The Long View: The Sky People by S. M. Stirling

Reader Duane Oldsen requested John J. Reilly’s reviews of S. M. Stirling’s The Sky People [Amazon link] and In the Courts of the Crimson Kings [Amazon link]. I’m happy to oblige, even though these reviews were written by John in 2008, which is a little ahead of where the Long View Re-posting Project is, I love these essays. Stirling used alternative history to revisit the Mars and Venus of the pulp era, and I loved the books too.


The Sky People
By S.M. Stirling
Paperback: 336 pages, US$6.99
Tor Science Fiction, 2006
(Reprint edition October 2, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0765353768

Sometimes, if you try to get away from a subject, you will find that it has pursued you.

Recently I had read and reviewed at length The Nomos of the Earth, by Carl Schmitt. Writing during the Second World War (at the University of Berlin), Schmitt argued that what we call international law began as the body of rules for the outer world that Europe devised during the Age of Discovery. War and statecraft were treated differently on the seas and in the colonies from the way they were treated in Europe itself. These rules helped to bracket conflict, and so to make the modern world tolerable, if not pacific, until the end of the 19th century. Thereafter, this nomos, this underlying law, conspicuously broke down, and Schmitt considered what new nomos might replace it. There is one theoretical basis for a new nomos he mentions several times, only to dismiss:

The traditional Eurocentric order of international law is foundering today, as is the old nomos of the earth. This order arose from a legendary and unforeseen discovery of a new world, from an unrepeatable historical event. Only in fantastic parallels can one imagine a modern recurrence, such as men on their way to the moon discovering a new and hitherto unknown planet that could be exploited freely and utilized effectively to relieve their struggles on earth.

Interesting stuff, but heavy reading. On finishing the book, I turned for relief to this embarrassingly entertaining neo-pulp by S. M. Stirling, The Sky People. [Amazon link] Stirling is known for military science fiction with an Alternative History twist. We find both these elements in this book, not least in this excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica (16th Edition), published in another 1988:

[T]he discoveries [of habitable conditions on Mars and Venus] which began in the 1950s have affected us not only through increased scientific knowledge and technological spin-offs, but also through the shaping of national rivalries. Few now remember how real the threat of another global war was in the 1950s, or how serious conflicts on the periphery of the blocs remained as late as the early 1960s. Many contemporary analysts credit the Space Race, as much as nuclear weapons themselves, with breaking the twenty-year cycle of the World Wars.

Here is High Concept that any acquisitions editor would love: a plausible context in which the extraterrestrial pulp fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs might actually happen. For this book, innocent trees were pulped to describe events on Venus in the year of that encyclopedia entry.

Until the 1930s, perhaps, it was possible to imagine that the inner solar system included a satisfyingly Hegelian dialectic of jungle-covered, savage Venus and arid, decadent Mars bracketing the clement and mature Earth. Soon telescopic observation made this model less and less tenable; the dispatch in the 1960s of the first interplanetary space probes confirmed that the inner solar system’s chief intrinsic interest would be to science buffs. The premise of The Cloud People is that the discoveries pointed in the opposite direction, causing ever rising excitement. The fundamental point of temporal divergence is in the Triassic, when an Unknown Agency terraformed Mars and Venus with species from Earth, and which apparently has been moving things between worlds much more recently. Aside from that, however, the only arbitrary change in the timeline is the death of Mao Zedong in 1956. The rest of the divergence is internally consistent; including, for once, the technological acceleration that characterizes much of Stirling’s Alternative History.

This is still not quite classic pulp-fiction space travel. For one thing, it’s almost as capital intensive as spaceflight in our timeline. It costs $50-million (in 1988 dollars, presumably) to move a human being from Earth to the American settlement, Jamestown, on Venus. Anyone who makes the trip is likely to stay there permanently. Except for the works of the terraformers, the book uses only tabletop physics of the most entertaining variety (a little extra oxygen in the atmosphere goes a long way), plus a neatly handled philological discovery. (A note for future editions, however: when you say that someone’s intelligence is “at the top of the bell-curve,” you are not making a compliment.) More generally, the book makes good use of the fact that the Venusian biosphere (not “Venerian,” alas) does not make sense. Dinosaurs, human beings, saber-toothed tigers, Neanderthals, velociraptors: they not only should not exist at the same time; it is hard to see how they could coexist in the same place. The most advanced human culture is a Bronze Age city state (think Babylon plus Tenochtitlan). It is located in a climatically extreme and geographically isolated region and surrounded by a wall; the latter is chiefly to keep out the appalling fauna rather than any neighboring people. To paraphrase one of the characters, Venus is too lively to be really habitable.

