Monday, January 18, 2016

Review of Old Venus ed. by Gardner Dozois & George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois’ themed anthologies are some of the most popular on the market these days.  Soliciting the genre’s best-known mainstream writers, selecting highly familiar themes, and letting length run to 500+ pages, Rogues, Warriors, Dangerous Women, Songs of the Dying Earth, Old Mars, and others are some of the bestselling anthologies the past five years.  Once again not trying to reinvent the wheel, the duo released Old Venus in 2015 with all of the above attributes.

If you catch a hint of disdain in the opening paragraph, it’s real.  Old Venus is yet another interminable sequence of stories by authors using familiar modes and motifs stuck in the same setting.  Therefore, if mainstream genre is your bread and butter, you can skip the rest of this review and buy the anthology.  What follows will only upset you.

Generally lackluster, seemingly every story (though, in reality not every) in Old Venus features swamps, jungles, frog/reptile-esque aliens, steamy climate, and a plot as retro as Hugo Gernsback could ever want.  Almost all the stories novelettes, this also means the anthology runs to 600+ pages, despite containing only sixteen stories.  Monotonous unless supplemented with other reading material in between incursions, this is one of those anthologies severely limited by theme and the authors solicited.

“Frogheads” by Allen Steele sublimates all of the stereotypes of Golden Age science fiction, producing, da-dum, a stereotypical story.  A man arrives on Venus to a plateful of Russian stereotypes—I mean, strange circumstances—that threaten to hinder his finding and capturing of another man.  But the natives, called Frogheads, as mysterious as they are, throw further spanners in the works in this story of anti-slavery.  Repeating the theme but in parable form, Tobias Buckell’s ‘‘Pale Blue Memories’’ tells of survival in extreme form.  Defining the term ‘lackluster’ (i.e. lacking in vitality, force, or conviction) Lavie Tidhar’s story “The Drowned Celestial” is more an exercise in writing pulp than a sincere rendering of organic story.  The t’s are crossed and i’s dotted as it draws a line straight to pulp-land, but the straightforward, no frills approach and lack of setup (i.e. no foreshadowing or vividly rendered background details) fails to capture the glory of storytelling—as any good pulp story should.  Things happen, and the story ends.  Imitative rather than original, the reader would be better off reading a Leigh Brackett story to learn how to write pulp.

In Paul McAuley’s “Planet of Fear” those bad Russians are back again, this time in a hard sf tale located in a scientifically impossible setting—a paradox that works against rather than for the story.  Using McAuley’s real-life specialty, it details a mysterious disease overtaking a contentious USA-Russia colonization attempt—surprise—on Venus.  Wodehouse that falls short of Wodehouse, Matthew Hughes has a lot of fun with an aristocrat transported against his knowledge to Venus in “Greeves and the Evening Star.”  Of course, his butler may have more fun.  Depending on the reader’s tastes, it may or may not be fun for them.

Literally planetary romance, “Bones of Air, Bones of Stone” by Stephen Leigh proves that the dead horse can still be beaten.  “The Wizard of the Trees” by Joe R. Lansdale is imitation Edgar Rice Burroughs without the panache (something Lansdale usually possesses, which is strange).  A man is magically transported to Venus whereupon, with only his wits and strength, he gets the girl and staves off aggressive aliens amidst green jungles.  Told you it was Burroughs-esque…  Like Tidhar’s entry, Mike Resnick’s is also imitative of the poorly written side of pulp.  “The Godstone of Venus” shows that the writer’s powers have never evolved beyond mediocre in this story of mercenaries hunting a numinous object in the wilds of Venus. 

The only story in the anthology worth serious note is Ian McDonald’s “’Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts’ by Ida Countess Rathangan.”  Taking the anthology’s theme as far as it can go stylistically and ideologically, the story is thirteen windows into the journals of a woman seeking out the fate of the Blue Empress Sapphire, using papercuts (not the bloody variety) of flowers as interludes.  The most complex, layered and satisfying story of the bunch, it pushes to the max what is possible in an ‘old Venus’ setting.  The best, I guess, was saved for last.

In the end, there is very little of merit to Old Venus save light entertainment for readers who enjoy Golden Age science fantasy written by writers trying to imitate Golden Age science fantasy.  Not every entry in the anthology following that formula, the import of the whole remains as such, however, concluding at the point that Martin and Dozois have done it again: produced another over-long, narrowly themed, monotonous tome that mainstream readers are sure to slurp up with a green straw.

The following are the sixteen stories anthologized in Old Venus:

Frogheads by Allen Steele
The Drowned Celestial by Lavie Tidhar
Planet of Fear by Paul J. 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 R. Lansdale
The Godstone of Venus by Mike Resnick
“Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts” By Ida Countess Rathangan by Ian McDonald

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