I've come to the conclusion by now that S M Stirling is very good at scenarios, good at capable heroines, and good at scenic descriptions. His male heroes tend to be always of the same type: muscular and intelligent, good with weapons, but not very interesting. His women show a bit more variety and can be more interesting than the men. As a novelist in general, he's not highbrow: he aims to tell an entertaining adventure story.
This book, then, is much as expected: an entertaining adventure story with an impressive scenario, a muscular hero, and an attractive heroine.
It's set on Venus — which in this alternate 20th century was discovered to have an Earthlike atmosphere and climate, and to be inhabited by remarkably Earthlike forms of life: including primitive humans, Neanderthals, dinosaurs of various kinds, and mammals of various sizes.
The year is 1988 and a smallish American colony has been established on Venus — plus a not-hostile, but not entirely friendly Russian colony elsewhere on Venus.
An American expedition is sent by airship to rescue survivors of a crashed Russian shuttle craft. The rescue expedition runs into its own problems, and we have an adventure story set amongst huge and dangerous wildlife, plus a mystery element: how is it that life on Venus is so similar to life on Earth?
It's all very competently written and put together, and this Venus-that-never-was is well imagined and described. However, although I found it very readable the first time, it somehow fails to fascinate, and I wonder whether I'll reread it much in future. I detect two main problems:
- Stirling is in love with his own scenario (well, I can sympathize, it is a good scenario), so that the book sometimes feels more like a travelogue than a novel. In the early stages the story seems a bit slow.
- The only character I really take to is Teesa, the young Venusian heroine. The other characters are frankly rather dull. The hero, Marc Vitrac, comes from Louisiana and uses bits of Cajun dialect, but I'm afraid that's not enough to make him interesting, although he's likeable enough in his way.
I propose the hypothesis that fictional characters need weaknesses or defects of some kind in order to be interesting. The Earthmen in this book have been very carefully selected not to have weaknesses or defects; which makes them dull. Teesa isn't notable for weaknesses or defects either, but at least she's less muscular and more prone to emotion than the Earthmen. And, coming from a primitive culture, she has much to learn about technology.
The setup on Venus is that the American and Russian colonies are under (separate) military command, so the subject of politics doesn't really come up. Given Stirling's handling of politics in Conquistador, this is probably just as well.
This is not a long book (about 300 pages), and it's due to be followed very soon by a sequel set on Mars. I suppose I can recommend it if you're in a mood for a readable and undemanding adventure story with some unusual wildlife. It would do for reading on a journey. But it seems a minor book. It remains to be seen whether the sequel (which I intend to read, out of curiosity) will change my perception of it.
Written in February 2008