The Monsters of Olympus Mons

This month, my story “The Monsters of Olympus Mons” is featured in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. And while “An Incident on Ishtar” is still my favorite story I’ve written (and not just because there’s a bunny in it), this one runs a very close second.

I’m humbled by Editor C.C. Finlay’s note atop the story’s opening page: “Over the past few years, Brian Trent has become a regular contributor to the magazine, bringing us stories that range from the near future here on Earth (‘The Memorybox Vultures’, September/October 2018) to the far future and distant reaches of the galaxy (‘Death on the Nefertem Express’, March/April 2020). This next story, his sixth for us so far, falls somewhere in between in both time and space, during the colonization of Mars.”

“The Monsters of Olympus Mons” first occurred to me several years ago while on a trip to Japan. Hiking is an essential component of my self-care (sometimes I feel like I’m one running leap away from moving to Walden Pond). I’ve climbed an array of peaks, and I was determined to climb Mount Fuji. What’s more, I planned it as a nighttime ascent so I could reach the summit for sunrise.

From a distance, Mount Fuji is an iconic and awe-inspiring sight. Up-close, it’s downright startling. Once you’re above the tree-line, the terrain is a lifeless expanse of crumbled rock and scree. Armed with a walking staff, canteen, and flashlight, I climbed several thousand feet as the pale moon glided across the sky.

I had assumed the highlight of my trek would be watching sunrise over Japan. The most captivating moment, however, was earlier, while I was still hiking through cold and gloom. I knew about altitude sickness, and so I made it a point to stop every couple thousand feet to acclimate to the thinner atmosphere. During one of these stops, as I sipped from my canteen, I glanced back at the way I’d come and was struck by something like an otherworldly enchantment. The volcanic slope was obscured by a lake of silver mist. I had walked through a cloud without realizing it. Beneath that soft haze, tiny lights crawled in zigzag fashion up the volcano: the flashlights of distant hikers, like spirits of the dead in a Stygian afterlife.

I should write a story about climbing a mountain, I thought. After all, someday people will climb Olympus Mons. Write that story, Bri!

It would be years before I would. Interestingly enough, the trigger would indeed come from Mars.

In 2015, a conspiracy theory blew through the Internet (because that’s what the Internet exists for, apparently). NASA’s Curiosity rover had snapped photos of the Red Planet, which showed a number of unusual rocks. If you squint really hard and let imagination hijack your eyes, those rocks could vaguely resemble a lizard sunning itself. I mean, people see messiahs in toast, rabbits on the moon, and Buddha in crab shells, so it was hardly the oddest example of pareidolia.

It wasn’t even the first time that rocks on Mars had been controversial, from the infamous Cydonian face to the debate over whether a Martian meteorite contains fossilized microbes.
This time, though, I sat up and paid attention. Not because I thought there were lizards on Mars, but because of what this revealed about my own species. I’ve written at length about my childhood fascination with cryptozoology, and suddenly here was proof that the need to believe was going to follow us offworld. We have yet to land a human on Mars, and we already think there’s a cryptid there.

My ascent of Mount Fuji, nearing the summit where hot noodles and sweet bean tea await.

“The Monsters of Olympus Mons” was born from a mix of that meditation with my ascent of Fuji. I quickly settled on having a trio of monsters in the story: Thoat the rock lizard, Penthi the canal monster, and Yama Uba the local haunt. This latter character was inspired by a hike as well–not one that I personally undertook, but a fictional trek depicted in Akira Kurosawa’s curious anthology film Dreams, when a snowbound hiker encounters either a ghost or an altitude-induced hallucination.

The story granted me a large canvas to explore more than just cryptozoology. “The Monsters of Olympus Mons” tackles artificial intelligence, fascist propaganda, human psychology, and the future of war. For those following my War Hero universe, “The Monsters of Olympus Mons” occurs shortly after Ten Thousand Thunders, but no familiarity with that novel is required.

And the story has been a hit with critics and readers. TangentOnline said, “The themes seem ever more relevant in current times, but all that aside, it is still a wonderfully constructed tale, and full of meaningful commentary.” Rocket Stack Rank hashtagged it as a “HugoAward-worthy story” and said there were “plenty of twists and excitement”. SFRevu called it “a great story” and that it would make their short-list for Best Novelette Hugo next year.

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