The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud
(Titan Books, 2023)
Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
Galaxy magazine used to promote their kind of sf by stating exactly what kind of sf it wasn’t. The example was the “space western” in which “Hoofs drumming, Bat Durston came galloping down through the narrow pass at Eagle Gulch, a tiny gold colony 400 miles north of Tombstone” is simply transcribed into “Jets blasting, Bat Durston came screeching down through the atmosphere of Bbllzznaj, a tiny planet seven billion light years from Sol.” After a few pages, or possibly even paragraphs, it’s quite clear that the Martian colony of New Brunswick, from where 14-year-old Anabelle Crisp sets out to retrieve the recording of her mother’s voice which is among the loot taken when their diner is robbed, is a small town in the American West. The recording is all that she and her father are left with after “the Silence” cuts all contact with Earth. Anabelle “persuades” the shunned spaceship pilot Joe, stranded on Mars, and the outlaw Sally Milkwood to join her and her dishwasher “Engine” Watson to follow the thieves to Dig Town and Peabody Crater where the mineral aptly called “the Strange” is mined. It doesn’t take much time to work out that “Dig Town” is any western mining community, Watson is the trusty Native American servant (though he is programmed with an “English butler” voice and vocabulary), and the “recording” is, say, a picture or memento left by Anabel’s mother who has “gone East” to civilisation and never come back. There is even a sheriff; that staple diet in Westerns, beans; and ambushes and shoot-outs aplenty. There is even a (threatened) hanging.
As for Annabelle herself, she makes Mattie Ross of True Grit look like a shrinking violet, and once the genre is established and the reader in search of some detailed hard sf is tempted to toss the book aside, it’s too late and we are doomed to follow the mouthy and appallingly demanding heroine to the last page. And by then we realise we are in a somewhat different novel, a more “gothicised” response to Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, perhaps; with a nod to a kind of steampunk alternative-history in which there is a Mars landing in 1864 and a US-Germany battle for control in 1896 (the events of the story are all happening in 1931); but there is also, eventually, a very real and sharply-imagined Martian presence. Anabelle’s relationship with Silas Mundt, the leader of the robbers who trashed the Mother Earth Diner, becomes interestingly complex, and a darker tone gathers around the narrative and Anabelle’s understanding (or semi-understanding) of what is going on. She starts out hoping to see a re-showing of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and re-reading Sherlock Holmes adventures. She ends by experiencing what it is like to be in an adventure-romance.
This is neither the novel I expected when I asked for it to review, nor the novel I thought it would be when I started reading it, but an interesting fusion of the two. It’s a novel about the disruption of the world and people’s desperate and sometimes shameful reaction to that disruption, and it’s a novel about (that classic sf scenario) realising that the world is not quite what you thought it was. And part of its delight is watching Anabelle’s incomprehension as she, like any 14-year-old, is told that time after time after time by virtually every other character. But it is also a romp, told with an eye to what ought to be in a space-Western romp and a keen attention to atmosphere and pacing. If there’s a touchstone to The Strange, it’s C.L. Moore’s “Northwest Smith” Martian romances (Sally Milkwood, perhaps, owes a little to Smith), but it is more memorable (and fun) than simple pastiche. And certainly not your average “Bat Durston” hackery.