In myth Tartarus was the lowest region of hell. So low, it was said, that an anvil dropped from heaven having taken nine days and nights to reach earth would take a further nine days and nights to reach Tartarus. In reality …
‘I’d heard many a tale about Tartarus Major, how certain continents were technological backwaters five hundred years behind the times; how the Church governed half the planet with a fist of iron, and yet how, across scattered islands and sequestered lands, a thousand bizarre and heretic cults prospered too.
I’d heard how a lone traveller was hardly safe upon the planet’s surface, prey to wild animals and cut-throats. Most of all I’d heard that, in two hundred years, Tartarus would be annihilated when its sun exploded in the magnificent stellar suicide of a supernova.’
These are the stories of the people who are leaving Tartarus, those have decided to stay and those who are arriving on the planet for the apocalypse.
I’m sure I’ve said it before, but Eric Brown is an author that I’ve come to enjoy a great deal. I read his Bengal Station trilogy over the past couple of years and this year I’ve been steadily getting hold of his back list. The Fall of Tartarus is a collection that I managed to get hold of a few months back, not really knowing what it would contain, but sure that this collection would meet my expectations. That it did and just goes to show that there is an author who writes consistently good science fiction.
This collection focuses on the colony world of Tartarus, a planet whose sun will go nova in the not too distant future – hence the rather suitable title. We follow different groups and people as they experience life and times on the doomed world, dating from a couple of hundred years prior to the supernova and ending with said event. Each story takes place at times closer and closer to the nova and we see a world change, the attitudes of those living there towards the mass evacuation and life in general for those few that visit Tartarus.
Destiny on Tartarus – 9/10
This is a story about Sinclair who travels to Tartarus to find out his father’s fate, his mother informing him when he was younger that it was on this planet that he had perished. With little information we follow him from arrival on Tartarus, learning the hard way that kindness is not always what it seems, and then meeting a fabled Blackman who accompanies him on his journey of discovery. Culminating in the annual, and very dangerous, ship race across some of the roughest seas on the planet where Sinclair makes the discovery he travelled to Tartarus for.
This is an excellent story, possibly one of the best of the collection, and is the perfect starter to show you what to expect. It’s a personal story that focuses on the motivations and goals of Sinclair, but also provides a good bit of worldbuilding to show what Tartarus is about and why it is unique beyond the impending supernova. It’s a heartfelt and touching tale that I really enjoyed.
A Prayer for the Dead – 9/10
This is the story of Joe, who revisits his childhood home on tartarus before the supernova happens and reminisces about his childhood and the events that occurred over one particular summer. It’s a story of friendships, relationships and strife, stemming from one day when he met a Zillion, an alien being that is living out the remainder of his life on the planet. With events leading to a relationship he has always dreamed of, and ultimately the distress caused by this and other actions. It’s a nice tale and shows that Brown can easily write characters you want to read about and care for, culminating in a revelation that explains it all.
The Eschatarium at Lyssia – 7/10
This is the story of Jonathan, an artist who lost his wife on Tartarus, when he is visited by a messenger from the planet informing him that they were sent by his wife. He struggles to believe this, but still goes back to the planet to see what this vague message is about. When revisiting an ancient amphitheatre created millions of years ago by the Tharseans, he finds the answer to this question and discovers something strange and significant. While a good story, this isn’t the greatest here. It’s also fairly short, but still delivers with good characters and a very real and personal story.
The Ultimate Sacrifice – 6/10
This is a story of Katerina, a reporter, who has travelled to Tartarus to find her brother, or at least the fate he has suffered. Her investigations lead her to the Church of the Ultimate Sacrifice where the members of it practice penance physicale, a form of mortification. It’s a short story that sheds some light on this aspect of religion on Tartarus, but while it’s once again a personal story it isn’t the best in the collection.
The People of the Nova – 7/10
Jenner is trying to find the Ey’an people in order to evacuate them prior to the supernova, and while one of them lives with him at the research camp they are no closer to tracking them down. He is haunted by the disappearance of his wife when she went on an up-river trek trying to find the Ey’an, and although they did the same work they had disagreements about the forced evacuation of all the people of Tartarus. What follows here is a story that looks at the morality of forcing people to abandon their planet, but also keeping it personal with Jenner’s loss of his wife and the connection he has with Cahla, the native Ey’an that is staying with him. All in all it’s a good look at what you would expect from a dying planet collection, with Brown giving it a suitably emotive touch.
Vulpheous – 8/10
Here’s an interesting story where science meets religion, or at least meets legend, when Connery is trying to track down the last existing Vulpheous which he believes holds the cure to many diseases that are at current incurable. With a personal history in this he is determined to get what he came for, but he meets a native girl who has trekked to the Vulpheous in order to cure herself, as the local legends say it can. With these two meeting and friendship between them blooming Connery has to decide what he will do, either good or bad, to ensure he can evacuate the planet in time. Another good little story here focusing on further aspects of Tartarus and the secrets it holds. I quite enjoyed it, mainly because it invokes more emotion for the dying world.
Hunting the Slarque – 8/10
This is the story of Hunter, a man who was a victim of a Slarque attack on Tartarus. Usually these victims die, but his wife managed to put his remains in stasis which then underwent a regenerative process by a wealthy businessman. The cost – to return to Tartarus and find and capture a Slarque for this man’s zoo. His wife had already returned there and it is only because of this reason that he agrees. While this seems a fairly straightforward tale there is a surprise at the end that makes it worthwhile, and Eric Brown once again shows how well he can create a connection to the characters and story in such a short space of time.
Dark Calvary – 8/10
This story follows Crammer and Francesca and brings back the Church of the Ultimate Sacrifice while also adding some further details of the Slarque. It’s a suitable ending to this collection and one I won’t go into detail about – it really needs to be read to be fully appreciated. A fine note to end the fate of the planet Tartarus on.
The Fall of Tartarus is a great collection of shared setting tales, each adding something to the overall picture of life on Tartarus in the time leading up to the supernova. While they mostly work as stand alone pieces it is much better to read them in this format. Brown is able to write sci-fi that doesn’t venture into the realms of hard science, but he uses a consistently vivid backdrop to tell the tale of each of the characters here. It’s because of this ability that I enjoy reading his works so much and he’s possibly the most accessible sci-fi writer of recent years – I would certainly recommend anyone that isn’t familiar with sci-fi to pick up his books and give them a go. And this one isn’t a bad place to start at all. Highly recommended!