‘Old Venus’ is an anthology of new stories by current authors. Before Mariner 2 orbited Venus on December 14th 1962, only optical observations had been made of Venus. The telescopes perceived a bright but featureless surface. Thus it was theorised that Venus was covered in a thick layer of clouds, most often thought to be water. Lots of water clouds mean lots of rain, swamps and murky jungles. From the 1920s through the 1950s, many planetary romances were written about Venus, much in the same way that Mars has John Carter. Exotic Venusians lived in the swamps fighting or maybe riding the dinosaurs that so obviously wandered in the steamy jungles.
Then Mariner 2 arrived and showed that the clouds consisted of 96.5 percent carbon dioxide with a significant content of sulphuric acid. The temperature at the surface is 863 degrees Fahrenheit. Possibly the most hostile environment to life in the solar system. Overnight, the stories stopped. This volume is an attempt to recapture some of the pre-1962 spirit. These are new planetary romances deliberately written to invoke the classic feel. After a succinct and lucid introduction by Gardner Dozois, who explains the concept with great clarity, we are straight into the stories.
This disparate collection takes in a great deal of variety. Sixteen stories are told in all. The weakest include ‘Frogheads’ by Allen M. Steele, a tale of a private investigator tracking down a lost young adventurer on the islands of Venus and narrowly avoiding the wroth of the natives. ‘The Drowned Celestial’ by Lavie Tidhar is a tale of a streetwise human and his Venusian partner tracking down treasure in the swamps. ‘Ruins’ by Eleanor Arnason is a trek guided by a politically minded citizen of the USSR into the venusian outback where a deep secret is being kept. Michael Cassutt has contributed ‘The Sunset Of Time’, a tale of jaded human colonists and the venusian natives who distrust and pity them and one man’s relationship to a sympathetic venusian female.
‘The Godstone Of Venus’ by Mike Resnick features a hard-bitten terran mercenary and his native venusian partner being employed on a mysterious quest by a pale blue woman named only Sapphire. These tales transplant more traditional stories into venusian settings that seem familiar enough to be the unexplored corners of the Earth. As such, they are more forgettable placed next to their peers. None of these stories are bad but they are low points that maybe needed a little more fantastica to bring them up to specification.
Stronger stories include Paul McAuley’s ‘Planet Of Fear’, which is a very up-to-date and scientifically savvy tale of a deserted Russian research station and paranoia regarding possible biological peril. ‘Greeves And The Evening Star’ by Matthew Hughes is a jolly P.G. Wodehouse style tail of a plucky gentleman rescued from a sticky fate at the hands of the venusian newt women at the last moment by his butler. ‘A Planet Called Desire’ by Gwyneth Jones concerns a bold adventurer projected to Venus by science and getting heavily involved with a lizard woman and princess in all but title. ‘Bones Of Air, Bones Of Stone’ by Steven Leigh is very romantic tale of a man in love with a woman determined to explore Venus. This tale develops a powerful emotional punch impressively quickly. ‘By Frogsled And Lizardback To Outcast Venusian Lepers’ by Garth Nix is an inventive tale about Terran Navy veterans being sent on a suspicious rescue mission where all is not as it seems.
‘The Wizard Of The Trees’ by Joe R. Lansdale is the most overtly John Carter-esque of the stories, with the protagonist suddenly and inexplicably finding himself on Venus with enhanced abilities and a princess to help. Elizabeth Bear contributes ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ which is a tale of a one woman’s willingness to risk her life at the hands of the voracious venusian wildlife to prove her anthropological theories. These stories all find either a different angle or manage to inject the right amount of imagination to feel as if Venus is both romantic and excitingly dangerous.
A special mention must be given to ‘Pale Blue Memories’ by Tobias S. Buckell. This is a rather depressing story about the injustices of a venusian society which practices slavery. At the end of it, I felt less entertained and more educated as to the horrors that supposedly sentient beings can visit upon each other. I don’t think this is badly written, but I’m not sure it belongs in a volume which I expected to entertain with light adventures.
Now we come to the jewels in this crown. ‘Living Hell’ by Joe Haldeman is a tale of a pilot mounting a desperate rescue in the voracious venusian jungles and making a shocking discovery about the local wildlife. This is the best reveal in the volume. David Brin gives us the wonderful ‘The Tumbledowns Of Cleopatra Abyss’ which combines a more modern take on Venus’ atmosphere and the tradition of a degenerated society living in an environment technologically beyond them. Finally, last in the volume, but by no means least, Ian McDonald gives us ‘Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan’, the diary of a noblewoman travelling Venus in search of her long-lost brother. The point of view of a middle-aged countess widow travelling through different levels of venusian society is beautifully conjured. Her diary includes her close examination of venusian flora as she travels, which is very inventively portrayed.
How can a book be so wrong and yet also so right? The educated reader knows Venus is not a romantic world full of adventure, but these stories make it so with great truth. This is a book for those with a romantic soul, the reader who reaches for Edgar Rice Burroughs to take a break from modern trends. It is very refreshing to read tales like this written by current authors. It feels as if they are enjoying stretching their creative impulse, writing almost for the sheer joy of it.
I do recommend this book. It both provides the expected and a great deal more. It is worth getting hold of for the stronger stories alone, so the weaker ones are essentially a bonus which you might enjoy. People who enjoy this volume might also like to note that it follows a similar earlier book entitled ‘New Mars’.
(pub: Bantam/Random House. 582 page hardback. Price: $30.00 (US), $35.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-53728-7
pub: Titan Books. 580 page enlarged paperback. Price: £14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-7832-9787-0)