The Sunstone reviewed by Dylan Jeninga:
Rayguns! Princesses! Airships!
None of those appear in The Sunstone, Phyllis Eisenstein’s addition to the collection Old Mars. In their place we get a depiction of Mars that radiates the warm glow of familiarity, a Mars that should make any OSS fans feel as though they were coming home.
But before I get into that, let me first explain my long abandonment of this blog.
The cause is twofold; first, I committed myself to penning a story a month, and then in September the school year began. Writing a new tale every month was an excellent experience, and one I wish I could keep up, but sadly education intercedes to keep me busy. However, thankfully, the Travelogue gives me a way relatively low-stress way to keep contributing to the site. So, excuses made, and if it pleases the reader, I’ll dive right in!
As our protagonist, Dave Miller, arrives on Mars after studying archeology on Earth, the reader returns with him. Like any homecoming after a long time away, everything isn’t quite as he left it, and the effect is somewhat unsettling. Not in the least because, in Dave’s case, the change in question is the apparent absence of his father.
He had expected his father to meet him at the Meridiani spaceport. But when he disembarked after the monthlong flight from Earth, duffel bag over his shoulder, the only people waiting for the passengers were strangers. After two Martian years away, with a brand-new Ph. D. in archeology under his belt, Dave Miller had thought that the man who had scrimped and saved to ensure that his son got the best graduate-school education in the solar system would be there to welcome him home.
His dad is an archeologist of some esteem, discoverer of important Martian ruins, and patron of the company “Ben Miller and Sons, Tourism. See the Ancient Ruins.” It was Dave’s intention to finally take his place at his father’s side (even though he is in, fact, his father’s only son, making “Sons” an exaggeration), but that is not to be. While it initially seems that Dr. Miller might simply be on an extended expedition to the far north, a conversation with Rekari, his father’s Martian partner, reveals the unfortunate truth: the old man had a heart condition which he’d kept from his children.
“I could see he was in great pain,” said Rekari. “His hands were shaking so much that he could not open the pill bottle. I took it from him and opened it and gave him a pill, but it was no help. The doctor had said that a second pill, if necessary, but that too….” He made a sign that Dave had never seen before, and his thin shoulders sagged as if he was immensely tired. “I buried him in the north and came back here. When anyone asked, I said that he and I had decided that one of us had to return to the business, and he preferred to stay in the field.”
Rekari then carries out Dr. Miller’s final wish, passing to Dave the sunstone that gives the story its title. Typically carried by the heads of Martian families, Dr. Miller was gifted his after finding the lost body of a Martian child, and Dave is aware that accepting it is an act of great symbolic importance. Just how important, though, doesn’t become clear until later in the story.
I said earlier that reading The Sunstone felt like coming home, both in the familiarity of its setting and weirdness of a hometown changed, but there’s a third way that’s more difficult to pin down. Eisenstein’s writing is straightforward, without a bit of purple prose, and her principal characters are well realized even while provided with a minimum of description. I found myself thinking of people I knew, friends and family and even my own pa, and as a result I can’t help but be fond of this story. I know that doesn’t sound like much, given my generally glowing view of nearly every entry so far, but I hope the reader will believe me when I say that The Sunstone is special.
Now, I’d like to finish with a response to Zendexor’s latest diary entry (26th of October, 2018). In it, our webmaster takes a rather dim view of the real Solar System when compared to that of our OSS dreams, and understandably so. That said, I feel compelled to point out that things aren’t quite as grim as he might feel!
Since Mariner, when science fiction authors crashed from the “solar system full of life” view to the “everything is lifeless” setting, the real solar system has only given us gifts. Moons like Europa, Enceladus and Titan seem like good candidates for life, Venus may have had oceans within the last 800 million years, and recently great quantities of liquid water were discovered on Mars.
It’s that last thing that interests me now, and I think will interest Zendexor as well. Water is always a good sign when looking for living things, but most researchers suspected that Martian water was poor in oxygen content. This would preclude anything but anaerobic bacteria - an exciting discovery if they were found, but not as incredible as even the pessimistic Martian moss and lichens of golden age sci fi. The winds are changing though: a new paper suggests that there may be more oxygen in the water that previously thought, and with it, the possibility of complex life.
That’s right, there may be Martian swimmers.
Or crawlers, or just blobs - or nothing, no one can say. The perchlorates that cover Mars are doubtless in the water as well, but as the paper notes, Martian life may adapt to the poison as a matter of course. We won’t be sure until we look!
My point, however, is that rather than inactive rocks, the worlds of the Solar System are rife with secrets, lands of romance and mystery even if they are lacking in princesses. With each new discovery, the odds that life exists or may have existed on one of our sister worlds seems to go up. Who knows, someday someone may discover anemones on Mars, or fish on Europa, or even ruins on Venus. Take heart, we’ve barely scratched the surface!
If you want to read the paper yourself, I’ve got the link here:
[Comment from Zendexor: I feel quite cheered up by this. I'd certainly settle for some living Martian blobs! If they turn up, I'll treat the discovery as a definite sign that the place is turning over a new... er... leaf.]