Friday, March 20, 2009

Me Teesa, you... seriously expect me to buy this dialogue?

I started S.M. Stirling's The Sky People with all the enthusiasm in the world. I'd enjoyed Stirling's alternate British Empire in India novel The Peshwar Lancers, and this book promised to be even better. Dinosaurs! On Venus! And cave people and sabretooths and US/Soviet Cold War shennanigans! Awesome!

Well, it could have been awesome. In truth, it was only adequate. Stirling doesn't promise more than he can deliver here: it's an adventure novel that deliberately harkens back to the early- to mid-20th Century planetary romances and Golden Age SF novels in which life is abundant on both Mars and Venus. The Edgar Rice Burroughs novels are an obvious source of inspiration, but plenty of other well-known authors, from Asimov to Heinlein, have stocked Venus with life.

Stirling updates this trope by creating an alternate world which is very similar to ours, but in which life is identified by the 1950s on both of Earth's nearest neighbours. The Cold War cools down as the Soviets and Chinese compete with the Americans and Brits to build ships and eventually bases on the two planets. By the last couple of decades of the 20th Century, they've both accomplished their goals, and they're trying to figure out why there are recognizably human (and neandertal) people on Venus, along with the aforementioned dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters.

From this point on, there are spoilers. You have been warned.

Our hero is Marc Vitrac, an American lieutenant (of course) with the military/science outpost on Venus. Marc is about as dull a hero as you could have. He's brave and stalwart, young and handsome and square of jaw, and just a little bit too headstrong for his own good. He came from Planetary Adventure Central Casting, which may have been a conscious choice on Stirling's part. His only distinguishing features to my mind are his constant musings on how the Earth people sent to Venus are both physically and mentally top notch, the best of the best (which a cynical person could interpret as making him a closet eugenicist) and his constant use of Cajun dialect. Marc's from the bayou, you see.

Which fits him in perfectly with all his fellow Earth-human characters, every one of whom is distinguished by their national/racial/linguistic tics. There's Cynthia, the black scientist from New York. There's Christopher, the totally not French English toff, ("I say, dear boy!") there's the Lithuanian-Soviet Binkis, and there's Teesa, of the Cloud Mountain People. Stirling's characters are types, rather than people. If you were hoping to develop a deep and sustained interest in them as well-rounded folks, forget it. This is an adventure novel.

Well, it's an adventure novel after the first 150 pages or so. The opening portion of the book, which is in many ways my favourite part, is an extended tour through Stirling's worldbuilding. Cynthia goes fossil hunting, Marc shows the others around the bronze age Venusian city near their base, we see dinosaurs and giant wolf-critters. Marc tames a giant feral wolfoid puppy. It's all very relaxed and plot-free. The most significant bit of info is that Venus was obviously terraformed, starting 200 million years in the past, by something that then periodically dumped Earth species there. Which explains the dinosaurs, cave people, etc. It's that mysterious alien presence, which starts interfering with Binkis, the neandertals, and Teesa's Cloud Mountain People, that will eventually kick start the plot.

Binkis has crash-landed with a shuttle in a remote part of the Venusian outback. A joint American-Soviet expedition heads off to find him, with our main American/Brit/French characters and Binkis's wife aboard an airship. They also crash (there's a cool, if unlikely, attack by giant pterosaurs) fight some neandertals who have scavenged Soviet AK-47s and are being led by Binkis/holding him hostage, meet Teesa's people and form an alliance with them. Marc, who has been mooning over Cynthia the whole book, gives up on her and starts chasing after blonde space princess Teesa. Teesa is painful to read. She's a classic Planetary Romance/Jungle Girl character, prone to saying things like this:
"Who are you, warrior, that you walk my dreams and hurl thunder?" she asked. "You are not the one who now leads the beastmen against us – you are his enemy, is that not so?"
And yes, she does wear a fur bikini. Everyone changes into fur bikinis and/or briefs for the finale, which involves a dinosaur-mounted attack by our heroes on an army of AK-toting neandertals, and a confrontation with the computer that the mysterious aliens left behind to run the Venus terraforming project.

The Sky People isn't bad in any particular way. As I said, Stirling doesn't advertise it as a transcendent novel or a reinvention of old tropes. This book is built out of the solid, old tropes of Burroughs and Heinlein, renovated a bit with better science. But it could have been so much more.

Just look at Our Hero. Burroughs and Heinlein and a hundred other authors sent white, male, handsome, competent, American heroes zipping off to Venus for half a century. In Stirling's update, we get exactly the same guy. Just imagine if he'd made Cynthia the protagonist, instead of what feels increasingly like the obligatory minority/female sub-hero. That alone would have been an interesting change. (Some of the Venusians keep slaves, and the Americans do not interfere. It's quickly forgotten, and barely mentioned by our descended-from-slaves character.)

It's useless, really, to talk about the book you'd wished to read. The book I read was okay: competent adventure, dinosaurs in space, exactly as advertised. It just makes me worry that we aren't moving forward at all in a lot of areas of SF. This book is like the softer side of RaceFail: it's not overtly racist by any means, and Cynthia isn't treated as a moron or incompetent. It just puts white males in the top spot, with everyone else holding down the supporting roles.

There are a lot of books out there now like The Sky People, which look backward to SF's roots, failing to innovate in plot, or character, or writing style. They thrive on nostalgia and the frisson readers get when that nostalgia is given a modern update. Frankly, I don't need to read any more of that.

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