36

I read this story in approximately 1979 (plus or minus a year); I found it in an anthology when I was systematically reading my way through all the SF in my library's YA section. Note that the book may have been much older; at the same time I read "A Treasury of Great Science Fiction" (both volumes), and those were published in 1959/60.

I'm 95% sure that the story takes place on Mars. A young man or youth, because of some accident or misfortune, (perhaps his vehicle crashed) is stranded alone and forced to try to walk to safety. It is part of the story that he is not as strong as most people; not that he is disabled, just that he is not as strong or as fast. It becomes important because his walk is one that a "normal" person would have been able to make, but he isn't able to move fast enough to get to safety before his air runs out.

He runs out of air, and rather than suffocate in his suit, he opens his helmet. And it turns out that he can breathe the atmosphere.

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  • 1
    Sure this isn't it, but somewhat similar: tor.com/2013/05/07/we-have-always-lived-on-mars
    – JohnP
    Jun 27 '18 at 15:30
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    DavidW -- I've read this one, sometime in the 80s when I was going through a lot of big collections. The young man was unique in being able to breathe the Martian atmosphere, correct? I believe there was some backstory about how running quickly tired him out, but he could walk for miles and miles and loved to do so. I believe it ends on a note of "He was the superior organism!" or something like that. Also, for some reason I'm thinking the protagonist or author had a Russian-sounding name. Does this sound right?
    – Otis
    Aug 25 '18 at 16:35
19
+100

"The Air of Mars" (1970) by Dmitri Bilenkin. Its only English publication was in The Air of Mars and Other Stories of Time and Space (1976) edited (and translated) by Mirra Ginsburg.

Cover of The Air of Mars...

A young man or youth, because of some accident or misfortune, (perhaps his vehicle crashed) is stranded alone and forced to try to walk to safety.

He walked across the cold, red plain for two days and two nights--forward, only forward. He wore a clearly visible bright blue space suit, but he did not delude himself with the hope that he would be found by his comrades. It would be a sheer miracle if the hum of a motor broke into the monotonous howl of Martian air.

It is part of the story that he is not as strong as most people; not that he is disabled, just that he is not as strong or as fast.

The other boys treated him with tolerant condescension, as a weakling, and the gym teachers detested him. The doctors had diagnosed the boy as "healthy." He had a normal body and normal limbs. What right had he to frustrate and humiliate them, hanging on the rope like a sack of potatoes? Gym classes were the nightmare of Severgin's childhood and adolescence.

The end of the story:

He jumped up. And was breathless. As though a mask were pressed against his lips. Yet still he went on. His lungs rose and fell, faster, faster. They were convulsing with pain. A rattle came from his constricted throat. He dropped down to his knees but still crawled forward. And when his mind turned blank and his body thrashed about in agony, he tore off his helmet and gulped the Martian wind as a drowning man gulps water, because he cannot help but gulp it.

A chill passed through his lungs, a last intolerable flash of pain, and everything went black.

Everything went black, only to start glimmering again. He came to slowly from the convulsions that had seemed to tear his lungs apart and saw something wavering and red before his eyes.

With an incredible effort he raised his head. It was already light. And he was crawling! He was breathing Martian air! His organism was different from others⁠—he survived!

He did not even realize this. He did not think. He continued to crawl, fiercely, stubbornly, no longer obeying reason, but moved by pure instinct, on and on, toward the place where there were people.

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  • Well I just ordered a used copy off of Amazon, and will confirm when I get it, but I know this story very well because it made a great impression on me as a young man and I have looked for it before and just went looking for it again today (which is how I found this thread). Recognition is stronger than recall, and once I saw the title and author I knew it was it...I had remembered the title as 'The Air on Mars' but couldn't remember the author. All the details are in DavidW's original question above; it's really a very simple story. Apr 5 '20 at 3:31
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    Got my copy in the mail today; if it's not the story you're looking for it's at least certainly the one I was looking for. :) Apr 13 '20 at 1:38
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    @PhillipWharton I'm going to mark this as correct; it's got to be it. I'm going to include your quotes in the answer; if you could add one from the end of the story where he takes off his helmet that would be awesome.
    – DavidW
    May 6 '20 at 21:09
  • @PhillipWharton - This is almost certainly the one that I referenced in my comment above. Many thanks!
    – Otis
    Aug 16 '20 at 1:37
5

Could this be 'Keep Out' by Fredric Brown? This is a short story about how the children of Earth become the first Martians. They look - and think - a little different from Earth-born youngsters but after some generations they are able to breathe the Martian Air. You can listen to it at Librivox at the Internet Archive. Librivox has an enormous collection of short SF stories.

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  • Thanks for trying; this is not the story I'm looking for. In the story I remember there is only the 1 person who can breathe on Mars (at least he's not aware of anyone else), he looks like a standard human, and there's no massacre. (I found a copy of the story in Amazing Stories, March 1954 at the Internet Archive.)
    – DavidW
    Feb 5 '20 at 18:38
5

This could be "At the Bottom of a Hole" by Larry Niven. It appeared in Galaxy in December 1966 and later in the 1973 anthology Inconstant Moon. But I read it in the 1975 anthology Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven.

I know why they call them Flatlanders now. I feel like a gnat on a table.

The story recounts the log of Muller, a Belter smuggler who crashlanded on Mars in an attempt to slingshot around the planet.

Because he is a Belter who grew up in zero-G, even Mars's weak gravity is a strain on him. He later finds the ruins of Earth's first colony on Mars. He patches the dome, which has holes slashed in it,

by Martians, whom nobody believed existed,

reinflates the dome, and takes his suit off in the breathable air.

But the Martians come back.

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Another suggestion: Frederik Pohl's Man Plus.

Story featuring a single person (actually a cyborg, i.e. someone who is both human and machine) who, uniquely, is able to breathe - and more - on Mars. Also, published at the right time (1976).

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    Could you edit this for how it matches?
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Feb 7 '20 at 17:51
  • Story featuring a single person (actually a cyborg, i.e. someone who is both human and machine) who, uniquely, is able to breathe - and more - on Mars. Also, published at the right time. :)
    – orcadian
    Feb 7 '20 at 18:54

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