Cat Eldridge Review: Rainbow Mars

  • Rainbow Mars by Larry Niven (1999)

[Warning: lots of spoilers here. I mean lots.]

Review by Cat Eldridge: Ah, to visit John Carter and the inhabitants of Barsoom, Edger Rice Burroughs’ richly-imagined Mars. The characters in Robert Heinlein’s The Number of The Beast did so in their travels across the multiverse, and now the protaganist of Rainbow Mars does it. Well, sort of. Maybe. Possibly. Let me explain the confusion that I may have intentionally generated … Larry Niven has stated many times that he firmly believes that time travel is logically impossible — an utter and complete fantasy. So when retrieval specialist Svetz heads back from polluted future Earth in search of extinct animals, he tends to sideslip into fantastic, fictional worlds. And delightfully so in these stories.

In the short stories collected in The Flight of the Horse, he quests for a Gila monster and gets a fire-breathing dragon, seeks a wolf and retrieves an intelligent werewolf, goes after a horse and finds a unicorn with an exceedingly nasty temper, and looking for a whale finds Moby-Dick, complete with the ill-fated Captain Ahab and his harpoon sticking out of its side. It appears that either Svetz, who hates time travel, or his machine generate a reality straight out of the imagination every time he trips. Ouch. And sometimes quite literally ouch, e.g., when the unicorn tries to impale him. Or the dragon tries to deep fry him. Or the werewolf tries to eat him. Poor Svetz. 

Under the command of Secretary-General Waldemar the Tenth, Svetz’s job was “simply” to travel into Earth’s past and retrieve exotic animals. (Far more exotic than he intended!) But Waldemar the Tenth is dead, and Waldemar the Eleventh has another pet project for Svetz to work on: the stars. The new Waldemar is interested in interstellar travel, but that’s pretty well beyond the means of an ecologically devastated 31st-century Earth. But Mars beckons — the intelligent Mars that they read about in the history books that remain from the 20th Century. Errr … historic records if one thinks that Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne are writers of history!

So Rainbow Mars ups the ante considerably by both space and time travel to explore Mars a.k.a. Barsoom in the deep past, before it was a dead world. As this is Barsoom itself, it’s inhabited by a menagerie of warring multi-armed sword-wielding Martians from Edgar Rice Burroughs, elements of H.G. Wells’ War of The Worlds (tentacled monsters and heat rays used as death dealing weapons), and lots of less familiar authors’ books. Svetz and his fantasy tripping companions are soon in really big trouble. Other problems that crop up include a gigantic alien tree extending into Mars’s orbit — a living version of the beanstalk elevator in Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise. Unfortunately, this beanstalk breaks loose and falls to Earth! 

Now I might argue that such a beanstalk on Earth seems a highly desirable situation, but there are hidden drawbacks, including the aforementioned multi-armed sword-wielding Martians and their long-running war!

The “novel” is not really a novel, as it actually consists of one novella, “Rainbow Mars,” and the short stories that were in The Flight of the Horse. But it’s delicious romp! You know that it’s going to be a great read if you keep in mind that the working title — which was better than the one used — was Svetz and the Beanstalk, and that it was originally going to be written by Larry Niven and Terry Prachett! That didn’t quite work out, but the result is still quite fine! And did I mention that Svetz discovers what the origin of the Martian canals was?

Though the book never made it to Audible or the audio streaming services, there is a delightful audiobook version. Michael Prichard is the narrator of this Books on Tape release done twenty-three years ago. Yes, it was an audiocassette tape. 

I confess that someone uploaded a bootlegged version of it to the net many years ago and I listened to it off that recording. Prichard is a most excellent narrator and he brought Rainbow Mars to full life in his telling of it. 

It’s available from the usual sources. 

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3 thoughts on “Cat Eldridge Review: Rainbow Mars

  1. I do wish there was a proper new audiobook version. Thanks for the review. Svetz has always been a favorite

  2. Thanks for this review. I remember Larry talking about something like this, but never realized he had done it. I have missed so much over the years! This sounds like something I really, really need.

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