And yes, there are characters, notably an omnicompetent ethnologist from Louisiana on whose account we are treated to snippets of Cajun French and many fattening paragraphs about Cajun food. The story itself is just your average find-the-missing-Lithuanian hunt across 5,000 miles of trackless jungle in an airship made of almost-bamboo and dinosaur guts. (This is good Alternative History, so there must be an airship.) There is polite sabotage by an agent of the Gaullist backwater into which the European Union has declined. There is an amazonian shamaness in dire need of rescue; there is a huge but cuddly pet; there is an alternatively spelled General Clarke. Best of all, perhaps, in an appendix, there is a flashback to a science-fiction convention in 1962, The Year When Everything Changed. There we join the grand panjandrums of 20th-century science fiction as they spend a beery afternoon watching live television images from the first probe to land on Mars. It lands on the edge of a canal. The SF writers’ remarks are characteristically acute.

Carl Schmitt may have been too pessimistic: one can imagine scenarios that would put the Earth “in context,” as the discovery of the Western Hemisphere put Europe in context. The matter is often discussed in SETI circles, for instance. The discovery of another civilization in space, even one whose radio messages we were receiving thousands of years after their transmission, would certainly have some effect on human society globally. For that matter, even the drab solar system we do inhabit could become an Outside if it were easier to travel in it. It is not hard to imagine technological innovations that might do that, however hard it is to build the innovations themselves. The question is whether either of those possibilities, or even the Flash Gordon solar system we find in The Sky People, would have quite the effect on terrestrial geopolitics that Stirling proposes, or indeed that Schmitt imagined.

I have avoided giving away more plot spoilers than can be found in the dustjacket text; I don’t think I’ll spoil anyone’s fun by adding a few more backstory details. In the 1988 of the book, the roster of great powers includes the Anglosphere, The EastBloc (always spelled like that), and a European Union that consists principally of France, West Germany, and Italy. The EastBloc still runs from the South China Sea to the West German border. For the Chinese at the EastBloc base on Venus, “to get rich is glorious,” and one gathers that the whole Bloc is gradually Sinicizing. The United States had not been in a major war since Korea; there had in fact been no major war anywhere on Earth since the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967, which was ended by a settlement jointly imposed by the great powers.

This model posits global multipolarity brought about by inattention. The borders of the coldest part of the Cold War were left in place because the world’s political classes could not be bothered to change them, so focused were they on getting into space. One can see why the Chinese might want to maintain the link to Russia, in order to become part of a space effort they would not be able to mount themselves. Why Western Europe was not similarly inspired to retain the tie with the US is something of a mystery.

Be that as it may, there is some ambiguity about what kind of international system exists in this alternative 1988. Stirling seems to imagine all of Earth becoming a Greater Europe, defining and consolidating itself against the New Worlds. As we saw in the quotation at the beginning of this review, something of the same notion appears to have occurred to Schmitt, but his favored course for the future was a world of Großräume, of culturally and politically different spheres of influence, like the civilizations in Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.” Actually, the “blocs” in this book are rather like the ones Schmitt imagined would follow the Second World War. So, what we have here is a set of separate civilizations acting like the belligerently harmonious European state system of the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is no criticism of Stirling’s imagination to say that this system is conceptually incoherent. Indeed, one might say that this is the problem with the world today; or rather, it is the problem with the tolerable alternatives to a unipolar world in 21st-century conditions.

There are also objections to be made to the cultural history that The Sky People presupposes. What we have here is a world in which “the ‘60s” never happened. There was no Vietnam War, at least for the United States; there were even two successful presidential terms for John Kennedy. To judge from this book, there was no era of political disillusionment and no bohemianization of morals. There was, however, “Star Trek,” or rather a science-fiction series produced by Gene Roddenberry under another name that set the tone for popular culture generally.

It is hard to imagine a world in which the 1950s simply continued. One need not adopt a general theory of generational change to suspect that societies have their internal rhythms, long-running patterns for which events like wars and assassinations are occasions rather than causes. One can imagine a different 1960s (most of which happened in the ‘70s, of course), a ‘60s with different emphases, and even different major themes, but it is doubtful that such a cultural pulse can be merely edited out of any timeline.

And if the strange years really could have been avoided? Read the mainstream political and economic literature of the 1950s, and you will be struck by the placid assumption that the future belonged to large, centrally directed, capital intensive institutions. That way of viewing the world survived well into the 1970s. In fact, the NASA that went to the Moon was animated by the spirit of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society (1958). That is part of the reason why early manned spaceflight was a stillborn enterprise. The space program did not need more money. What it needed was time, and a plan like the one proposed by Werner von Braun for step-by-step development. (Von Braun appears in this book, too, and very pleased he is with himself, as you might imagine.) It is not at all clear that a society that was merely an extension of the 1950s would have been capable of putting people on Venus without preposterous expense. It certainly would have been unlikely to produce engineers with the wit or imagination to use dinosaur intestines to build a zeppelin.

Zeppelins are key.


Very eager readers may preorder
In the Courts of the Crimson Kings,
the second book in this series,
which takes the story to Mars


Copyright © 2008 by John J. Reilly

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