What’s this? A book published in the last decade? And a hardcover at that?
Cut it (and me) some slack: this is an homage to the swords-and-planets tales of the Golden Age, and Stirling pulls it off with grace and finesse. Even if the book itself isn’t battered or creased, it reads like it should be. This is a book that would fit in perfectly on the shelf next to Burroughs or Brackett, and that alone should catch your interest if you like olden SF at all.
S.M. Stirling isn’t a writer I’m familiar with; I’d never read anything of his before, though I am familiar with his bigger series. Namely the Emberverse one, a set of post-apocalyptic alternate histories detailing a neo-feudalistic society after technology stops working. The Sky People doesn’t fit with what I think of when Stirling comes to mind; I remember seeing at least one review calling it “a pleasant surprise.” Truth be told, it is; I’m not sure many writers would take a chance on doing something like this, being one of the earlier “modern” homages to pulp SF. Mad props to Stirling.
Fantastic cover art by Gregory Manchess. Love the use of color, and it’s properly atmospheric for pulp Venus. If the cover appeals to you, great; you’re in the right place. If you can’t get enthused by crashed spaceships in the lush Venusian jungle, with Triceratops and saber-toothed tigers prowling around our intrepid big-gunned pulp heroes…
In 1962, the Soviets send their first probe to Venus, only to find it’s exactly what contemporary SF thought it was: covered in lush jungles and tropical seas, populated by dinosaurs and primitive humanoids who go around wearing fur bikinis. While the probe’s transmission cuts off sporadically, the images beamed ’round the world set off a Venusian land-rush. Suddenly, things are all about space.
Flash forward to 1988, and the two superpowers have moved the Cold War to the stars. Lieutenant Marc Vitrac, Cajun, is a Ranger in the US Aerospace Force living in a Venusian exploration base; his job is training the new arrivals on Venusian survival so that they aren’t devoured by dinosaurs. These arrivals would be Cynthia Whitlock, a young African-American scientist, and Wing Commander Christopher Blair, British linguist. There’s a lot of tension between Vitrac and Blair, not just because they’re both after Whitlock.
The story’s divided along three lines for the first half of the book. The first one follows Vitrac and his compatriots, showcasing Venus and its lifeforms and the Anglo-American technology to keep the dinosaurs under control; Vitrac also gets a pet dire wolf. The second follows a Sino-Soviet expeditionary team, whose ship crashes upon their attempt to enter atmosphere; they end up crashing far from any Terran base, and are attacked by neanderthals. The third follows beautiful native princess Teesa (of the Cloud Mountain People) as she and her tribe survive in the harsh environment; her main asset is a strange piece of headgear that gives her visions and other powers.
The plots begin to entwine in the middle, when the Americans send out Vitrac & Co. aboard a rescue blimp to search the Soviet wreck for survivors. The end up bumping into the sole Soviet survivor and his Neanderthal host, along with Teesa and her clan. The Americans also realize that the Venusians speak a proto-Indo-European dialect, and make the revelation that they’re homo sapiens, genetically identical to Earth’s humans, with theories that ancient aliens populated Venus (and Mars) with lifeforms taken from Earth. From there, the novel’s predictable in its pulp glory, but it looks cool and reads well.
The novel is a brilliant homage in the Barsoomian tradition of planetary romances (well, Carter of Venus at least). All the proper pieces are here—dinosaurs, ancient artifacts, beautiful native princesses, Soviets, neanderthals with AK-47s, a two-fisted pulp hero with an awesome pet and a big-ass gun. Most of the criticism I’ve seen has been about how simplistic and straightforward it is, in that all the tropes come together much as you’d imagine. C’mon, it’s a pulp novel homage, you should realize its predictability going in; if the pulp hero doesn’t end up getting the pulp princess, the author needs to turn in his piece and badge. If something sounds like it’s going to do X, it will probably do just that. I will level some criticism at Stirling’s attempt for a “double agent” subplot, as there’s never any doubt who the double-agent is.
Stirling makes some nods as to how pop culture has changed, noting that Burroughs-style adventure fiction has a huge comeback, and hints towards alternate versions of Star Trek and Indiana Jones. Imagine 1930s-60s science fiction, and imagine it was all real, and you’ll see what I mean. There’s also a lot of interesting tidbits about how the world changed: realizing that other planets were habitable changed how the superpowers acted on Earth. Britain and the Commonwealth has become an American vassal in all but name; France hedged its bets and formed its own European Union, and is now playing catch-up to the space game; there was no Sino-Soviet split; the Suez Crisis succeeded with American backing, and the Middle East has been kept in line by the powers that be.
If you can’t tell, I’m infatuated with this world. The Earth world-building is pretty cool, and as a history buff it sounds plausible to me. Venus is different from the standard pulp-era view, but not a lot; it’s nice to see it re-examined, even if few molds were broken. This is still the mist-shrouded jungle planet riddled with dinosaurs and swamps… with the addition of Soviets. But there’s nothing wrong with that; compared to the hellish atmosphere and crushing pressure of the real-world planet, it’s bittersweet nostalgia. The idea that Venus and Mars were terraformed by ancient aliens is superb, even though that plot thread remains shrouded in under-development.
I have a few complaints. I’ll give it some slack from being a homage, but there’s not a whole lot of grit to this Venus—dinosaurs are cool and all, but the most interesting parts are the technology that the Americans and Soviets bring, such as the dinosaur mind-harnesses. (To reiterate, I guess my complaint here is that Sterling doesn’t go far past a simple homage; I’m also a little jaded since its sequel Crimson Kings had some great ideas in it.) The plot is also the basic sword-and-planet formula (with more guns!); again, I’ll cut it some slack as a homage, but it does the same things every other Burroughs homage does. Also, Stirling attempts to add in contemporary technology—digital cameras, for one—under the excuse of “the space race pushed technology ahead twenty-odd years.” I would have liked the tech be changed a little, much as the world is a tweaked version of our own. Minor quibbles, but a few things which broke the otherwise perfect verisimilitude of the alternate history setting and plot.
In terms of writing, Stirling does a damn fine job. The characters are all likeable, even if they’re not too deep. The pacing is slow at first, but quickly picks up; with three simultaneous plots, there’s always something building even when nothing major is happening. The biggest problem with pulp writers is that they weren’t good writers, for the most part; the big advantage of a big-name modern author is quality and style, both of which Stirling brings to the plate. The writing is very well done, a finely polished craft, without talking down to readers or deviating from the retro tone. Make no mistake, the plot may be a bit simple, but the writing is anything but. If this is indicative of Stirling’s craft, I may end up getting into the Emberverse after all.
The Sky People is a straightforward tale, painted in big, broad strokes and colored in nostalgic retro hues. Short and simple without being facile, entertaining without compromising integrity, this is a fantastic novel for anyone who likes pulpy science fiction. The emphasis here is on fun: it’s a homage-pastiche of Burroughs, done with modern sensibilities and in a modern style. If this is S.M. Stirling’s homage to the writers of the past, I’d say mission accomplished. I have a few problems with the book; its pseudo-sequel, In The Courts of the Crimson Kings, was even better, and fixed most of the issues I had. I wish Stirling goes back to the Lords of Creation series for a third run. Someday…