Susurrus on Mars, Hal Duncan’s latest offering from Lethe Press—described by the author as an “Erehwynan Idyll”—takes place on a terraformed Mars, in the town-state of Erehwyna. One day Jaq Cartier of Mars notices Puk Massinger (with his sister Ana), a recent arrival from Earth: love at first sight can still happen, even in the far distant future. And the story is truly idyllic: over the course of several weeks during a Martian summer, Jaq and Puk explore each other’s bodies and minds, while Ana discusses “pataphysics” (a branch of philosophy dedicated to studying what lies beyond the realm of metaphysics) with Guy Renart. Interspersed among the graphic depictions of sex on another world, and erudite discussions of philosophy and art, are digressions concerning the mythological stories, folklore, and botanical qualities of numerous plants: they may be native to Earth, but they still remember their classical origins as nymphs and young lads beloved of the gods, even after being transplanted to Martian soil. And whispering through all of this is the personification of a small breeze, the titular demigod Susurrus, not born of a goddess or begotten by a god onto a woman, but rather the genetically engineered son of the gods Ares and Zephyros: and as the gene-spliced child of Ares, Susurrus may in fact be the most Martian of them all.
This short—but dense!—work combines hard (and I mean that in every sense of the word) science fiction, Greek mythology, botany, philosophy, and erotica into—well, I don’t know what exactly. Susurrus on Mars is not an easy book to describe, nor is it an easy book to read (have a good dictionary handy—you’re going to need it). But Hal Duncan wrote it, so what did you expect? Duncan’s love of language is probably exceeded only by his love of beautiful men. And here he celebrates both: not only does he draw forth from the full bounty of English vocabulary, but he pushes the boundaries of those words, giving one the sense that they are reading a future English, a living language that continues to be slangified by future teenagers.
However, the dislocation in time works mostly backwards: Duncan’s intermingled herbarium evokes the distant, classical past much more than a typical science-fictional future. And his story is not only an homage to classical myths, with their numerous allusions to man/man love, but also to classic SF, and to Renaissance drama—as evidenced by the protagonists’ names: the one clearly evokes Burroughs’ hero of Barsoom, while the other that famous trickster of Shakespeare. Indeed, Duncan spends several pages describing the garb of his protagonists, their doublets, jerkins, breeches, et al: his heroes could easily be seventeenth-century swashbucklers. The nostalgic element, coupled with the sense that one has stepped out of ordinary time (for even a terraformed Mars still has a year twice the length of Earth), adds to the idyllic quality of this work.
Duncan’s novella, therefore, is not science fiction, mythology, erotica, or even narrative in any traditional sense: Publisher’s Weekly blurbs it as “an exquisite mosaic” on the front cover, and that metaphor captures the shiny, multi-faceted nature of this work. Each jewel-like scene is like a marker on a trail through the otherwise unfathomable landscape; and despite the difficulty in navigating the Martian surface, it is a journey worth taking.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske