Last Updated on July 15, 2023
The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud is science fiction, but science fiction of the retro kind, a wistful homage to the outlandish bygone tales of a Mars with a breathable atmosphere, stiff and clanking robots, and saucer-shaped spaceships that traverse the planets with all the ease of pulp era sci-fi. The sort of novel that should rightly have a punk suffix tacked on somewhere in its genre label, only there’s nothing that easily applies. Bradbury-punk, perhaps?
Now, let’s get full disclosures done at the outset: I’m a big Nathan Ballingrud fan, having been introduced to his work through Ellen Datlow’s various horror anthologies. From there I progressed to his outstanding horror novella The Visible Filth, and now I’ve finally gotten to read his first novel, The Strange. The blurbs made it clear this was going to be a change from his usual horror and fantasy fare, so I went into this with no expectations other than knowing Ballingrud can turn a good story.
The Strange is narrated by Annabelle Crisp, who tells her story from the vantage of an old woman looking back on her youthful escapades. This lends the story a poignancy and nostalgia that permeates the whole narrative. It’s a reminiscing, and it infuses the tale with an elegiac tone. Underpinning the whole fabric of the story is the idea of loss, whether it’s one’s parents, one’s childhood, or the entirety of civilisation itself.
The Strange is set in an alternate history where people were landing on Mars during the American Civil War, flying saucers are the preferred mode of interplanetary transport, and you can do things like fire an H.G. Wells-style commuter cannon safely at the moon.
The protagonist of this story is young Annabelle Crisp, plucky, rebellious and armed with a cutting wit. She and her father run a diner in New Galveston, one of two human settlements on the Red Planet. For some years, Mars has been cut off from Earth following The Silence, the abrupt ceasing of all radio communications with the home planet, and Annabelle’s mother took the last shuttle back before the Silence unexpectedly manifested. All Annabelle has to remember her mother by is a recording stored in the diner’s backroom.
The one working spaceship sits just outside town, a flying saucer called the Eurydice, that the pilot, a somewhat directionless and melancholy fellow named Joe Reilly, refuses to fly back to Earth on account of it being a one-way trip and the saucer not being big enough for everyone. Joe’s burdened by this responsibility, and lives the life of an outcast on the edge of town alongside his precious saucer.
The only other mapped settlement on Mars is the haunted Dig Town, where the Martian substance known as The Strange is mined. The Strange has begun to have unsettling effects on the miners, lending their eyes a unearthly cast and perhaps also tampering with their minds. The people of New Galveston tolerate the Dig Town miners, who bring coin and custom, but it’s an uneasy relationship, with tension on both sides.
Following the Silence, though, those societal cracks have gradually deepened within New Galveston. The lifelines to Earth severed, and shortages of goods beginning to become apparent, townsfolk have begun to suspect Annabelle’s father of hoarding precious supplies and sundries in the diner’s storeroom. And these shortages and suspicions are not confined to New Galveston.
The whole human investiture in Mars is struggling. Dig Town, too, is beginning to rot from the inside, a process perhaps accelerated by the influence of that alien mineral called the Strange.
When the diner is robbed by desperate cultists from the Peabody Crater, out past Dig Town, a chain of events is set off that culminates in Annabelle going forth with her robot dishwasher, Watson, and Joe Reilly, to recover her mother’s stolen recording. The journey will take her first to Dig Town, infested with the side-effects of the Strange, and then further, out into the haunted deserts, and all the way to Peabody Crater, where it’s rumoured that the first man on Mars, Chauncey Peabody, landed in 1864 after fleeing conscription in the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.
You can’t help but like Annabelle. At times she’s selfish and downright mean, but there’s the sense that these are childhood faults, the sorts of faults to be learned from and that we were all guilty of at one time or another. For example, she might deliver some outrageous threat towards Joe with all the vehemence of childish rage, but at the same time, she’s a girl who’s lost her mother, and so such outbursts can be forgiven.
She’s not a simple character, and is both likeable and unlikeable, depending on her mood and the situation. Likewise, Joe has his good points and bad points, and downtrodden though he is, there’s also the feeling that it’s not an entirely unearned lot that has come his way. Ballingrud’s a class writer. His characters have edges, the same as real people.
While it’s Annabelle’s story, it’s also the story of the end of a civilisation. Here we have a proud colonisation effort, the crowning glory of humankind, that has ultimately been reduced to people squabbling over food and necessities. It’s about the end of childhood, the end of civilisation, and small wonder that it is a story filled with ghosts.
Ghosts are evident in the voice recording of Annabelle’s mother, the ghosts the Strange creates out in the Martian wilderness, and the less literal ghosts of human civilisation, as exemplified in the grounded saucer of the Eurydice. In mythology, Eurydice is the wife of Orpheus, whom Orpheus tries unsuccessfully to retrieve from the Underworld. Ghosts and loss, and more ghosts again.
Having made much of this being a story about loss, I should also state it’s not bleak or nihilistic. We always remember that this is a story told by an Annabelle who has grown old – extravagantly old, as he puts it – and so we’re always aware that there is hope to be found. It’s about loss, but also about growing and transforming, because what is the loss of childhood except the opportunity to grow into something more.
I’ve never read a bad story by Nathan Ballingrud, and the Strange is an impressive debut novel. It’s a fast, pleasurable read, with a small cast of characters and a richly imagined alternative-universe future. Definitely recommended.