Science fiction anthology roundup, including a major reason to visit ‘Old Venus’

March 31, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 31, 2019

Over the last month and a half or so, I’ve been reading a handful of anthologies. Notable among them were Galactic Empires, a 2017 publication edited by Neil Clarke themed on, well, exactly what the title says; and Infinite Stars, also from 2017, edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt and billing itself — rather grandiosely, I thought — as “The Definitive Anthology of Space Opera and Military SF.” I enjoyed both volumes but thought the former to be stronger overall.

It’s worth devoting a moment on Schmidt’s collection because it revisits some famous science fiction universes. Infinite Stars includes a new Dune story co-written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, which I found to be particularly weak, and an original “Ender’s Game” story by Orson Scott Card, which I didn’t much enjoy but felt arrived at a haunting ending. I particularly enjoyed Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti,” which approaches space exploration and interspecies conflict from an African perspective, and “Night Passage,” an Alastair Reynolds tale set in his “Revelation Space” saga, of which (unlike “Dune” and “Ender’s Game”) I have no knowledge.

However, the real point of this post is to share a few thoughts about Old Venus, a 2015 themed collection edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.

According to Dozois’s handy introduction, which draws from the fields of astronomy and literature, our solar system’s second planet was the focus of fervid tales from the 1930s through the early 1960s. The Venus literary bubble burst because of science. As Dozois writes:

[F]ar from being a planet of world-girdling oceans or vast swamps and jungles, far from being a home for mysterious alien civilizations, Venus was revealed as being one of the places in the solar system that was the most hostile to life: with a surface temperature averaging 863 degrees Fahrenheit, it was the hottest planet in the solar system, hotter even than the closest planet to the Sun, Mercury; the famous permanent cloud cover was composed of clouds of sulphuric acid, not water vapor; the atmosphere was composed of 96.5 percent carbon dioxide, and the atmospheric pressure at the planet’s surface was ninety-two times that of Earth, as severe as on the bottom of the Earth’s oceans. 

There couldn’t possibly be any life on Venus. No dinosaurs. No web-footed amphibious natives. No ferocious warriors to have sword fights with or beautiful green-skinned princesses in diaphanous gowns to romance. It was just a ball of baking-hot rock and scalding poisonous gas, duller then a supermarket parking lot. 

Almost at once, science-fiction writers lost interest. 

Dozois and Martin commissioned 16 original stories based on the premise that humans could live more or less unaided on the Venusian surface. The book gets off to a great start with Allen M. Steele’s “Frogheads,” in which an Earthly private investigator travels to Soviet-controlled Venus to track down a fellow American who disappeared while enjoying a vacation following his college graduation. The natives, known as frogheads, help lead Ronson to the young man he’s tracking. But during the journey, the detective discovers that some appalling crimes have been committed — misdeeds for which no one has been held responsible… yet. The cumulative effect is chilling.

Lavie Tidhar’s “The Drowned Celestial” also finds a human exploiting Venusian natives, but the author is more interested in chronicling his characters’ adventures than exploring any particularly deep themes.

Venus is a proxy for the U.S.–Soviet conflict in “Planet of Fear” by Paul McAuley, although this time the story is told from the point of view of a Venus-born human in the Soviet camp. Katya Ignatova is a scientist aboard a massive ekranoplan, or hovercraft, that is sent to investigate the loss of contact at a distant mining outpost. Taciturn Capt. Vladimir Chernov suspects an American plot, but Ignatova believes some other factor is the root of the problem.

‘Old Venus’ (2015) edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.

Matthew Hughes pays homage to P.G. Wodehouse’s famous comic duo, Bertie Wooster and the mainly mononymic Jeeves, in “Greeves and the Evening Star,” wherein “Bartie Gloster” finds that one of his friends, Baldie Spotts-Binkle, has gotten into a sticky romantic entanglement with one of the distinctly amphibian natives. The story is an amusing trifle that even packs in a bit of action when the main characters endeavor to leave Venus.

Joe Haldeman’s “Living Hell” is a rousing tale of a pilot’s attempt to rescue a downed shuttle on Venus. I liked the story up until the ending, which takes an abrupt turn into a different type of yarn. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Haldeman had suddenly inserted a conclusion once he’d gotten his word count up to 95 percent of the expected mark.

