Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Tumbledowns Of Cleopatra Abyss, by David Brin

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Jonah is a young man in a matriarchal human society hiding at the bottom of an ocean on a far-future Venus whose terraforming seems to be going wrong after thousands of years. (15,600 words; Time: 52m)

Rating: ★★★★★, Award-Worthy
Recommended By: LTilton

"," by (edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois), appeared in Old Venus (RSR review), published on by .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: Jonah (trapped in a bubble, not a whale) hungers to know more about the world, and he ends up learning far more than he dreamed of. The climactic section is pure competence fiction, pitting Jason and Petri against the physics of buoyant ascent.

All the little details in this story combine to tell us that the terraforming has been completed. The abundance of life that falls from above. The darkness that shows how deep the oceans are. The dwindling number of comets together with their lack of precision (possibly stragglers from the 4 out of 5 that were grazing hits).

We're happy for Jonah that his status as a "rascal" (because he wants to experiment) plus his mechanical ability makes him attractive to Laussane colony and to Petri in particular. "Your reputation a young fellow always coming up with bothersome questions helped me bargain well for you."

Melvil (an obvious reference to the author of "Moby Dick") found another canyon and inspired Petri and her friends to start looking for new homes. This lets us know that when she and Jonah return to the colonies, they'll find people ready to settle the surface.

Even the details of the items on the Bird of Tairee tell us that they are well-equipped to start a settlement on the surface. They have lots of food, lots of tools, and plenty of hands to do the work.

From a completely different angle, it's fun to watch how Jonah and Petri work out their roles in their relationship, starting from a set of expectations very different from contemporary ones (and just as ill-suited to their personalities). By the time they approach the shore, we can see that they're very well suited as a couple.

Con: The details about how Earth was conquered by the "Coss" are obscure. Are they really aliens? Or were they a political movement? Or a technology? There are no clues. If they're aliens, it seems odd that they wanted to continue the terraforming.

The terraforming itself is technologically a little hard to believe. A civilization with that much control over matter and energy could build enormous space habitats with a fraction of the effort.

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6 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. This was my favorite of the 3 stories that I read in this anthology.

    I agree with the rating and it is a very good read.

    I am putting down the terra-forming to a desire to live on a planet and not in space.

    As for the "Coss", a tiny bit more information would have been helpful, especially in regards the carrying on of the terra-forming process after they defeated the humans. It may be that the planet Venus was not their primary goal, and stopping it was too much trouble.

    1. As a regular reader of David Brin's web page, I have a sneaking suspicion that the "Coss" are some sort of human government/oligarchy and that it's only tradition that makes Jonah's people think of them as aliens.

  2. I rate this a 2, not recommended, because I couldn't suspend my disbelief around three issues.

    1) Daily collisions by comets kilometers in diameter that could be felt in the deep sheltered Cleopatra abyss several thousand kilometers from the impact site would surely generate worldwide tsunamis that would prevent the jungles Jonah saw on land when he surfaced from ever growing.

    2) The glass bubbles used for the village domes, diving helmets, and even submarine sections are not man-made, but found naturally in their deep sea environment. Good thing they don't pop or float away. :-)

    3) A sunless society that's lost most of its technology (instead of electricity, lighting is provided by glowing plants and subs are muscle-powered) miraculously keeps a clock running for hundreds (thousands?) of years that's accurate enough to predict the time of the daily "thump." They know to reduce the day by 13 seconds each year, but talk imprecisely in terms of generations of mothers and grandmothers instead of years. However long they've been there, it surely can't be long enough for the surface of Venus to be made fecund, even if there was no daily tsunami.

    Other than these issues, the story was a fun action-packed read with likeable characters and interesting mysteries (before the explanations got in the way).

    1. What's missing is a prophecy of when the thumping would end and the surface would be ready for the children of man.

  3. This is "stating the obvious" but my understanding of "pulp SF" is that it is purely speculative with no basis in real science or even "plausible sf science".

    If you really need real or plausible science in your genre stories, Old Venus is not for you.

    1. Wikipedia's article on pulp magazines gives Analog as a prime example of pulp SF. :-) I would have enjoyed Tumbledowns more if it left out the scientific explanations, like Botanica Veneris.