BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A short but well-balanced collection of stories.
PROS: Atypical subject matter usually played to strong effect.
CONS: Perhaps a tad too short; could have used a couple more stories.
BOTTOM LINE: A good look at a celestial neighbor usually avoided by contemporary science fiction.
The Evening Star, named for the Goddess of Love, doesn’t get a lot of love in contemporary science fiction. In the days of the pulps, it was the primordial and primeval planet, with dinosaurs, nubile women to be won, and two fisted adventure. From Edgar Rice Burroughs to Robert A. Heinlein, from C.L. Moore to Frederik Pohl, Venus was a place of primitive adventure, a contrasting counterpart to the drying, dying Mars.
The Venera 4 and Mariner 5 probes from the Soviet Union in the 1960’s erased forever the idea of a Venus of jungles, heat, and savage adventure under the clouds. The clouds contained sulfric acid, and the heat on the desert-like, dry surface was hot enough to melt lead. The hellishness of Venus makes Mars positively pleasant by comparison. The Venusian, a Venus counterpart to The Martian, would be a 5 minute-long movie. Matt Damon would not be saved.
There have been attempts to recapture that pulp Venus feel. Old Venus, edited by Gardner Dozois and George R R Martin, was a deliberate evocation of the old Pulp era Venus. The Sky People by S.M. Stirling, was set in a world where aliens had terraformed both Mars and Venus and seeded them with life, spurring the Cold War to extend to planetary expeditions.
But what about Venus, unvarnished, and as it is, in its deadly glory, as a subject for science fiction? It is, given its realities, a far less popular subject than it was back in the Planetary Romance heyday, and a more challenging one. Aphrodite Terra, edited by Ian Sales, is a short collection of six stories about that Venus we do know. It’s a bright and strong collection looking at Venus and how we engage with the deadly planet, from well-separated and niche protected stories.
The six stories of Aphrodite Terra are:
- “Goldilocks Zone” by Heidi Kneale, a painful, poignant story of the thin, impoverished life that many scientists undergo, magnified and extended into the future. The protagonist Lizzi, diligently works on the effort to develop microorganisms capable of terraforming Venus, even as the very real concerns of hunger and privation make day to day life challenging.
- “When We Were in Thrall to Venus” by Deborah Walker is a more meditative look at obsession and desire, as the residents of a balloon like vessel in the upper atmosphere of the deadly second planet live with its beautiful and terrible nature.
- “The Last Transit of Venus” by E.M. Edwards is a dense packed look at a city set on King George Island off of Antarctica, but every bit as hot and oppressive, and cramped as Venus, set like a gem in a decaying, despairing solar system humanity is losing its grip on.
- “The Lady Anarchist Café” by Lorraine Schein is a vivid little story of radical politics and the desire of women to take their proper and long denied place in space.
- “Adapt or Die” by Erin M. Hartshorn is a potent story about compromises and change, and the need to embrace that change, even if it will alter one irrevocably, for the alternative is the extinction of oneself. There’s plenty of half glimpsed worldbuilding here packed in, a rich implied universe.
- “Flex and Flux” by Rosie Oliver, the anchor and perhaps my favorite story, is a wondrous hard science fiction story of solar sailing and desperate measures to try and make the trip from Venus back to Earth.
The anthologist has done an excellent job here, as have the authors in the collection. While there are stories I liked more than others (especially “Flex and Flux” and “The Last Transit of Venus”), all of the stories were well written and entertaining. It’s an excellent collection, though perhaps a story or two short from being a truly classic anthology.