I intentionally waited to write about Old Venus until I’d gotten a look at the real thing by reading Pirates of Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burrough’s Carson of Venus gets namedropped in the jacket copy of Old Venus, along with Ray Bradbury’s The Long Rain and C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra. Dozois’ introduction highlights Planet Stories from 1939-1955 and suggests C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett may have written the best Venus stories. This is decidedly Retro SF, because the era of Venusian sword and planet died on December 14, 1962 when an American probe passed over Venus and confirmed it is too hot to support life.
So how does Old Venus stack up to old Venus? First off, there is only one story in Old Venus that really runs in the Burroughs vein (not by accident my favorite), so maybe I didn’t pick the best book to compare and contrast. None of the stories are outright bad, but they lack that spark of vitality that Pirates of Venus has.
(Scheduling Note: I have an advanced copy of the Women of Futures Past anthology in hand. It’s out on Tuesday and I will have a post up on it on Thursday. I’m two stories in and I can already tell you it’s a good one. I haven’t started it yet, but I’m still planning to make Double Star by Robert Heinlein my next read from my shelf of pulps. In light of the continuing brouhaha over the Hugos, it will be interesting to read one of the first winners. I will also post on Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey and Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John stories. But my copy of issue #1 of Skelos finally arrived, so that may take priority.)
Old Venus is still a pricey hardcover, but you certainly get your money’s worth in quantity. At 608 pages, Martin and Dozois pack in 16 stories that run more toward novelette length than short story (there is a full list of the stories below).
They’re not bad stories, but they are conventional, in pretty much every way. They stick to modern sensibilities and lack any real sense of wonder. The multitudes of Venusian-native species aren’t usually much more interesting than dwarves and elves. The Soviets show up frequently. The stories lean heavily toward the exploration-side of pulp. The action-side isn’t well represented.
It’s the general dullness of modern short speculative fiction that drags the volume down, not the politics of it, as you might expect. Those only really harm two stories. Pale Blue Memories should be a powerful tale of a man dragged back down into the nightmares of his history, but is hobbled by the protagonist’s tendency to talk like a critical studies professor. The Heart’s Filthy Lesson may still be the best story in the anthology (and definitely has the best name). But there is a nasty, out-of-place edge to it that pulled me partway out of a story otherwise full of pathos and exploration and bioorganic power suits and swamp-tigers—“two lies, six taloned legs, and an indiscriminate number of enormous daggerlike teeth in a four-hindred-kilogram body, . . . striped violet and jade [with] long, slinky bodies . . . and . . . whisker-ringed mouths hinged open wide open enough to bite a grown person in half.”
The stories get better as they go along. Living Hell by Joe Haldeman was the first one I really enjoyed. It’s technically proficient (more than proficient), has some cool-ass speculative elements, and has a nice pop to the ending. By Frogsled and Lizardback to Outcast Venusian Lepers is a great adventure yarn, but the ending a bit flat (it also has the second best name). The strong but flawed stories by Buckell and Bear show up in the second half, as does my favorite story, The Wizard of the Trees. The final story, Botanica Veneris was the surprise of the collection, riffing on mannerpunk as a daughter of the gentry tracks down her dissolute brother through the shadier side of Venus. It’s sneaky good.
The Wizard of the Trees by Joe Lansdale is that single story in the Burroughs vein. It’s a hell of a lot of fun. A Buffalo soldier, killer of Johnny Ringo, and actor in Wild Bill’s Western Show finds himself transported to Venus. What follows is very much similar to what I imagine the Barsoom books to be. In fact, I demand a series. Maybe it’s modern sensibilities that makes the one big damn hero a black guy, but (1) whatever it takes and (2) the exploits of the West’s great black heroes remain undertold, including those of real life badasses like Bass Reeves, who shows up in Karen Memory, and George Washington Williams, who shows up in the latest Tarzan movie.
Thanks for the highlight, George and Gardner, but I think I’ll look to the source material before I work my way around to Old Mars.
Introduction: Return to Venusport by Gardner Dozois
Frogheads by Allen M. Steele
The Drowned Celestial by Lavie Tidhar
Planet of Fear by Paul McAuley
Greeves and the Evening Star by Matthew Hughes
A Planet Called Desire by Gwyneth Jones
Living Hell by Joe Haldeman
Bones of Air, Bones of Stone by Stephen Leigh
Ruins by Eleanor Arnason
The Tumbledowns of Cleopatra Abyss by David Brin
By Frogsled and Lizardback to Outcast Venusian Lepers by Garth Nix
The Sunset of Time by Michael Cassutt
Pale Blue Memories by Tobias S. Buckell
The Heart’s Filthy Lesson by Elizabeth Bear
The Wizard of the Trees by Joe Lansdale
The Godstone of Venus by Mike Resnick
Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan by Ian McDonald