There's a lot to like about S. M. Stirling's unabashedly retro pulp adventure pastiche The Sky People, not the least of which is that it isn't just an unabashedly retro pulp adventure pastiche. While the bulk of the book is given over to a very Burroughs-by-way-of-Spielberg action yarn set on a Venus teeming with jungles, Neanderthals, and prehistoric beasties, Stirling couches the whole thing in a very contemporary SFnal sensibility.
The setting is not the future, but the recent past — the book takes place in 1988, following a 1960's prologue establishing the initial discovery of Venusian life. Stirling concocts an inspired alternate-historical backstory, weaving actual 20th century politics into a speculative scenario that asks how the Cold War and other late-century turmoil might have been sidelined by the discovery of intelligent alien life, not in deep space, but right next door. (This also allows for some hilarious, self-effacing satire regarding the place of SF literature itself in such a world.) A new space race between east and west, focusing on science and economic exploitation, rather than military superiority, is underway. Stirling takes pains to make the ecosystem and biology of his retro-alterna-Venus scientifically plausible, with the mystery of the planet's apparently parallel evolution to that of Earth a key story element. So there's a little something here for both the hard SF crowd as well as folks who just want to watch a great pterosaur attack.
Some elements of the story, though, are a tad originality-challenged, particularly when Stirling gets into 2001-ish territory with some of his explanations. But overall, there's an exciting yarn here. Marc Vitrac is a member of the research team stationed on Venus in the fledgling colony of Jamestown, located near the largest city of the native human population, Kartahown, and some distance from a rival Earth colony run by the Eastbloc (da Russkies). While Vitrac acts as guide to some new arrivals from home, Jamestown learns of an Eastbloc shuttle crash somewhere in the deep wilderness, an area inhabited by savage Neanderthal tribes and even more savage sauropods. Vitrac is assigned to a Jonestown-led rescue effort joined by one Russian woman married to the shuttle pilot. Traveling by airship, they soon end up in deep говно when the craft is brought down in a storm and they must team up with the primitive human tribe of the Cloud Mountain People in order to survive, and find out just what's been going on on Venus for the last several thousand years.
The best scenes are the action scenes, hurling you headfirst and screaming with pulpy joy into a land of the lost where fanged, reptilian doom awaits around every rock. But the story is surprisingly disappointing where Stirling short-changes his native Venusian cultures. Sure, the Cloud Mountain People figure in a major way, but they are, in large part, noble-savage stereotypes. I understand this is purposeful, Stirling's most overt homage to the adventures-of-yesteryear that inspired him. But the more potentially compelling cultures — Kartahown itself, which, in the brief time we see it, has the feel of an ancient Mesoamerican city, or perhaps something like Cahokia — are barely sketched out, tantalizing us with a promise of richness and depth that always remains at arm's length. There's one scene that underscores the missed opportunity here; when a couple of the Earth visitors take a photograph in a temple, it sparks a riot that leaves a number of natives dead. But the incident is quickly over with as if it never occurred, and seems to leave no lasting diplomatic repercussions between the Earthmen and Kartahownians. Next chapter, and everyone's back to business as usual.
Some later scenes are also a little too reminiscent of parts of Stirling's recent Dies the Fire trilogy, in which people from a technological culture were forced by circumstances to live off the land and learn civilization-building from square one. Scenes of characters making bows and arrows, teaming up to bring down big game, etc., recall much of what the Bearkillers had to do back in Dies the Fire. And one major English character* comes off exactly like a younger version of Sir Nigel Loring from The Protector's War, an amusingly anachronistic stereotype of Edwardian aristocracy. It's quaint that Stirling thinks everyone from England is Bertie Wooster, but seriously, come on. I can imagine most readers actually from England will be rolling their eyes Venusward at Stirling's I-say-jolly-good-show-chappies-what-what dialogue.
A good if not great tale, The Sky People might be better enjoyed as a paperback. Then again, if future sequels manage to flesh out the ideas that Stirling has introduced here (and they may well), we could be in for another series as fulfilling as his past have been.
*Well, there is a not-entirely-surprising surprise about this character I won't reveal, but it doesn't alter my point.