book reviews by Althea

Old Venus – George R.R. Martin, ed.

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Old Venus
Old Venus by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Introduction: Return to Venusport by Gardner Dozois

*** “Frogheads” by Allen M. Steele
Reminded me quite a lot of Phyllis Gotlieb’s ‘Lyhhrt’ trilogy, with its amphibious aliens as enslaved workers, and the human investigator that gets involved – but this is a much simpler and more conventional story.

*** “The Drowned Celestial” by Lavie Tidhar
Tidhar took the theme of this anthology seriously. This is an homage to the old pulp adventure stories, and a faithful re-creation of one. It might even pass as one, if not for the many, many call-outs to authors and tales from those days. (I ‘got’ a lot of them; but I’m sure that there were more that I missed, as well.)
An adventurer and gambling man gets involved in a shootout on Venus – and before he knows it, finds himself shanghaied into a treasure hunt at the site of a ruined temple of an ancient god…

*** “Planet of Fear” by Paul McAuley
A Russian scientist assigned to a Naval, military team isn’t getting much respect, regardless of her expertise in exobiology. The captain in charge is convinced that everything that goes wrong – and then some – must be the fault of those dastardly Americans who are competing with them for resources and territory on Venus. But when a distress call comes in, screaming something about being ‘attacked by monsters’ – she might be the only one who can figure out what’s actually happening.

** “Greeves and the Evening Star” by Matthew Hughes
This is a case of humor not hitting its mark, with me. If you are tickled up front by the idea of a butler named Greeves and a character named Slithey Tove-Whippley then you may get more of a kick out of this than I. On Venus, a herpetologist who’s studied all there is to study regarding newts develops a consuming obsession with a newt-like species – particularly one specific female of the species. Is the happy matrimony he envisions in his future?

**** “A Planet Called Desire” by Gwyneth Jones
This one does a great job updating some of the old tropes with new life. A rough-and-tumble billionaire adventurer, sick to death of how Earth is being destroyed environmentally and tamed socially, volunteers for an experimental time-travel/teleportation experiment to visit Venus’ past. Once there, he nearly dies, but is rescued and nursed back to health by an alien but oddly alluring woman… Of course, our protagonist makes any number of assumptions about the situation – which we, as readers, might also make. But there’s more to come in this story…
My one complaint is that the ending (although I loved what happened) felt a bit too abrupt.

*** “Living Hell” by Joe Haldeman
Good, old-fashioned action story. After a solar flare on Venus, a solo pilot must go on a daring mission to rescue a team from the wreckage of a downed space elevator. Technological malfunctions and inimical fauna must be battled to complete the job – which will culminate in the discovery of something weirder than anyone guessed.

***** “Bones of Air, Bones of Stone” by Stephen Leigh
A man returns to Venus to find his ex-lover, whom he’s heard is planning another attempt at the expedition they previously assayed together. She’s one of those people who’s always been driven to conquer unconquered peaks – and in this, case, the unplumbed depths. A rift under the seas of Venus has deep ritual significance to the native Venusians, and it’s usually off limits to humans. A special permit has been granted for this expedition. But last time, our protagonist nearly didn’t return. Are the stories told of this mystery mere superstition – or something more?
Loved this one – I thought the characters, the relationship, and the situation were all beautifully done.

**** “Ruins” by Eleanor Arnason
Since all of Earth’s megafauna are extinct, National Geographic now has to go farther afield for their stories. A Venusian colony founded by Russia is ailing, and when NatGeo arrives wanting to hire locals, they don’t have any trouble getting them to agree. It only makes sense that local commercial photographer Ash would recommend her friend Arkady, who runs tourist safaris. But Arkady seems to have his own agenda, as he leads the team into an area marked as off-limits by the American CIA. There are some humorous jabs here at a variety of targets, but first and foremost this is just a good story.

