27 November 2006

The Sky People (S M Stirling)

I was about ten years old when my sister brought home two utterly fascinating books. Thuvia, Maid of Mars featured wild adventures and weird beasts on the dried-out sea bottoms of Mars, which was called Barsoom by the natives. The People That Time Forgot was about people, dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals on an island in the southern Pacific; the explorers had apparently arrived on a German U-boat. (The story was set during World War I.)

I'd never read anything like either of these books before, and I was hooked immediately. They were written by someone named Edgar Rice Burroughs, and I started looking for everything I could find by him. Fortunately, this was the mid-1960s, and Ace and Ballentine were republishing almost all of his books in paperback. Over the next few years I managed to get hold of most of them - the rest of the Barsoom and Caspak books (Thuvia was the fourth in a series of eleven books; People was the second of three), all 24 Tarzan books, all six Pellucidar stories (seven if you count Tarzan at the Earth's Core), all five Amtor books (though the last wasn't published until I was in high school), and a host of independent tales. I loved almost all of them. (My favourites are Tarzan of the Apes - the original story of Viscount Greystoke - and Beyond Thirty.)

There were other books, too, by other authors. There were Tarzan clones, of course, some more, some less, close to the original: Bomba, Jongor, Kioga. And there were other planetary romances, set on an old, dry Mars and a young, wet Venus, like Barsoom and Amtor. Unfortunately, I only managed to get my hands on one of Otis Adelbert Kline's books (The Swordsman of Mars, I think it was). But some of Heinlein's juveniles fit the mould (especially Red Planet and Space Cadet), and there were Farley's Radio Man stories; Lucky Starr on Venus was another wet-Venus story. And there was a host of short stories, too, such as those by Brackett, Kuttner and Moore.

Then science came along and spoilt everything: No more canals and dry sea bottoms, no more exuberant jungles full of dinosaurs and primitive (or at any rate, less highly civilised) peoples. Sure, the occasional story came along; David Drake's Surface Action, for instance, was originally meant to be a sequel to a Kuttner story set on Venus, though it mutated into something else.*

Now we have The Sky People.

It's an alternate history, set in a universe where spectroscopic analysis of Mars and Venus showed in the '30s that both planets had atmospheres which would be breathable by any humans who could find a way to get there. By the early '60s, orbital observations had shown cities, roads and other signs of intelligent life. The first EastBloc (Soviet and Chinese) lander reached Venus on 14 Jun 62, and showed grass, flowers, trees - and humans. An American lander reached Mars the following year, and again found life. Both West and East began putting most of their resources into the space race, eschewing military conflict in favour of scientific progress.

By 1988, when the book is set, there are two colonies on Venus. Jamestown, the American one, is near from the most advanced group of natives, the Bronze Age city-state of Kartahown. The Soviet-Chinese base is located further away, though not too far from the westerners. Both groups are thoroughly puzzled by the Venerian flora and fauna, which are in some cases not just highly similar, but near-as-dammit identical, to Terran forms. There are dinosaurs, sabretooths, pterodactyls, giant insects (a slightly denser atmosphere and lower gravity make for some incredibly large flying critters), buffalo and other beasts. The geological record looks odd, too, with a thick layer where life seems to have sprung out of nowhere and exploded all over the planet; after that new species, all very similar to contemporaneous species on Earth, suddenly appear every few million years.

Then one of the EastBloc orbital shuttles crash-lands in the wilds, thousands of miles away from civilisation. The emergency beacon is triggered, showing that at least one of the three personnel on board has survived. The Americans have blimps which can reach the crash site (the shorter-range EastBloc blimps can't), so their assistance is requested. A rescue party sets out, and the adventures begin....

What do I like about this? To begin with, of course, there's the fact that books like this were my first introduction to science fiction, and it's always good to see another one come along.

Stirling's strong world-building and descriptive passages are seen here, as in his other books. There are proper concerns for the cost of imports from another planet:
He flicked off the computer, rose and stretched, looking around and smiling wryly. Jamestown wasn't all that short of housing; adobe brick was—

Cheap as dirt, he told himself.

And they could hire local builders for not much more. Anything that came from Earth was expensive and in short supply, of course, which made for some odd contrasts; the computer was connected to all the others in town with the latest in fiber-optic cable, but the water system was based on shamboo pipes and elm logs bored hollow and pegged together.

The rugs on the tile floor of the big living-room-office would have fetched plenty on Earth, and the furniture was hand-crafted of tiger-striped woods; lustrous furs covered the benches built into the walls. The windows were of thin-scraped 'saur intestine, and translucent rather than clear; the available glass was better, but not much—the first Kartahownian shops were just getting the knack, and it was wavy and full of bubbles. The heating system was an arched kiva-style fireplace in one corner, where a low fire of split oak soaked warmth into the massive walls and radiated out again, keeping the raw chill of the winter day outside at bay. A special research effort back on Earth had been necessary to produce the everlasting fluorescent lights above. It was cheaper to make light-bulbs that cost thousands of dollars each to send to Venus, rather than send replacements for forty-five cent ones that burned out. Even so, residents were 'encouraged' to use alcohol-fueled lanterns as much as possible.

The kitchen-dining area was behind a doorway closed with strings of wooden beads. It had the same mixture of luxury and primitivism; broad counters and an island of polished honey-colored wood whose grain swirled with scarlet streaks, but the stove was built of brick, its main luxury cast-bronze disks set in the top. He'd hired some kitchen help for today, a middle-aged woman named Ametri and her daughter. They were chopping vegetables as he came in, and looked mildly scandalized as he moved over to the oven—in Kartahown cooking was woman's work; there weren't even male chefs. Both of them wore simple ankle-length gowns of what amounted to linen; Ametri had her hair up under a kerchief as befitted a widow, but and her teenaged daughter wore her long black locks tied back with a headband and woven with scarlet ribbons.

Another nice touch is the filling in of background material by use of "excerpts" from the "15th edition (1988) of the Encyclopaedia Britannica." These appear at the beginning of most chapters, and provide historical and planetary data.

What don't I like? It's too damn' short - only 301 pages, as opposed to the 486 and 497 pages of his last two (TPW and AMaC, respectively). The epilogue was a little annoying, though of course it's a set-up for the second book (In the Halls of the Crimson Kings, to be set on Mars). And that next book won't be out for another year.

As usual with Stirling's books, you can test-drive it before you buy; the prologue and the first six (of fourteen) chapters can be found here.

Go. Buy. Read. And read again....


* See here.

1 comment:

Bill Hillman said...

You might enjoy perusing our Edgar Rice Burroughs Tribute sites:
Bill Hillman
Editor and Webmaster for the
Official Edgar Rice Burroughs Tribute Sites
www.Tarzan.com
www.Tarzan.org
www.JohnColemanBurroughs.com
www.BurroughsBibliophiles.com
www.ERBzine.com
Weekly Webzine:
www.ERBzine.com/mag