RogerBW's Blog

The Sky People, S. M. Stirling 06 December 2019

2006 science fiction, first of the two books of Lords of Creation. The first Mars and Venus landers found breathable air and human life. Twenty years later, Marc Vitrac is assigned to the American base on Venus, studying the planet and its natives.

The thing about Stirling is that he has some great ideas. He’s got a classic-SF “young” jungle Venus, all dinosaurs and giant insects and savage kingdoms, and he’s done the work to make it fit together into something more coherent than the pulpsmiths of the golden age managed. But the thing about Stirling is that he has some great ideas… and then drops into them standard Stirling characters (why yes, our hero is brash, omnicompetent and horny, with a military background) and standard Stirling plots (why yes, he will have to organise an overmatched local force to win a hopeless battle).

There’s so much that could be done here, and it feels like a waste to have invented this lovely setting and then told a story that for the most part could have been placed in the British colonial era. This is Stirling, so of course the Venusian neanderthals are violent cannibal beast-men; of course everyone is fighting all the time; of course there’s widespread use of slavery. That’s just the sort of environment that he always seems to write.

So why did I read it? Well, I’ve been working on a similar setting of classic-SF planets, and various people recommended it to me. And there’s nothing desperately wrong with the book; it’s just that the first 40% or so is basically sightseeing, showing us what the world is like, with minimal plot. Then once things get going, with a rescue mission by airship to rescue a downed “EastBloc” shuttle crew, it’s basically procedural adventure: sabotage! Attack by pterodactyls! Organising the natives! After the initial worldbuilding dump, the genuinely science-fictional content, which touches on just how the natives and other life forms can be so similar to Earth’s, is hoarded and doled out most grudgingly.

Marc is from Louisiana, which you can tell because he says “weh” and “mais” a lot, and once makes a roux. For half the book everything he does is seen through his attempts to impress a female scientist, which I found tiring more than anything else.

Am I asking too much, to be surprised and intrigued? Well, since I didn’t get it I clearly am. But I found there was too much effort put into matching story points from the pulps (our hero acquires a dangerous doglike pet, and he falls for a native princess). Yes, all right, Carson of Venus didn’t have much more than flat characters and procedural adventure, but Carson of Venus was mostly being written in the 1930s and science fiction has moved on.

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