The Martian Chronicles Meet True Grit: The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud

The Martian Chronicles Meet True Grit: The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud

The Strange (Saga Press, March 21, 2023). Cover uncredited

I wish I could take credit for the headline of The Martian Chronicles Meet True Grit for Nathan Ballingrud’s terrific novel, but according to the author, Karen Jay Fowler came up with it. I hope she won’t mine me stealing it because it is as spot on as any description I could come up with.

The more prosaic version is that The Strange is a Western riff on Ray Bradbury’s vision of Mars, but without the canals. A Mars in an alternate 1930s timeline when interplanetary space travel first began during the Civil War, an oblique reference (among a slew of oblique references to classic SF tropes and personages) to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter, an ex-Confederate Barsoom warlord. Just as Bradbury had no interest in explaining how humans could actually exist on Mars sans space suits in a sort of off-world version of 1950s Illinois, or Burroughs how you can get astrally projected from an Arizona cave to Mars, Ballingrud just wants you to suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride.

Annabelle Crisp is the 14 year-old protagonist who, like Mattie Ross in True Grit, sets out on her own to right a wrong to her father when the townspeople and local law enforcement of the New Galveston colony on Mars fail to act. Annabelle’s father runs a diner robbed by desert cultists called the Moth (a reference to Mothra?), whose takings include a voice recording of her mother. The recording is particularly precious to Annabelle and her father because it is the only memento left of her; after their mother returned to Earth to deal with a family emergency, all contact ceased with the home planet for unknown reasons the colonists call “The Silence.”

Annabelle wants the recording back, and if the adults aren’t about to obtain justice for her, she will. Adding urgency to her quest, and her sense of injustice, is when her father is imprisoned for defending himself against several miners from Dig Town ransacking the diner after the initial robbery, killing one of them.

The source for this mayhem isn’t a simple case of frontier lawlessness, but rather a mineral ore that gives the book its title. Prolonged exposure to the Strange, whose properties are somehow used to provision “intelligence” to Earth technologies (called Engines), causes personality disorders… and eventually a green tint to victim eyes. (Allusions here to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and innumerable ghost stories, as well as Bradbury’s concluding story in The Martian Chronicles.)

To recover her mother’s recording, and obtain revenge against those who attacked her father, Annabelle enlists the help of the alcoholic Joe Reilly, who refuses to pilot his spaceship back to Earth to discover the cause of the Silence, and Sally Milkwood, a moonshiner and “carter” (yet another reference to guess who) of black market goods. But her only true companion and ally is Watson (pretty obvious reference there), a robot from the diner programmed primarily to function as a dishwasher. Adventures ensue, along with people turning out differently than they first appear, which is basically what growing up is all about.

Science fiction is for the most the literature of alienation, employing the notion of aliens and alien worlds as a metaphor for humanity’s estrangement as a result of industrialization and technology (the Golden Age of technological worship being the significant exception). In The Strange, Ballingrund employs the steampunk tropes of gears and oil and complicated moving parts that have never seen a microprocessor to depict a stranded world with deteriorating social norms literally grinding to a halt along with its machines.

But that may be reading too much into it. Sure, The Martian Chronicles are cautionary tales about the Cold War. But they are also just fun to read. Perhaps that’s the best reason of all to read The Strange. And to track all the literary allusions to classic SF and Western themes.

David Soyka is one of the founding bloggers at Black Gate. He’s written over 200 articles for us since 2008. His most recent was a review of The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente.

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Thomas Parker

Anything new from Ballingrud is great news. His collection North American Lake Monsters is one of my favorite books of the past ten years. I’ll definitely be grabbing this asap.

Last edited 1 month ago by Thomas Parker

If you haven’t read his Wounds you’re missing an outstanding collection of stories. Some of the best horror world building I’ve ever read.

Last edited 1 month ago by rtorno

[…] I used to write for Blackgate Magazine, a print (15 issues before the economics of print publication caused its demise) and website (still going strong) covering topics related to science fiction and fantasy genres. Life got busy and other obligations took precedence and I “retired” somewhere around 2017. I’m happy to report that I’m now back to contributing on an irregular basis. My first blog back is a review of the terrific new novel by Nathan Ballingrud, The Strange. Check it out. […]

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