The Sky People by S.M. Stirling, 2006
I wanted to like this book very much.
No, that’s not right. I wanted to love this book.
I’ve tried reading Stirling before, but never warmed to him. ((The books I tried were both in his Draka series, I think they were Marching Through Georgia and Under the Yoke, but don’t recall for certain.)) But when I read about the premise of this book (first in a series), I thought “Aha, here’s a book I can get into.”
The premise is that the solar system is more or less the solar system of early-to-mid-20th-century science fiction. That is, that Venus and Mars are both populated, and populated wondrously. Not only with primitive humans, but dinosaurs, giant flying birds, and suchlike. This is the solar system of Edgar Rice Burroughs to some extent, but also Robert A. Heinlein, early Robert Silverberg, Leigh Brackett, and countless others. But instead of outlandish pulp adventure, Stirling would treat everything else with rigorous realism, doing his best to keep it hard (that is, scientifically accurate) SF.
As I said, this is the kind of stuff I could get into. And when I thumbnail the plot, or even if I were to sketch it out a bit more than that, it will still seem like something I would love.
But I didn’t. I merely liked it. Somewhat.
In the 1960s, two space probes are sent, one from the USSR to Venus and one, offstage in this narrative, from the USA to Mars. They find life, including humans, and that changes history from that point on. By 1988, the time of the story proper, both the US and USSR have colonies on Venus.
After some time establishing character and setting, a Russian lander goes astray and crash-lands in the area where the first Russian probe landed in the 60s — thousands of miles away from either the Russian or American outposts. The American outpost is closer, however, so a small rescue expedition is mounted to fetch the pilot, if he survived, and any cargo that remains intact.
The expedition proceeds in a zeppelin.
Have I mentioned that I should totally love this book? Because I should.
Anyway, the zeppelin, made from materials native to Venus, proceeds, and runs into dangers and disaster, leaving its surviving crew to fend for themselves and figure out a way back home across thousands of miles of hostile territory, after finding the object of their expedition.
So it sounds like fun, like a real romp, even in explaining what happens in it. But it mostly isn’t, I’m afraid, and there’s several reasons for that.
The biggest problem I had with it was pacing, and several issues related to it.
First of all, most of the action is at the tail end of the narrative. Now, granted, that’s usually a good thing. The pace should build relentlessly. Unfortunately, as I finished the book, it felt like all of the action was in the last 50-100 pages, at least all of the important stuff. The first sections of the novel are purely stage-setting, with hints of stuff to come later. It’s really, really heavily back-weighted.
Related to this is the mystery. Stirling tells you in the first few chapters that there’s mysterious stuff going on. He keeps reminding you now and then throughout the narrative. But you don’t get any clear grasp of what it might be until halfway through, and there are no real answers to any of the mysteries until the very, very end, the next to last chapter. In which everything gets resolved all at once.
There’s no build to the mystery. No red herrings, false leads, false conclusions later proved wrong. You just are told that something Not Right happened, and only about halfway through do you get any clue at all to what it might be. Which was frustrating.
Another annoyance that I’m going to file under “pace” is probably a personal thing with me, because its a fairly common technique, but I thought it was ill-suited to this type of story. This is a physical adventure story and, if it were Burroughs writing it, each task would be narrated in more or less chronological order, at least insofar as the protagonist experiences it. But Stirling, more than once, skips ahead and then back-narrates the actual work the characters must do. Again, this is not an invalid technique, but in the context of this type of story, I found it frustrating.
For instance, in the latter half of the story, the protagonist and his compatriots need to capture a dinosaur, and have only the most primitive means available to them. The hero comes up with a plan, and essentially whispers it in the others’ ears so that the reader doesn’t know what it will be. Then we jump ahead to the actual capture, with each step presented to us, and then the preparations back-narrated to fill us in.
In Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, which is very far from Burroughs’s best book, or even his best Tarzan book, there’s a scene where a man has to build a door that will keep critters out, and has no real tools to do it with. Instead of jumping ahead in time and showing a working door already built, then sketching in how it was done, Burroughs takes you through the process of making it. You work right there next to Tarzan’s father, the labor leading to the successful working of the door is part of the satisfaction of the narrative. (Good westerns do this, as well. Think of Shane and Joe Starrett digging out the tree trunk in Shane.)
If we’re identifying with our protagonists, as we should be, then their ordeals ought to be ours, and we should endure them together, not have the protagonists go off and plot in a corner, then come back and proclaim “See! See how clever we are?” Doing things offstage is a fine device when used properly, I do it myself all the time. But given the type of story Stirling set out to write here, it was incredibly frustrating to this reader. I wanted to watch that zeppelin get built! I wanted to be in on the plan to catch the dinosaur, not an outside observer who constantly has to be filled in on every little detail.
Stirling does get things right (as I state above, I enjoyed the book; I just didn’t love it the way I wanted to). The little details all feel exactly right. There is a verisimilitude to his Venus that makes you wish it really were that way. From the domestication of a greatwolf to the use of dinos as construction machinery, and dozens of other little details, everything in the milieu feels right, it all seems to fit together.
And the quiet parallels to the stories he takes inspiration from work very well too. For instance, that domesticated greatwolf is second cousin to John Carter’s companion Woola. No big deal is made out of it, he fits naturally into the story, but the parallel is there for those who will appreciate it.
On the other hand, there are some background details that seem to be pure wish-fulfillment, such as JFK’s legacy in this alternate reality. It wasn’t intrusive, per se, but it didn’t ring true either.
What was intrusive was a detail that seemed to have no point. Our protagonist and a female Venusian have dreamed of each other, in detail, before ever meeting. These prophetic dreams don’t really pay off, except that the two each recognize the other (to no end other than easing their meeting a bit). Perhaps more will be made of this later in the series, but in this book alone, it seemed pointless.
I’m going to read the sequel, and very likely the one after that. Because this wasn’t a bad book and, as I said, this is a very cool premise on which to launch a series.
But I’m afraid I found this particular exploration of the premise disappointing.