The Sky People by S.M. Stirling (2010)

SkyPeopleCover blurb

Marc Vitrac was born in Louisiana in the early 1960’s, about the time the first interplanetary probes delivered the news that Mars and Venus were teeming with life—even human life. At that point, the “Space Race” became the central preoccupation of the great powers of the world.

Now, in 1988, Marc has been assigned to Jamestown, the US-Commonwealth base on Venus, near the great Venusian city of Kartahown. Set in a countryside swarming with sabertooths and dinosaurs, Jamestown is home to a small band of American and allied scientist-adventurers.

But there are flies in this ointment – and not only the Venusian dragonflies, with their yard-wide wings. The biologists studying Venus’s life are puzzled by the way it not only resembles that on Earth, but is virtually identical to it. The EastBloc has its own base at Cosmograd, in the highlands to the south, and relations are frosty. And attractive young geologist Cynthia Whitlock seems impervious to Marc’s Cajun charm.

Meanwhile, at the western end of the continent, Teesa of the Cloud Mountain People leads her tribe in a conflict with the Neanderthal-like beastmen who have seized her folk’s sacred caves. Then an EastBloc shuttle crashes nearby, and the beastmen acquire new knowledge… and AK47’s.

Jamestown sends its long-range blimp to rescue the downed EastBloc cosmonauts, little suspecting that the answer to the jungle planet’s mysteries may lie there, among tribal conflicts and traces of a power that made Earth’s vaunted science seem as primitive as the tribesfolk’s blowguns. As if that weren’t enough, there’s an enemy agent on board the airship…

Extravagant and effervescent, The Sky People is alternate-history SF adventure at its best.

My thoughts

We now know Venus to be the closest thing to Hell we have in our solar system, with sulfuric acid clouds and surface temperatures that can melt lead. But that was not always the case. Some early scientists speculated that Venus was a habitable but much younger world than Earth, possibly one covered with vast tropical forests. It didn’t take long for pulp fiction writers to run with the idea, populating the planet’s surface with dinosaurs.

Stirling’s alternate history novel The Sky People imagines a reality where Venus and Mars really were just as the pulp novels described them. Needless to say, the discovery two habitable worlds in the solar system accelerates the Cold War Space Race, with both the Soviets and the Americans scrambling to colonize the planets. The novel largely concerns an American rescue mission to save the crew of a downed Russian spaceship. In the process, they learn a little about how Venus came to support life.

The Sky People is a by-the-numbers adventure that’s fun while you read it but doesn’t leave any lasting impression. Stirling spends the first half of the novel exploring the world he has created, including the human societies that have evolved on Venus. It is really not until about midway that the plot takes off. As for the central mystery about Venus, it won’t take any science fiction fan long to figure out why the planet doesn’t resemble the hellhole of our timeline.

The dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters here serve mainly as window dressing. The author could have easily removed them and had pretty much the same novel.

Trivia

  • The Sky People is the first in Stirling’s two-book Lords of Creation series. The second novel, In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, is set on a dying Mars and doesn’t involve paleontology, so it won’t be reviewed here.
  • The popular pen-and-paper roleplaying game Space: 1889 also was set in an alternate universe where Venus is inhabited by dinosaurs and Mars is withering away. The similarities are due to the fact that the creators of both properties based their works on early science fiction depictions of the planets.
  • S.M. Stirling’s website is smstirling.com

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