Strange Horizons, May 13 & 20, 2013

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Strange Horizons, May 13 & 20, 2013

“Hiding on the Red Sands of Mars” by Anaea Lay

Reviewed by Matthew Nadelhaft

Anaea Lay’s two-part story “Hiding on the Red Sands of Mars” is a compelling and largely believable tale of revolution, ecology, and growing up. The young narrator, Pence, lives in a tiny desert settlement with her single mother; her only friend is her neighbour, Esteban. The arrival of a couple of mysterious strangers causes Pence to wonder about her mother’s history. With a bit of research (which, rather inexplicably, requires her to hike into the desert), Pence learns the shocking truth about her mother’s past. Pence’s mother is a fugitive, the leader of a failed revolution.

The nature of the revolution is one of the subtle strengths of the story. It would be hard, today, to elicit sympathy for the leader of a violent insurgency, so Lay cleverly depicts a believable, non-violent revolution. With a minimum of unobtrusively-imparted information Lay paints a rich backdrop for Pence’s journey of discovery (I know, I know. But I was damned if I’d use the phrase “coming of age story”). The world she lives in is one of scarcity and control of water, and the revolution was one of self-sufficiency.

Pence’s mother – known in her revolutionary days as Harriet – was a gifted engineer. Her revolutionary activity consisted of spreading the technological know-how to free people from the tyranny of deprivation and monopoly. Very little is said about the political and economic systems comprising the state in which Pence and Harriet live: the reader is left to draw conclusions. I envisioned a brutally uncaring capitalist hegemony bolstered by state power; a reader with different politics would undoubtedly see something different.

I always admire stories like this, what Barthes called “writerly texts,” in which the depth of the world-building encourages, rather than hinders, collaboration between the author and reader. The one place where it feels like Lay lets the reader down is in the prose, which is actually too strong. The narrator of the story is a twelve-year-old girl (at least, in the first half), but the voice is that of a talented and very articulate writer and thinker. The dialogue is strong but the descriptions are just too rich. It may be churlish to complain the prose was too good, but it did jar a bit. A switch from first to a close-third person narrator would have side-stepped the problem.

Still, as problems go, it’s not a crippling one, and I have to admit that, however little the words rang true as the thoughts of a pre-teen, they were a pleasure to read. This two-part story may be short on action (not meant as a criticism), but it flies by and sticks in the head.