Friday, May 20, 2011

Tales from the new frontier: "The Old Man and the Martian Sea" by Alastair Reynolds

I’m reading my way through Life on Mars: Tales from the New Frontier (Viking, April 2011), a new original Young Adult science fiction anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan that's packed with stories from a range of contemporary writers, including Ian McDonald, Nnedi Okorafor, Stephen Baxter, Nancy Kress, Cory Doctorow, Rachel Swirsky, and Kim Stanley Robinson.

The second tale in the anthology is “The Old Man and the Martian Sea,” written by award-winning British science fiction author Alastair Reynolds. It’s about a human girl named Yukimi, who runs away from her home in Shalbatana City on a partially terraformed Mars with rising seas. She meets an old man named Corax, who lives alone in a giant obsolete terraforming machine. Here are the opening lines:
IN the belly of the airship, alone except for freight pods and dirtsmeared machines, Yukimi dug into her satchel and pulled out her companion. She had been given it on her thirteenth birthday, by her older sister. It had been just before Shirin left Mars, so the companion had been a farewell present as well as a birthday gift.

It wasn't the smartest companion in the world. It had all the usual recording functions, and enough wit to arrange and categorize Yukimi's entries, but when it spoke back to her she never had the impression that there was a living mind trapped inside the floral-patterned -- and now slightly dog-eared -- hardback covers....
“The Old Man and the Martian Sea” has some neat technological and historical elements (Yukimi's diary; an abandoned human settlement submerged by a rising lake) but the overarching “Why doesn’t my older sister love me anymore?” psychological aspect didn’t appeal to me. I was more attracted to the fate of the old man.

The pace of the plot was oddly uneven. The first part of the story unfolded too slowly (Reynolds takes several pages to describe Yukimi’s insignificant encounter with a robotic loader in a cargo bay), while the second part moved too quickly (Reynolds spends only a few pages on the important sunken settlement).

The ending of the story, which was too abrupt, seemed like it was fished out of a 1950’s juvenile novel, where growing pains and family dysfunction are resolved with a few lines of goofy dialogue and a final embrace.

It’s been a long time since I've read The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway, but it’s possible there are some clever similarities between Reynolds’s story and Hemingway’s novel.

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