In his introduction to this short story collection, Gardner Dozois states that in creating the book he and co-editor George R. R. Martin were hoping to "rekindle the wonderful, gorgeously coloured dream of Old Venus." Dozois outlines the early scientific understanding of Venus and the fictional stories that were based on it. Many of these, he notes, featured hot, sticky Venusian swamps, dinosaur-like predators, amphibious Venusian natives, and a spaceport. He observes, however, that "the Venus bubble burst" on 14 December 1962, when the American Mariner 2 probe passed over the planet. The probe established that Venus was so hot—around 863 degrees Fahrenheit—that it was completely hostile to life, and in addition the cloud cover was not made up of water vapour but sulphuric acid. Following these discoveries, people stopped writing stories based on an inhabitable, prehistoric, earth-style planet. Eventually a few "new Venus" stories started to appear, based on the new reality; but here, and as with their previous Old Mars book (2013), Dozois and Martin thought it would be fun to return to the earlier, imagined world.
Sixteen authors, including several very well-known ones such as Paul McAuley, David Brin, and Joe Haldeman, have contributed stories to Old Venus and, although varied in style and theme, most of the entries are satisfying vignettes from an alternative world. "Old" Venus is a playground for an author to fill, with imagination as the only the limiting factor. The recipe might read something like this: take a hot, humid atmosphere, with incessant rain, constant cloud cover, extensive oceans, and possibly some land or floating islands. Add some exotic flora and fauna, and include one or more indigenous sentient races. Into this melting pot introduce one or more humans—visitors or residents. They might be soldiers or adventurers, scientists or explorers, old or young, male or female. Include a smattering of plot devices such as a rescue mission, slavery, clones, politics (such as American/Russian, human/alien, or even alien/alien), fierce local monsters, a talisman, a shuttle crash, an ambush or a battle, or even a love story. Stir well and, most importantly, savour the resulting mix. I certainly did.
It should be noted that, as with most short story collections, but especially one with such a strong common theme, it is a mistake to read the whole book straight through. Not only do the different styles and imagined worlds clash and then bleed into each other, but a single-sitter can lead to the reader thinking "ah, not another Venusian swamp with Venusian swamp creatures!"—whereas, when returning fresh again after a few hours' or days' rest, each story can be appreciated on its own terms as well as for its contribution to the whole.
Several of the stories have, as Joe Haldeman calls it in "Living Hell," a "lively Venusian ecology," and, generally speaking, the more the authors give their imaginations free rein, the richer and fuller is the background to the characters and plot, and the more vividly alive it all seems. The planet and its ecosystem can appear to be virtually another character: certainly in all the best stories this is an essential ingredient. The scene is set in the collection's first story, when Allen M. Steele describes "clouds as dense as grey wool, separating purple sky and sun above from perpetual rain below … and Venus’s global ocean lay revealed: dark blue, storm-lashed, endless."
Whilst there are some variations, generally humidity, rain, and lack of sun are evident in all the stories. As Ash Weatherman, one of the characters in "Ruins" by Eleanor Arnason, comments, nowhere is cold on Venus, "But the damp could get in your bones." In many tales the planet consists of large oceans, swamps, and only small occasional landmasses, often islands. In "Frogheads" by Allen M. Steele, for instance, all the land is submerged, and the natives live on floating islands made of vegetation whilst the humans have built more solid structures in the water. By contrast, David Brin’s Venusian humans in "The Tumbledowns of Cleopatra Abyss" live in protective bubbles in an undersea canyon, the eponymous chasm. Several other stories, such as "The Drowned Celestial" by Lavie Tidhar, include some land masses, usually only a small percentage of the surface area of the planet, but still boast an atmosphere which is humid, sticky, and damp. The only notable variation is Gwyneth Jones’s "A Planet Called Desire," set in Venus some two or three billions of years ago, before the greenhouse effect shaped the ecology. The main character, John Forrest, is sent there from a time close to ours as part of an experiment to discover alternate habitats for people from a dying Earth. He finds a jungle, with dangerous fauna, and shifting flora, but the day is a similar length to Earth’s and there is as yet no planet-wide ocean. Forrest also encounters interesting Venusians and a complex society: it is a thoughtfully constructed account.
