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The Sky People by S. M. Stirling

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Back in the days of Edgar Rice Burroughs and E. E. "Doc" Smith, it was easy to imagine a solar system teeming with life, in which Venus was a misty swamp world in which monsters wandered, and Mars was a dying world, home to an ancient and wise civilization. They were places where you could still have adventures and discover alien civilizations in a way that was no longer possible on an Earth where every continent had been explored and mapped. Even writers as recent as Robert A. Heinlein used these tropes in major works, although by the time he wrote Stranger in a Strange Land, they had worn thin and were best read as metaphor.

But in the 1970's our first space probes to Venus and Mars revealed them to be dead worlds. Far from being a hot but liveable swamp world, Venus was a hellhole of crushing pressures and sulfurous rains. Likewise, Mars wasn't just a dying world but a dead one with too little oxygen to support life. The old stories of a solar system in which every planet was home to life and even civilizations were now painfully creaky period pieces, best read as fantasies of a more innocent time. Henceforth stories set on Mars and Venus would be grittily realistic hard science fiction about struggles to terraform them, or just to stay alive while studying the scientific wonders that might be found there.

The 1980's and 1990's marked the rise of alternate history as a subgenre, and once again the Earth had room for undiscovered lands and alien civilization. And not just the Earth, realized an author who had made his name writing stories of a world in which slavery did not die out with the Industrial Revolution, but instead found a way to persist and evolve into new forms that could actually threaten the capitalist West. S. M. Stirling, whose Draka universe had created enormous amounts of controversy in the science fiction community, realized that it was perfectly possible to imagine an alternate history in which things had gone differently and it would turn out that Mars and Venus were indeed inhabited. That of course raised the question of exactly what would have to go differently, given that the current understanding of planetary formation showed that the current state of those two worlds were pretty much a given of their starting conditions.

So he decided to make the discovery of the change be an essential part of the story he would write. And thus a new series was born. In this first volume of it, Americans and Eastbloc (Soviet and Communist Chinese) forces have established colonies on Venus, whose cloud-shrouded continents are home to a rich and very active ecology. Giant crocodiles and carnivorous dinosaurs patrol the swampy lowlands, while prehistoric mammals become more common in the highlands. The Americans have built their settlement of Jamestown not far from the one and only true civilization on the planet, a bronze-age city-state that worships a multitude of gods and still practices such lovely habits as slavery and human sacrifice. But there have been rumors of other communities of humans, including glimpses of a "fur bikini" maiden by an early Soviet probe.

However, that probe landed in a region in which Terran electronics behave erratically, and which for that reason has been declared strictly off-limits, hampering any attempts to find out more about the beautiful Deera and her people. Until of course the day that an Eastbloc shuttle goes astray and crashes deep in the Forbidden Zone. The Eastbloc chief at Cosmograd then appeals to Jamestown to assist them in rescuing the three-member crew, since the Americans have better airships.

So off the Americans head, including Louisana Cajun Marc Vitrac, who has felt a little at loose ends since his arrival on Venus. But they don't get very far before a saboteur damages key parts of the airship. Although the first attempt at sabotage is caught in time, the saboteur only learns to become more subtle and get them into a situation where they cannot avoid being downed. Suddenly they are on foot, with a lot of dangerous and hostile territory between them and the nearest friendly face.

Thus they are quite surprised to encounter Deera's tribe. Deera herself is dead, but her daughter Teesa has inherited her position, and along with it the Diadem of the Eye, a sacred treasure of her people.

Terrans have known for some time that the fossil record of Venus is decidedly peculiar. As in it started suddenly out of nowhere several hundred million years ago -- prior to that point, Venus was a dead world. After that point, life developed rapidly, with major gaps that could not be accounted for by evolutionary theory. Although some religious fanatics held it as evidence of supernatural intervention, most scientists consider the best explanation to be intelligent action by an unknown alien race whose technology is so sophisticated it would appear to be magic to humans.

When Teesa uses the Diadem of the Eye to give Marc her tribe's language, while simultaneously lifting his Cajun-flavored colloquial English into her own mind, they know they are in the presence of something extraordinary. But it is only part of something much larger, and the base unit is in the possession of her people's traditional enemies, the brutish Wergu or beast-men. These Neanderthal-like protohumans had driven her people from their traditional home a generation ago, and the People of Cloud Mountain have since been living a makeshift existence in a group of caves.

But now there will have to be a final confrontation, for the downed Eastbloc shuttle was full of firearms, and the surviving pilot has taught the beast-men how to use them. And it appears that it was not by his will alone that he broke one of the most important agreements between Americans and Eastbloc regarding trade with the native peoples of Venus. The device of which the Diadem of the Eye is a part has become active, and it is not necessarily acting with Terran humanity's interests at heart.

Overall, it was an interesting revisiting of the tropes of the science fiction of my childhood, albeit with a few modern fillips such as the presence of modern electronics that weren't even imagined by Burroughs or Doc Smith (yes, the integrated circuit is really that much of a conceptual break from the technological past). There were a few glitches here and there, such as the Georgian character's name being given as Nininze rather than the correct Ninidze, but they were typically ones with bit characters rather than with major characters whose continual presence would grate.

Review posted February 1, 2009

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