I sat down to start reading SM Stirling’s The Sky People. Actually, it was my third reading. The first time I saw the novel in a bookstore, the title grabbed me. “Sky People” was a term used by the Na’vi to describe humans in the film Avatar. The green cover showed two rifle-armed astronauts in a jungle with a triceratops and a saber-toothed tiger on the periphery, and the summary on the back – an alternate history story set during the Cold War in which Venus and Mars are habitable with their own native civilizations – sounded pretty cool.
The furthest I’ve gotten into The Sky People was about a quarter of the way through the book. I think I got through the first couple of chapters in the first reading. But tonight? I got through chapter one, and put it down. This is not a condemnation of Stirling’s novel, or of Stirling himself as a writer. I love science fiction. I love alternate history, and I love stories set in a fictionalized Solar System when many other writers choose planets light-years away.
The Sky People has a lot going for it when it comes to world-building. It realistically forces the Space Race into overdrive. Stirling shows us a lush and identifiable Venus; Mars doesn’t appear until the sequel In the Courts of the Crimson Kings. We’ve got NATO-run Jamestown and Soviet-controlled Cosmograd. Bronze-age natives clashing with Neanderthals. Hell, there are even Encyclopedia entries describing this alternate Venus along with initial exploration decades earlier.
What The Sky People lacked – for me, at least – was a strong hook. World-building is a great creative exercise, but the first job of the writer is to entertain and tell a good story. A hook is the first step to draw in the reader. Story world isn’t a hook. It’s a stopper, a term I learned during a short stint as a charity fundraiser last month. Yes, I was one of those guys on the sidewalk raising donations for charity. People passed by me all day long, and a stopper is designed to do just that: stop potential donors (potential readers in this case). You next give a quick icebreaker and an introduction to the pitch – remember, folks got places to go and people to see – but then you have to give them a problem or a crisis.
This is the real hook, a central problem so jarring that readers keep with the story to find the resolution. Soviets put nukes into Cuba, and we want to know how America will dodge a nuclear war. Flesh-eating zombies surround a house, and we wonder how the occupants inside will escape. Claudius takes Hamlet’s birthright, and we wonder how the prince will regain what was stolen. I believe the crisis Stirling is trying to give us is that the Soviets were smuggling guns to Venus that got into the hands of the Neanderthals. It’s a good crisis with echoes of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Prime Directive of Star Trek, but unfortunately it didn’t grab me as much as I would have liked.