The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud from @TitanBooks #BookReview #SciFi
The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud
Titan Books, ppbk, £9.99
Reviewed by Ian Hunter
Ah, nostalgia, it might not be what it used to be, but I did love the look of those old-school chapter numbers in “The Strange”, which took me way back to my school days and visits to the school library and clutching a yellow-covered Gollancz science fiction book, usually by the likes of Bob Silverberg or Ray Bradbury. It is apt that I mention Bradbury’s name as I feel there is a touch of Bradbury in Nathan Ballingrud’s first novel, which is told in 3 parts divided into 27 chapters, each one boasting those groovy-looking numbers.
But what of the story? Well, it is 1931, and we are in New Galveston, but that is not anywhere on Earth. Instead, it is on Mars where fourteen-year-old Anabelle Crisp works in a diner with her father, Sam, in the time of The Silence when all contact has been broken with Earth, meaning no communications and no shipments coming from the old planet. Even worse for Anabelle, it means no contact with her mother, who has had to return to Earth to look after her own mother. But worse is to come as the diner is robbed by Silas Mundt and his gang, who have been affected by exposure to a mineral ore called The Strange. One of the things they take is a precious cylinder recording of Anabelle’s mother’s voice. If Anabelle’s things couldn’t get much worse, they quickly do, as her father is arrested after killing a miner in a fight. In order to pull her father out of the downward spiral he is in and get a good dollop of revenge, Anabelle sets off with Watson, the diner’s Kitchen Engine/Dishwasher, on a quest to get her own back and is joined by a drunken space pilot called Joe Reilly and a hardened outlaw called Sally Milkwood.
Life on Mars isn’t like a David Bowie song, it’s hard, very much like the Wild West with people eking out a living in a harsh wilderness, but there are worse places, as Anabelle is about to find out, and things aren’t helped with the influence that The Strange has on people, and even on robots, causing their personalities and behaviour to change. With her little group, Anabelle has to cross the Martian wasteland and travel through mining ghost towns to reach the far-off Peabody Crater, where she will find that she truly is a long way from home.
Returning to Ray Bradbury, the obvious link here is to the old master’s “The Martian Chronicles”, but this isn’t a wistful harking back to better, small-town times, although it does share a breathable atmosphere and the remnants of earlier civilisations. It is a strange, weird and brutal novel with more than a hint of the lawless wild west about it, and with Anabelle’s quest, the reader can’t help but be reminded of the quest undertaken by 14-year-old Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’ novel “True Grit” when she sets off on a quest to avenge the death of her father. Ballingrud sets his story in a time of prejudice against those of colour and whose sexuality is different from the perceived norms of the 1930s. It is a spare, violent novel with great world-building and the conceit of having to mine The Strange in order to power the Engines or robots, and there is a hint that this substance might be involved in severing contact with Earth. Added to this are Ballingrud’s ability to get inside his band of characters and put them against a harsh landscape and even harder people and things that were once people but have adapted to survive, either willingly or under the influence of The Strange. Some of these are truly horrific and unsettling, but Anabelle manages to take them in her stride, such is the power of her anger and drive to fulfil her quest.
Ballingrud is a master of the short form, with his short stories winning, or being nominated, for several awards and his novella “The Visible Filth” was turned into the film “Wounds”. You should definitely seek out his collection “North American Lake Monsters” after you have read “The Strange”, which, although slightly uneven in places, melds the Western, science fiction and horror genres into something not seen before and will certainly make me pick up his next novel when it appears.