The other settings, however, remain close and cloying. Within them there is a great variety of fauna, sometimes dangerous, and often purple, as in this account by Paul McAuley in "Planet of Fear": "Puffballs and straps and sails were tinted deep purple … Fat cushions of black moss saddled between the trees. Everything was dripping wet." Another Venusian jungle is described by Elizabeth Bear, in "The Heart’s Filthy Lesson" as her main character, Dharthi, searches for lost ruins:
. . . the majority of the biomass hung suspended over Dharthi’s head, great limbs stretching up umbrella-like to the limited light. Up there, the branches and trunks were festooned with symbiotes, parasites and commensal organisms . . .
In the final story, and one of my favourites, Ian McDonald's "Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan," the eponymous Ida—an independent, intrepid woman clearly modelled on early women travellers—makes paper cuttings of various Venusian plants. Her work has achieved the status of high art back on Earth, selling for vast sums. Whilst this is only the cover story for her journey, it is a useful device and the account consists of recordings she makes of interviews she conducts, and diary entries she writes, as she travels. These are interspersed with accounts of her paper cuttings from a sale catalogue. The first is "V strutio ambulans: The Ducrot’s Peripatetic Wort," a plant which Ida observes "blindly, blithely climbing my divan," and takes two hours to cross the balcony where Ida is resting on said divan, via the "coiling and uncoiling of the three ambulate—surely modified roots."
Another imaginative but very different use of local flora is found in "By Frogsled and Lizardback to Outcast Venusian Lepers," in which Garth Nix creates a kind of lichen that is allowed to grow on people’s arms and faces to protect them from malignant spores when going on an expedition, or living out in the wilds. The disadvantage here is that it takes four months to remove them upon returning to a human settlement. Fauna is also often integral to the plots of the stories. In "Ruins," for example, the "megafauna" is the reason for the National Geographic filming expedition into the jungle, although they have trouble finding any.
As well as these elusive but dangerous animals, Arnason includes in her story some more averagely sized creatures, such as the herd of "amphibianoids" encountered next to a river. They are five meters long, with "sprawling bodies red and slippery-looking. [ … ] 'Not bright,' was Arkady the Russian’s comments on these creatures, 'But a top predator. They do not need to be bright, as the history of America has shown.'" (A comment even more topical now than when it was written!) Other stories are also full of vividly described dangerous creatures, including the flocks of "night shrikes" in "Frogheads," fierce avians the size of pelicans, hunting in flocks; the meat-eating, six-legged "swamp tigers" in "The Heart’s Filthy Lesson"; and the "Sun Eater," a "sleek, beautiful being on wings of—so it seemed—pure song," which is an essential part of the plot in "The Drowned Celestial." These and many other interesting creatures enhance the stories.
At the top of the evolutionary tree in several of these tales, however, are indigenous sentient races closely tied to the ecosystem. Often this indigenous life is aquatic or semi-aquatic and based on amphibian or reptilian life forms; the eponymous "frogheads" of the opening story, otherwise known as the water-people, with "sloping, neckless heads … sleek hairless bodies … short dorsal fins running down their backs," or a kind of giant sentient and exceedingly amorous newt in "Greeves and the Evening Star" by Matthew Hughes: she has a swaying "sinuous green form" and "remarkable eyes–round, amber with flecks of silver." In Stephen Leigh’s "Bones of Air, Bones of Stone," the "shreeliala" has more equality than the indigenous races enjoy in some of the stories, neither subservient nor slave labour, but sentient and aquatic. One comes on land to deal with humans, with bubblers "wrapped around its purple-and-green neck over the gill slits … [and] with huge eyes that blinked wetly." Other accounts have indigenous races like lizards, as in "A Planet Called Desire," where the native met by the main character, John Forrest, is "a glistening, greenish woman with a muscular sheeny tail … a classic Lizard woman." These characters are variously violent, vengeful, friendly, or even amorous: the stories are as varied as their titles.