*** “The Tumbledowns of Cleopatra Abyss” by David Brin
An entry into the “they’ve been isolated for so long that they forgot to check the weather outside” subgenre. The isolation here takes the form of colonies established in naturally-occurring bubbles, far beneath the surface of the Venusian sea. But now, the bubbles are reaching the end of their natural ‘lifespan,’ beginning to shake loose or ‘pop’ – with devastating results. Will one young couple find a solution to the impending disaster?
The story is entertaining and very accessibly written, but suffers from a repeated use of: “Well, the plot calls for some kind of new gadget here. Good thing my character happens to just have invented that gadget!” I also didn’t feel that the characters’ behaviors necessarily matched the social system that’s described, and their attitude at the very end of the story is inexplicable, given the circumstances.

*** “By Frogsled and Lizardback to Outcast Venusian Lepers” by Garth Nix
Sci-fi adventure in the classic vein. The military pulls a couple of former soldiers out of retirement and sends them on a mission – straight into one of the raging permanent storms of Venus to find a downed spaceship with some VIP kids aboard. But not all might be on the up-and-up.
The fun here is really in the fungus-y, clone-y details.

*** “The Sunset of Time” by Michael Cassutt
Earthmen have received permission to build a giant lens on Venus that, when completed, will facilitate travel between the two planets. But , citing seemingly religio-mythic stories of an upcoming geological shift, all the native residents are busy not building, but utterly dismantling their cities and monuments. Nevertheless, the Earth’s project proceeds apace, run by a hard-drinking anti-social exile (like many of those who have transplanted themselves to Venus) with a lovely – but enigmatic – Venusian girlfriend.

**** “Pale Blue Memories” by Tobias S. Buckell
This piece took a little while to win me over, but, oh lord, but the ending’s a kicker.
In an alternate history, the US and the Nazis are in a space race out to the solar system. Marooned on Venus, an American military team is taken captive and enslaved by Venusians who have no idea that their captives are anything but members of an obscure tribe. The narrator is better versed in the ways of slavery than his colleagues: his mixed-race heritage has led him to know more than a bit about the injustices and horrors of the African slave trade. Will his knowledge help him survive?

*** “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” by Elizabeth Bear
I’m not getting the connection to the David Bowie song referenced in the title…
Other than that, this is a pretty good sci-fi adventure. An exo-archaeologist goes on a dangerous solo mission in an attempt to find a lost city: and, in the process, ‘prove’ herself to her over-achieving lover. A fight with alien megafauna features prominently. I loved all the details here – the setting, the ‘throwaway’ details about technology, future social attitudes, plant and animal life. However, the central psychodrama involving the main character and her lover didn’t really grab me.

*** “The Wizard of the Trees” by Joe R. Lansdale
Just like a classic ‘Flash Gordon’ adventure! A ‘Buffalo Soldier’ heading back to America goes down with the Titanic – but wakes up in a Venusian swamp. Soon, he finds himself joining a beautiful warrior in a fight against attacking bird-men, and joins her quest to retrieve a legendary talisman and preserve peace for her people. Great fun!

*** “The Godstone of Venus” by Mike Resnick
A treasure hunter and a mysterious alien woman hire a couple of hard-living mercenaries to guide them on a dangerous mission to locate the “godstone” – an artifact which the woman claims is infinitely valuable and legendary – but which neither of the hired men (well, one is a man) have ever heard of. It’s clear from the start that some kind of double-cross is being planned – but debts and curiosity keep them going (good thing, too, or there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell).

***** “Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan” by Ian McDonald
Ian McDonald has been very hit-or-miss for me. Some of his works I’ve loved; others have left me cold. But – this one’s a hit! A well-known & wealthy artist has embarked on a tour of Venus with her dear companion, ostensibly with the goal of creating artworks inspired by the alien flora. But it gradually becomes clear that the Countess has another agenda: she’s trying to find her long-lost brother. Against a fascinating but seemingly-innocent background of lovely flowers emerges a welter of conflicts involving jewel thefts, dynastic marriages, bloody conflicts, power struggles, and the fomenting of revolution. The richly detailed and gorgeous worldbuilding and the compelling characters made me completely forgive the unanswered question the reader’s left with.

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