RogerBW's Blog

Old Venus, George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois 22 September 2020

2015 collection of new SF stories set on pre-space-probe ideas of the planet Venus.

What's missing, that I'd have loved to see, is any consideration of just how that theory got started – in particular the idea that planets are spun off from the sun and gradually age, so Mars is older then Earth and Venus is younger – and therefore Venus has dinosaurs! Yes, telescopic observation pointed to clouds, and Arrhenius speculated wildly about swamps, but there's a chunk missing here that I'd really like to explore further. Anyway, this is liquid-water Venus, and very often primitive and colonially-exploited native life Venus too.

"Frogheads" by Allen M. Steele has a Soviet-, or at least Russian-owned Venus (a recurrent theme in the collection) and a cop looking for a missing person. So there's the Man Who's Gone Native, and the Terrans as drug pushers to the locals; it's a reasonably effective anticolonialist story though I think it would have been better if contrasted against procolonial lies and prosperity rather than a general sense of decay.

"The Drowned Celestial" by Lavie Tidhar is more of a classic pulp story, with the edges of civilisation and war criminals and ancient powers. Unambitious but gets its job done very well.

"Planet of Fear" by Paul McAuley is a fairly conventional puzzle story of what happened to the expedition and why its survivor is mad, with a Soviet- or at least Russian-dominated planet. Quite fun but doesn't go far.

"Greeves and the Evening Star" by Matthew Hughes is a Wodehouse parody; better than many, but very few people can really catch the voice.

"A Planet Called Desire" by Gwyneth Jones frames itself in John Carter of Mars-like instant transportation, but is a good solid pulp story at heart.

"Living Hell" by Joe Haldeman has even more lively local wildlife, and a particular sort of hostile creature that turns out to be more interesting than it appears.

"Bones of Air, Bones of Stone" by Stephen Leigh is more conventionally "idiot Americans not understanding the locals", with a bit of dress-up. Doesn't go anywhere.

"Ruins" by Eleanor Arnason follows a photographic safari, with local politics getting involved. Well-written, but for such big considerations as it eventually ends up with, it feels oddly small.

"The Tumbledowns of Cleopatra Abyss" by David Brin has the survivors of alien attack and their gradually decaying civilisation. Our hero is surprised to learn that his arranged marriage is with someone who's actually smart and pleasant, because Brin. And the moment they get their own little clan out of trouble, they immediately abandon everyone else. Yay.

"By Frogsled and Lizardback to Outcast Venusian Lepers" by Garth Nix is rather more fun than the last few: an ex-soldier gets drafted to find a crashed shuttle, but clearly there's more going on than he's being told. Good solid stuff.

"The Sunset of Time" by Michael Cassutt puts its message too far forward, but makes some effective study of someone on the edge of going native.

"Pale Blue Memories" by Tobias S. Buckell has a Red Tail pilot among the crew of the first ship wrecked on Venus. From family stories, he understands slavery better than his shipmates. But not well enough, really. Dispiriting, deliberately so I think.

"The Heart's Filthy Lesson" by Elizabeth Bear has interestingly advanced tech and an obsessed scientist. Great stuff.

"The Wizard of the Trees" by Joe R. Lansdale is another very much in the Burroughs tradition: fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't seem to have much to say.

"The Godstone of Venus" by Mike Resnick is a very Resnickian story: there's not a whole lot mere people can do in the face of powers much bigger than them, and the smart people are the ones who realise it.

"Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan" by Ian McDonald is a puzzle story laid out gradually between bits of picaresque. Lurid and lush but I find the people unpleasant.

Overall: I like the conceit, but my taste in SF has never been a good match for Dozois'. There are plenty of OK to decent stories here, but nothing amazing; on the other hand, there's nothing that is entirely without conclusion. So that's something.

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See also:
Old Mars, George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois


  1. Posted by John P at 08:37pm on 23 September 2020

    Did you see that thing recently about detecting phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus? The problem is that, given what is known about Venus & phosphine, no-one has yet worked out how the gas could occur naturally in the quantities observed without some sort of biology being involved. So there's either some mad chemistry or some very mad biology going on.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:38pm on 23 September 2020

    My approach to that is basically this. Great news if true, but I remember cold fusion and FTL neutrinos and I shan't build castles in the air.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:39am on 24 September 2020

    To be fair to the FTL neutrino people, they actually said their experiment showed this but they were sceptical and wanted other people to take a look having exhausted their own ideas. And indeed it turned out to not be true as they suspected all along.

    The cold fusion people on the other hand were completely deluded.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 08:09am on 24 September 2020

    Yes indeed! It was fascinating to watch the difference between the press coverage (very much "warp drive!!!!!11!!") and the actual primary reports ("look, this makes no sense, please check our methods and equipment").

  5. Posted by John P at 10:27pm on 24 September 2020

    Precisely. That is what I said. The researchers who've detected the phosphine aren't claiming that there is life floating around in the Venusian atmosphere. They're putting the facts out there and asking "How could you get that much phosphine WITHOUT any biology being involved?"

    Nobody has yet figured out the chemistry behind this. And there isn't any way any known biology could be behind it either. It's a problem waiting for someone to come up with a plausible explanation.

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 10:42pm on 24 September 2020

    "It's mad something, anyway."

    "Yeah, Bob. It's Venus."

    :)

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