The Sky People, By S.M. Stirling

The Sky People has just been released in paperback; it is the first of two books in S.M. Stirling’s The Lord of21NIbWSnI1L._AA_SL160_.jpg Creation series (the second, In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, is scheduled to be released in hardcover in May 2008). This series is science fictional, and technically in the subgenre of alternate history; the central divergence in the Lord of Creation universe is that Venus and Mars are habitable planets for human beings, and that in fact human beings live on both planets – something proven conclusively in the early 1960s. Venus (the central setting for The Sky People) is a universally tropical jungle planet where ferocious dinosaurian and mammalian predators may be found coexisting; Mars is a slowly dying desert world inhabited by the decadent descendants of a lost empire.

If any of this sounds like the setting for an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, it’s deliberate. In writing this, S.M. Stirling had consciously made the decision to extrapolate how our world would have reacted to a situation where the assumptions of 30s pulp science fiction writers were actually true. The history of Earth itself does not seriously diverge until the 1960s, but changes accelerate quickly. By the time of the late 1980s (the time when the action takes place) Earth has been rather smugly divided between American/British Commonwealth (self-explanatory) and “Eastbloc” (Warsaw Pact & PRC) control, with the European Union (Western Europe) being a distant third. Brushfire wars are largely a thing of the past (the last being in 1967 in the Middle East, with the end result being a mandated settlement enforced by both major power blocs), and what conflict exists is mostly Cold War spy/counterspy black operations. The great political and scientific focus is on the exploitation of space resources, to the point where the biological sciences are several years behind our timeline’s activities. In short, aside from the existence of transistors and absence of ray-guns, very little about this universe would be surprising to a pulp hero.

The book itself is an entertaining jungle adventure romp evocative of the classic pulp style, complete with hyper-competent heroes, dangerous beasts of all types and species, shipwrecks, a Lost Tribe of primitive-but-well-groomed-and-attractive humans (complete with Mysterious Sky-God artifact), and even a tribe of beast-men (complete with stolen AK-47s) for the heroes to oppose. Fortunately, Stirling takes care to justify all of this, allowing the setting to remain at least internally self-consistent. He has also done his usual good job at presenting cultures in an appropriately sympathetic way, while avoiding both patronization and sentimentality: the author is notoriously hostile to the concepts of both the Noble Savage and the Noble Enlightened Euro-American. In short, if Edgar Rice Burroughs or Doc E.E. Smith were still alive, the front cover would have had laudatory quotes from both authors on it.

As a paperback, The Sky People is well worth it as a stocking stuffer for your science fiction fan on your Christmas list. As to whom it’d be appropriate for: it’s got a good deal of violence and a small amount of fornication. The former is described comprehensively, but not salaciously; the latter avoids graphic detail. Your average high school student has probably encountered more explicit examples of either in his or her English classes. Also, people who like the old pulps should like both this book and the sequel (which, from the previews available online, is somewhat more adult).

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