amongst so many heavily Mars-themed tales. Dale Smith’s subsequent story, “And a Dog to Walk”, focuses utterly on the Red Planet, however - more particularly, on humanity’s first manned mission to it. By turns hilarious and heartrending, Smith follows two married astronauts, Sue and Phil, as they bicker their way towards history and oblivion under the gaze of a toy panda’s cold glass eyes.

Juliet Kemp’s kooky offering, “Talking with Spores”, continues to expand Mars’ burgeoning population with her tale of its long-dead Fungal Empire and the slug that nearly put paid to its resurrection, while the ever-stellar Richard Wright chips in with probably the book’s most distinctive piece. Visceral present-tense prose sucks you right into the bowels of his unique Fenric / Lovecraft / Doom pastiche cum first-person shooter. There aren’t many short stories that make you want to reach for a joypad as you read, but “Doomed” is one of ’em. Wright segues effortlessly from cold, military fact to stoic regret (“...warm sheets and a lover’s limbs”) and on to pure, unadulterated Iris in the shape of rectum-rammed octopuses and “shooting stuff ’til it’s sorted,” all the while creeping towards an ending that never comes. It’s not a story about winning, it’s a story about playing. And, if she’s nothing else, our Miss Wildthyme is a player.

After a run of Iris and Panda-lite adventures, Rachel Churcher places our favourite double-act at centre stage once more in “The Last Martian” - a strange and fashion-conscious tale with an intriguing idea at its core. Next up is the album’s hit-single story, the whole goose-kinky “Lilac Mars”, courtesy of Doctor Who veterans Lance Parkin and Mark Clapham. A tale of sky-scraping phalluses and twitching loincloths, the authors’ piss-taking prose dazzles with its deliberate eschewing of plot to the profit of the irrelevant. There’s one wonderful scene where Panda’s waxing eloquent about the laziness of his kind while Iris progresses the narrative off-screen, as it were; another where an Egyptian god holds up a scene to play Angry Birds for a bit. Best of all though, the story is built around an Aresquake, which no matter how much of your life you’ve spent proof-reading, still looks like “Arsequake” every time. It’s Iris herself though who offers the most insightful view on “Lilac Mars”, which given her metafictional awareness makes the whole damn thing all the more droll: “It’s like a story with two authors, and both of them thought the other one was doing the story bit.” I couldn’t put it any better myself.

Charged with topping such “prepackaged postirony” is Aditya Bidikar and “City of Stars”, an altogether more sensible story - as sensible as Iris stories get, anyway - that, quite extraordinarily, tries to condense the structure and scope of a novel into a couple of chapters’ worth of words. Faction Paradox’s Blair Bidmead then contributes “The Calamari-Men of Mare Cimmerium”, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Following the classic all-inclusive holiday gone awry formula (as opposed to her namesake’s mathematical construct gets corrupted one), and furnished with a stunning Target-style illustration or three (see left), Bidmead’s tale of ray-guns; gods; and spaghetti-eating twats brings the lighter section of the volume to a suitably silly, yet duly perilous, close.

The editor then concludes the anthology himself with “Green Man Blues” - a surprisingly dry and Iris-lite exploit that beautifully encapsulates the spirit of the collection. Purser-Hallard’s Mars is deliberately stuffy and dull, choked by the all-too-Earthly bureaucracy and narrow beliefs of human Martians - colonists who’ve made the allegedly uninhabited orb their own. But one academic has made her life’s work the study of Martian folk tales, and by way of a lesbian love affair that turns oviparous, she finally finds out why.

And so Iris Wildthyme of Mars succeeds in its mission to fruitfully flesh out Iris’s catsuits and curls fourth incarnation, while bringing through some talented new young blood and still allowing the old guard the pleasure of letting rip with cripplingly ironic stories that couldn’t be told anywhere else. Most importantly though, it gives the readers another dozen adventures with Iris and Panda to snigger through beyond Big Finish; adventures that, iReckon, are amongst their most entertaining to date.

Iris Wildthyme of Mars is available in hardback from Obverse Books for £14.95 (reduced from £16.99!) or as an e-book for just £6.99. For that you get both an EPUB file (which can be imported into iTunes, tagged, and then synced to any Apple device) and a MOBI file (which I have tested on the Kindle app on an iPad).