Susurrus on Mars by Hal Duncan (novella)
No Spoilers: Unfolding on a Mars that has been terraformed following the collapse of Earth, the novella does a few things at the same time. Chiefly, it follows the budding romance of Jaq, a Mars native, and Puk, a recent immigrant from Earth. It’s their journey that anchors the story, their sex and their affection and their explorations that give focus to the things around them. The story is also about plants, though, and about mythology, and about Susurrus, a gentle wind that follows the couple as they mate and mingle, revealing a world that is not a utopia, but which does contain incredible beauty and potential. The piece is written in a captivating and lyrical style, one that did take me a few pages to really get into, but once I passed that learning curve I devoured the story, wanting more and more, never bored though the text isn’t exactly action packed. Instead, it sings with a sort of beauty and brightness that is rare and valuable, pushed by the looming fear that something might happen to destroy everything. It’s a gentle story, though, full of moments of comedy and tenderness, of two men finding each other on Mars, and finding in each other something that they don’t want to let slip away.
Keywords: Mars, Plants, Transformations, Mythology, Sex, Sentience
Review: Jaq is a bit of a flirt. Well, a bit of a much more than flirt, as he hails from a province of Mars that’s known for its general acceptance of nudity, public fornicating, and most forms of hospitality. And Jaq embraces that with gusto, though at the beginning of the story he finds himself in something of a difficult situation, having received a great apprenticeship but without a lot of romantic prospects. Which is where Puk enters into things. And the story does a great job I feel of putting the reader not into the heads of the characters, exactly, but rather into the part of Susurrus, who observes and brushes against their story, who is distracted by the story of these two men in part because he sees in Jaq something of himself, the flirting and the easy love, the way he drifts and yet remains true. So the reader is brought along with Susurrus as he follows the developing relationship of Jaq and Puk, getting distracted often by the plants that the men pass without notice.
And I think one of my favorite parts of the novella is how it handles extremes and binaries, through the way that Jaq and Puk play a game where Jaq will say a word and then Puk has to think of a word that contradicts it. Not the binary opposite (though Puk, fresh from Earth, has trouble with that, and the pair make some allowances as they play), but rather something that is at the other end of a spectrum. Earl Grey tea and espresso. Bedroom and kitchen. This idea is also captured in a philosophy that Jaq’s master explores, that when looking at the great vices, and looking at the virtues associated with them, they aren’t actual opposites, or are very complex ones. That, essentially, binaries are very limiting, and damaging, as we see in glimpses of what Earth has become. And so instead the story explores difference and, above everything, ardour. Which makes for a novella that glows with warmth and affection, that finds Jaq and Puk reflecting the beauty of each other into the complex wonder of the love they share. Not that they don’t make mistakes, or ever hurt each other, but that they enter into their relationship driven by their ardour, and what they find is healing and achingly precious.
For readers that insist that stories have a very rigid plot structure full of explosions and pathos, this might not seem like a thrilling adventure. And yet I found the softer moments between Jaq and Puk to be incredibly compelling. Because...well, imagine a flower. Imagine it forming and imagine it ready to open into something intricate and beautiful. There’s a whole dance to it, a history and a flow and a danger to it. It could get nipped by frost or torn from its stem or any number of things could happen. And maybe that would provide more of a thrill. But for me the act of watching it open up into that first bloom...there’s a sort of magic to that. Consider this story a textual version of that. It’s not without storms, but so much of it is about anticipation and then the overflowing joy of what’s happening. And I find, especially now, that I appreciate that. It’s an incredible story and a wonderfully imagined Mars, with a language that is challenging but rewarding, and I definitely recommend everyone go out and pick up a copy. A phenomenal read!