The Gwyneth Jones story “Planet of Desire” relates the tale of John Forrest, a wealthy industrialist who demands to be teleported from Earth to Venus, where he finds himself lost in a very strange world filled with humanoids. It left me rather cold, as did the following entry, “Bones of Air, Bones of Stone.” In Stephen Leigh’s dour tale, a gravely injured playboy returns to Venus, the place where he lost his legs. The narrator, Tomio, begs his former lover, an adventurer named Avariel, not to make a second attempt to become the first human to descend into the Great Darkness, where he was gravely wounded years before. The plot seems familiar to the point of cliché, including the resolution, in which Tomio reaches an understanding with one of the Venusian natives, called shreelalia in this story.

“Ruins,” by Eleanor Arnason, is another narrative wherein American capitalism butts heads with Soviet communism on Venus — although in this story, Communism has persevered on the second planet even after the collapse on Earth of the U.S.S.R. (The costs of establishing and maintaining a Venusian colony helped bankrupt the mother country.) Arnason’s protagonist, a photographer named Ash, is hired to help escort a National Geographic team looking to document Venusian wildlife. (Ash “had grown up on National Geographic videos: all the lost wilderness of Earth, the charismatic megafauna of land and ocean.”) The expedition is guided by one Arkady Volkov, who lands the party in hot water when he decides to show them one of Venus’s most amazing sights.

In most every anthology I read, there are one or two stories that I struggle to finish or simply stop reading. Although I greatly enjoyed David Brin’s hit novel, Startide Rising, I’m sorry to report that his contribution, “The Tumbledowns of Cleopatra Abyss,” fell into this category. So too did “The Filthy Heart’s Lesson” by Elizabeth Bear, which appears later in the book.

Garth Nix’s story, “By Frogsled and Lizardback to Outcast Venusian Lepers,” starts with the same basic premise as “Living Hell”: A mission is dispatched to the wilds of Venus to rescue the survivors of a crashed ship. But Nix sticks with his yarn from start to finish, whereas Haldeman wrapped up his rather suddenly.

Michael Cassutt explores colonialism in “The Sunset of Time,” which revolves around Jordan Lennox, a construction manager who seems to be building some kind of interplanetary teleportation device. However, the Venusians (or Venerians, as they’re called in this story) have an advantage over the “Terrenes” that the natives of Asia and Africa lacked when they encountered Europeans. I’ll confess that I was bothered by a small point in this story — namely, that “computing and calculating devices…were banished on Earth a century past and rejected by Jor’s predecessors on Venus.” This element of world-building, which never seems to be explained, beggars belief.

(Computers are banished or eschewed in some other science fiction universes, I acknowledge, among them Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” But at least there, the reason is given — artificial intelligences rebelled in a violent clash known as the Butlerian jihad.)

Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Wizard of the Trees” is an homage to the kind of pulp-fiction planetary romance that used to characterize tales of Venus in the early and mid-20th century. His narrator was a passenger on the Titanic who found himself transported to Venus instead of drowning when the ship sank. Jack Davis then embarks on an adventure with the prince and princess of Sheldan, who are attempting to preserve the peace between their people and the Varnin, a kingdom of birdmen. While the story doesn’t contain many surprises, it’s a fun romp, and there’s a neat twist at the end.

“The Godstone of Venus” by Mike Resnick has some commonalities with other entries in the book. Like the opening tale, this shows a private detective engaged in a search for something lost in the wilds of Venus. And like “The Drowned Celestial,” part of the story involves a zealot’s ruthless quest to discover a legendary sacred artifact. The PI here has a partner, Merlin, an alien with whom he communicates telepathically. This is not an artistically ambitious story, but it is an enjoyable one.

The volume concludes with “Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan,” a complex narrative by longtime Northern Ireland resident Ian McDonald. Ida, the protagonist, is an Irish noblewoman with a checkered family history. Her first and — as we’re told in the third paragraph — only trip to Venus is motivated by reasons that are initially unclear. I found this story slow going to begin with, but I’m glad I stuck with it, because it offers a poignant denouement.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that I’ve only named fifteen stories from Old Venus. The tale that I haven’t yet mentioned is the one that made me determined to write about this book.

“Pale Blue Memories” by Tobias S. Buckell is one of the few science fiction stories I’ve encountered that directly attempts to grapple with the United States’s history of slavery. The narrator is Charles Stewart, an officer on the first U.S. flight to Venus in an alternate reality where World War II ended in a stalemate between America and a Nazi-controlled Europe.

Stewart’s vessel crashes into Venus after being attacked by a long-range German missile, and he and his shipmates are captured and sold into slavery. Once there, the Americans are forced to make hard choices about survival. I found the story to be both sobering and heartbreaking. Go check it out, even if you don’t like science fiction, and even if it’s the only thing you read in Old Venus.

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