Most of the visiting viewpoint characters travel to Venus by some kind of spacecraft, but there is also a time-and-distance machine in "A Planet Called Desire," whilst in Joe R. Landsdale’s "The Wizard of the Trees" there is the creative plot device of a random large sea creature, never really explained, which translates the main character from the water surrounding the sinking Titanic to Venus. When the characters arrive, by whatever means, in several stories they eventually arrive at a major port, which in more than one story is called "Venusport," although there are a range of other names such as Port Smith, Veneragrad, and Port Blackstone. On arrival at these ports, visitors find a range of human settlements, from grand houses through futuristic Domes, to decaying shacks, or a single house by a pond in "Greeves and the Evening Star." "Frogheads" is set in a decaying post-Soviet Russian-run Venus. Despite a large central atrium, much of the human settlement consists of "narrow corridors with low ceilings and low-wattage light fixtures, their grey steel walls decorated with grime." This touch of Graham Greene-style seediness is found in other stories too, such as "Ruins," in which Venusport has a prosperous core, but then slums with low concrete buildings interspersed with tents and other temporary buildings. In other tales there are decaying taverns, and in "Bones of Air, Bones of Stone," Tomio checks into the only place to stay in Port Blackstone, a run-down hostel with an indifferent owner.
Add to all this the constant cloud cover, and disenchanted individuals who have rocked up in Venus for reasons legal or illegal and never moved on, and you get a general picture that people have stayed because they are on the run, or they haven’t the energy to go elsewhere. Lucius McAnany, bartender in "The Godstone of Venus" by Mike Resnick, complained about Venus but, after spending thirty years there, was afraid to go home: "Who the hell knows what it’s like there now?" Games of cards feature in more than one story, and occasionally there is in all this a resemblance to tales of the Wild West, which has to be more than coincidence. This is especially noticeable in "The Wizard of the Trees," where the main character, Jack Davis, had been part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show before returning to the States onboard the Titanic. Within the general confines of Old Venus, there is room for a lot of plot—and generic—variety.
Indeed, there are also exceptions to this general air of depression and decay, with a few stories being more upbeat. One is "The Heart’s Filthy Lesson," which features Dharthi, a female archaeologist exploring ancient ruins. Here, the surrounding flora and fauna is extremely dangerous but there are no existing sentient Venusian races to complicate matters. In this tale an interior journey is as much, if not more, of the point than the scientific exploration. This is one of many examples of cleverly constructed plots in the collection. The story which to my mind which, despite its catchy title, works least well is one in which this is not the case—"Pale Blue Memories" by Tobias S. Buckell. The author is extremely eager to make a point about slavery, and whilst the sentiment cannot be faulted, it overwhelms the story and characters—both of which could, in fact, have been set anywhere. The planet itself plays little part in proceedings, and the indigenous peoples are not especially Venusian. I feel a little hesitant saying this—highlighting the wrongs of slavery is clearly to be applauded—but if the story had been a little more subtle, it would have been more successful to my mind.
Most of the tales, however, are successful, tightly and carefully plotted. The background is usually full enough to set the scene properly, and the stories progress well. It is easier to suspend disbelief in some than in others, particularly if they are close to spoof, such as "Greeves and the Evening Star"; but even the broader stories can be entertaining despite that. Most of the contributions have good and appropriate endings, too—although one or two are a bit disappointing. I found "Cleopatra Abyss" on the whole a gripping tale, for example, but I felt the ending to come a tad abruptly.
Whilst in one way or another I enjoyed all of the stories, then, I can’t resist mentioning a few that particularly stand out for me. One is "Planet of Fear" which has good world-building in the geology, flora, and fauna, good background in the protagonist's profession and the other Russians’ obsession with the Americans, some science, a mystery, and some tension. There is a theme of gender relations, too, which is subtly and humorously treated. Another standout is Nix's "By Frogsled and Lizardback," which has an excellently imagined ecology and some nice twists and turns as the story develops. Very different, but also appealing, is McDonald's "Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan," from which especially Ida herself, with her intrepid travelling and her elegant papercutting, sticks in the mind. And then there is "Frogheads," in which the exploited natives seek revenge . . .
In fact, I find myself wanting to list nearly all of these stories as favourites, which says much about the overall quality of the collection. The best tales have not only a carefully constructed and well-imagined Venusian climate, but strong and realistic characters with dialogue that reads authentically, as well as thoughtful plots—which might be fun, serious, complete with battles, or more reflective, but are internally consistent and convincing. Lavie Tidhar notes in his tale that "Venus was a planet of secrets and hidden depths, of mysteries beyond recall." That is certainly true of the Venus in the best of these stories. To return to the culinary metaphor: they are a treat, not to be taken too seriously, but to be savoured and enjoyed.