Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Just like old times

So, although this post is part of the Summer Reading Program, it is less a book review than a rumination, because reading Old Venus was less a literary experience than an evocation of times gone by.

Concept anthologies are pretty common in science fiction - those collections of stories written to meet particular specifications in theme or conceit. Carmen Miranda's Ghost Is Haunting Space Station 3 is one such collection - every story had to include that titular sentence. In the case of Old Venus, the unifying concept is a bit broader: authors were asked to write stories set on the Venus we "knew" before Mariner 2 took all the fun out of it: that perpetually cloudy, perpetually rainy, many-oceaned, deeply-swamped planet of mystery. that we know now was never more than a fiction. And the anthology delivers, in spades.

I think I know whereof I speak. When I was a kid, I basically read out the sci-fi section of the Bay Ridge branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, a collection comprising mostly material from before the New Wave era, Golden Age greats and material from that period one critic calls the Radium Age. I read Carson of Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs and "The Long Rain" by Ray Bradbury and everything else between and around them. Venus was a popular spot for science fiction. Sword & planet stories as they call them now, or space operas, or speculative fiction, or hard SF - all varieties of narrative could be told there.

And the there was key: Venus was not just another generic backdrop. There was something about the relentless, remorseless dreariness of the planet that added a dimension to whatever story was being spun. In the best tales, Venus itself became another character in the narrative. And in this new collection of Old Venus, most of the stories more than meet that bar.

There is a great variety in the presentation -  a former Buffalo Soldier surviving the Titanic sinking only to be swept into a conflict between blue people and birdmen, hard-bitten mercenaries versus forgotten Venusian gods, scientists and poachers and adventuresses exploring the planet, Russian communists and Nazis, and even a Bertie and Jeeves pastiche. In only a couple of cases did I feel the author just took an already-begun story and set it on Venus to meet the criterion; in just about all of the contributions, the Venus we wished we'd known is evoked in glorious damp detail and becomes an integral part of the story.

Just like the old days.

Whether you're a long-time reader of SF who wants to revisit the wonder, or a newer reader who wants to know what it was like Back in the Day, this is the collection for you. Apparently there's an Old Mars, as well; I need to seek that one out.

Last note: This is listed as "edited by" George R.R. Martin as well as Gardner Dozois. Dozois wrote the introduction and, as near as I can tell, the biographical notes; I have no idea what Martin did besides get his name on the cover to sell copies.

1 comment:

  1. He and Gardner are friends and longtime readers, so I'm sure George kibitzed, at the very least. Sounds like I should try to find this one just for the Buffalo Soldier story.