Nathan Ballingrud’s The Strange is set on Mars in the early 20th century—not a scientifically accurate Mars, but one more like Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles or earlier planetary romance, with a breathable atmosphere and signs of earlier civilizations. Colonized by Americans, among others, this is a distinctly frontier-like Mars, with most of the main characters of Texan extraction. Set shortly after a mysterious Silence has fallen over Earth—a complete stop in all messages and ships from the home planet—the novel is narrated by Annabelle Crisp, a young girl at the time of these events. When bandits steal the last recording of her mother’s voice, Annabelle embarks on a quest for justice: accompanied by her faithful kitchen robot and a rough cast of gunslingers and spaceship pilots, she soon finds herself in the thick of the strange transformations gripping Mars.
It’s impossible to talk about The Strange without comparison to Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Bradbury’s fixup novel has a mix of “classic” speculation, bucolic small-town details, and a kind of wistful nostalgia that frequently goes sideways into ghost-story territory. It’s a blend of specific tonal qualities one rarely encounters in science fiction, despite Bradbury’s fame and influence. Some of Lavie Tidhar’s work, such as Central Station and Neom, is in a similar vein, but I don’t know that I’ve seen anyone capture the feeling of Bradbury’s Mars the way Ballingrud does: juxtaposing innocence and cynicism, wonder and fear and banality.
With its well-defined narrator and plot, though, The Strange is quite a bit more concrete. And, with the story’s texture and form—the character names, the physical detail, the spare and ruthless prose—Ballingrud is also rooting this novel firmly in the tradition of the classic western. With its air of barely-deferred desperation, the way that its small-town civility is revealed as a fragile bulwark against mob instincts and violent individualism, and its fixation on revenge and its consequences, though, The Strange should not be mistaken for a cartoonish cowboy story. It’s more in the mode of Once Upon A Time In The West or True Grit, with Annabelle’s slightly myopic moral force particularly evoking the latter.
If you’re familiar with Ballingrud’s short work, it will not surprise you that this Western Bradbury Mars (which, now that I write it, sounds rather like a hotel) is shot through with unsettling horror. (If you’re not familiar with his short work, get your hands on North American Lake Monsters as soon as possible: it’s a remarkable, masterful collection.) Like the western, Ballingrud’s Mars is haunted by the threat of lawless violence; like Bradbury’s, it’s also haunted by the ghosts of previous inhabitants. The Strange, however, actually digs into that haunting quality. Literally: “the Strange” is an element that humans are mining on Mars, a sort of mineralized dream with supernatural properties. It’s what allows their Engines—a varied bunch of retro-futuristic robots—to function, it seems to cause bizarre maladies among the people who mine it, and it’s heavily-implied to be involved in whatever catastrophe silenced Earth.
This plays out in a wild set of hallucinatory and disturbing images, themselves set against the flailing violence of isolated and desperate people. Hulking war machines, half-fused to half-dead figures, hunt smugglers in the Martian desert; subterranean revenants take over a mining town through some kind of fungal sacrament; a spacesuit inhabited by a moth-infested skeleton tends a garden of ghostly flowers. Ballingrud excels at a kind of minimalist inventiveness, suffusing The Strange with just enough detail to be effective, and relying heavily on a slow-mounting ambience and the implication, rather than explication, of consequence. His sparing use of capitalized terms to sneak in their background importance—the Strange, the Silence—is a particularly deft touch, one that could easily go awry if overused, and manages to quietly convey both their potentially horrific magnitude and the way that Annabelle uncritically accepts them as givens.
Despite the novel’s many creepy and vivid scenes, Annabelle’s parochial upbringing and singular focus seem to shield her from many of the story’s stranger moments, with the result that the most deeply weird aspects of the book are more implied for the reader than felt by its protagonist. It’s the one part of The Strange where the cracks show in that fusion of Bradbury, the western, and Ballingrud’s brand of horror: the horror elements feel like the most original and interesting threads, but they seem somewhat desiccated by their subordination to the novel’s plot and Annabelle’s mindset.
Still, this is a delightful novel, an excellent and unexpected balance of inspirations and innovations. The specific homage to Bradbury’s atmosphere is remarkable enough, but this is more than a pastiche: memorable plot and characters, flashes of weird horror that aren’t there so much to scare you as to gesture at a larger and wilder universe, and repeatedly grounded with moments of gritty reality.
By Nathan Ballingrud
Gallery / Saga Press
Published March 21, 2023
Appalachian in the big city. Bookseller, specialty coffee pro, SF scholar.