April 26, 2023

Review: The Strange

The Strange The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book surprised me. The afterword relates how a friend of the author's came up with the pitch: "It's The Martian Chronicles meets True Grit!" which is true. It's certainly a tribute to Arthur C. Clarke. But it goes further back than that, to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his vision of Mars (before we discovered what a radiation-soaked, airless hellhole Mars really is, of course) where people can walk the red sands without protective suits, breathe the air, live in aboveground habs, and grow crops in the non-percholated soil.

It's also a steampunk alternate history set in 1931, where someone landed on Mars in 1864 (more shades of Burroughs, although at least Chance Peabody, Ballingrud's intrepid pilot, isn't a Confederate veteran). The settlement where the protagonist, Anabelle Crisp, lives is called New Galveston. She and her father run the Mother Earth Diner. The story opens a year after what's called the Silence, where communication with Earth is abruptly cut off and no resupply ships have arrived. Anabelle's mother received a message that her own mother was dying and left for Earth on the last ship out, and Anabelle and her father have heard nothing since. The Martian people have of course been traumatized by this, and their society is starting to break down. Another complication is the Strange, the mineral they are mining from Mars and shipping back to Earth that powers their robots (called Engines of various kinds). The miners who breathe in flecks of this mineral have eerie green luminescent eyes, and the Strange is starting to affect the Martian Engines and the people as well.

Anabelle Crisp is clearly modeled after Charles Portis' Mattie Ross, also being a 14-year-old girl who has to step up to save her father. Anabelle is a gritty and stubborn heroine who doggedly sets out to rescue her mother's "cylinder" (this universe's equivalent of a memory card for the Engines) which was stolen by raiders from Dig Town, the mining settlement. She strong-arms Joe Reilly, the pilot of the last ship to touch down before the Silence, into going with her. The book is the story of Anabelle's quest, and the unsettling things she discovers about the Strange along the way. This story is nominally science fiction (if of the retro variety) but veers--very effectively--into creepiness and horror. It's well paced and keeps the reader turning pages.

This has an old-fashioned pulp feel to it. I hadn't thought that would be up my alley, but it was an engaging story. Give it a try.

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