7 December, 2022

LitStack Recs: Without & Old Venus

Old Venusvenus
Edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

Maybe you’re too young for this, but remember when the planet Venus was believed to be a place of warmth, water, clouds?  It was the Planet of Love, the Bright Queen of the Sky, full of pulpy vegetation and huge, colorful flowers; there were monstrous insects buzzing about, and the world was full of strange and wondrous creatures, possibly, even, sinuous, shimmery women and broad-chested, luxuriously scaled men as at home in the deep, dark water as on lush, swampy land.  And it rained.  A lot.  Science fiction of the time reflected this fanciful, verdant image.

Then in 1962, the Mariner 2 probe landed on Venus, and all our romantic thoughts of a green and exotic Venus were dashed.  Instead, we learned that the second planet from the Sun was too hot to support any kind of known life, and the clouds that we had taken as water vapor were actually made up of deadly sulphuric acid.  The atmosphere was almost entirely carbon dioxide and the atmospheric pressure was 92 times that of Earth.

So much for Venusian mermaids!

But not so fast, says Gardner Dozois in the Introduction to the anthology Old Venus.  We have the rest of posterity to write about “New Venus”… why not take the science fiction sensibilities of today, and apply them to the “old” take on Venus?

… science fiction is and always has been part of the great romantic tradition in literature, and romance has never been about realism.  After all, as [co-editor George R. R.] Martin says, “Western writers still write stories about an Old West that never actually existed in the way it is depicted; ‘realistic Westerns’ that focus on farmers instead of gunslingers don’t sell nearly as well.” […] So why not rekindle the wonderful, gorgeously  colored dream of Old Venus?

The sixteen stories in Old Venus, written by award winning science fiction authors, do just that – exploiting our pre-1962 image of Venus while applying a modern day aesthetic.  All of them are keenly crafted, and eminently readable.  As with any anthology, though, some will shine.  Let me share with you a few of my favorites:

“The Drowned Celestial” by Lavie Tidhar.  It starts and ends with a card game, but in between are (ray)gun fights, a witch, a treasure hunt, an old god and a reckoning.  Most of all, it’s the story of how chance companions – one human and one alien – can form a friendship that transcends all obstacles despite the vast differences between them.

“Bones of Air, Bones of Stone” by Stephen Leigh.  While the relationship theme in the story felt a little clichéd to me, the challenges faced by Tomia, the main character, were poignant and compelling, and the depiction of  alien mythology and ritual that buoy the tale are astonishingly well conceived and very, very tellingly written.  This one is going to stay with me a long time.

“The Tumbledowns of Cleopatra Abyss” by David Brin.  This one has a definite frontier feel to it, but the fun thing is that women are the natural born leaders and men are more the helpmeets.  (Marriages are arranged, with men selected based on their skills, how they can help balance the needs of the colony, and their dowry.)  It’s not a feminist manifesto – Jonah is definitely the hero of the tale – but reversing the “typical” role of the sexes gives an interesting (and often humorous) twist to the story.

And those were just the three that I felt like sharing in this recommendation – there are many great stories to choose from.  Check out Old Venus and find your favorite!

—Sharon Browning