The Hook

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.

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