Friday, July 21, 2017

The Martian Obelisk, by Linda Nagata

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(Apocalypse) As civilization is dying on Earth, a woman building a monument on Mars by remote control gets a message from a Mars colony long thought to be dead. (5,908 words; Time: 19m)

Rating: ★★★★☆ Unexpectedly Powerful
Recommended By: GDozois:5 RHorton:5 JStrahan JMcGregor:5

"," by (edited by Ellen Datlow), published on by .

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

Pro: The central plot is Susannah’s attempt to do something that affects the future. Everything Susannah ever did has come to nothing, so this Mars tower means a lot to her, even if it’s a meaningless gesture to a future she no longer believes in. The big, emotional moment in the story is when Susannah starts believing in the future again.

Hope is a big theme in this story. “This all looks like hope, but it’s a trick,” Nathan says, and much of the history that Susannah remembers has been just that. Somewhere in the dark years, Susannah had forgotten that “you have to do everything you can, until you can’t do anymore.” The victory of the story is that Susannah has realized that hope doesn’t have to be false. The example of her granddaughter, “who grew up without her parents, in a quarantine zone, with no real hope for the future and yet she was healthy, with a daughter already two years old,” and Tory Eastman, “who had left a dying colony and driven an impossible distance past doubt and despair,” reignite that flame inside her.

Susannah’s not done yet, and neither is the human race. Or so we hope.

Con: A few details hurt suspension of disbelief:

The moon would be a far more sensible place to build a monument for the ages.

Susannah is old enough to remember duck-and-cover, so the time frame for the story can’t be later than 2050, but that seems much too early for a Mars colony settler who has grandchildren.

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7 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. I just read and posted about this story and had the same thought about the moon except that I basically gave her a pass. However, you're absolutely right about the timeframe. Given that Susannah's specifically said to be 80, to actually *remember* it (and not just get the reference) it'd almost have to be in the 2030s, I think. But I don't think that's the intended timeframe - the mistake is just in the reference.

    Anyway, we obviously both agree that these are minor issues in the context of the whole.

  2. This left me wanting a lot more. I'm not sure if that's a strength or a weakness?

  3. I think the story is complete as it stands; anything more would be starting a different story. But I agree 100% that I'd love to read that story!

  4. The Martian colonist has 3-year-old children making her about the same age as Susannah's granddaughter. If Susannah actually participated in duck and cover drills, then the Hawaiian plague would definitely have to be alternate history. A more generous interpretation would simply be that they still believed the world more likely to go out in a bang when she was a child. Only time for the futile duck and cover, not this slow decline allowing time for monument building.

    My thought was why couldn't they figure out a way to do both? Repurpose the base of the obelisk as a habitat. Finish the obelisk once the family was settled. Susannah would have someone onsite. Increasing the chances of completion should Susannah not live to see it through.

  5. Very moving and sad, but with hope. I can see why so many people recommended it. Very well-written and absolutely worth reading.

    As for this "duck and cover" thing, I thought it was a local reference to earthquake drills (they do get earthquakes in Hawaii) until I read all these comments here and looked it up. It is conceivable that some time along the line in the future "duck and cover" was revamped. Not the way you currently know it is, but another variant of it but with the same name. This is after all an SF story, and the author just used a reference that everyone today would get (if they lived in the USA).

    Laura makes a good point. "Repurpose the base of the obelisk as a habitat. Finish the obelisk once the family was settled". Ok - it may have to be a less flash obelisk, but it should still be do-able. Maybe they didn't think of that right then and there, but as an after-thought a few days later ?

    However the story ended at the right moment and with the right emotional impact. Free to read on the website.

  6. I liked the premise and appreciated the dilemma that Susannah faced. However, the interactions between Nate and Susannah were too melodramatic. In the end, there was no real emotional impact.


  7. I just read the story and I have to admit I found its message of hope heartwarming.

    At first I couldn't buy its apparent premise that humanity was fated to extinction. Civilizational collapse I could buy, but outright extinction was too much for the situation as presented. Upon reaching the conclusion I understood that we were presented the world trough the eyes of people who had lost all hope, but not necessarily humanity was going to end as they feared.

    Regarding the possible time frame, I'm form 1975 and I distinctly remember from my childhood the fear that the world could end up in a nuclear fireball any day. It was only when I was a teen that the USSR collapsed and the risk of a nuclear war went away. That pushes the story to 2055 while keeping the reference to duck and cover still valid.