This book highlights both Stirling's strengths and weaknesses. His main strength is the power of his underlying ideas, and the depth with which he hasThis book highlights both Stirling's strengths and weaknesses. His main strength is the power of his underlying ideas, and the depth with which he has thought them out. The premise is that the entire northern hemisphere basically got wiped out by meteors in the 19th century, but Britain managed to relocate some of its population and retain its power base -- in India, Australia, and South Africa. Flash forward 250 years, but with technology lagging behind, and resources much different than they otherwise would be. So the land still has Empires, steam engines, etc...
His main weakness is in characterization. Even his best characters tend to be very thin, and this book doesn't have anything approaching his best characters. Everyone here seems to have come straight out of central casting. His other weakness is in doing fantasy. This becomes a problem in the latter half of the Emberverse. Here, it rears its head in the form of the Sisters of True Dreaming. These people have a genetic trait that allows them to see parallel, possible worlds. It's a neat advantage, because it can let them know precisely what will happen next, and thereafter. The problem with this, for me, is that these woman are kept brutally oppressed by their Russian masters, and have been for a couple of centuries. But the book itself shows what an enormous advantage they would have in any tactical or strategic encounter. So how did they not overcome their oppression? It makes little sense to me.
But that's not why the book fell flat for me. Instead, it fell flat because I thought the entire thing was a rather unimaginative story hitched onto a very cool idea. The surprises were more like winks, because everything happened just as one would expect in this sort of tale. In other words, there was no need for a Sister of True Dreaming, because everything proceeded as if it were on rails. While diverting, and easy to read, this was not nearly his best....more
More and more, I'm thinking of Stirling as a guy who makes mediocre books out of really cool ideas. Here, an alien race terraformed Venus and Mars a cMore and more, I'm thinking of Stirling as a guy who makes mediocre books out of really cool ideas. Here, an alien race terraformed Venus and Mars a couple of million years ago. It made a kind of zoo out of Venus, populating it with all sorts of Earth critters, and then setting up a sentinel for observation. This race, apparently, is so advanced that it can go to the trouble of terraforming an entire planet, and then just leave it alone without seeming to use it for anything.
That premise is the jumping off point for an alternate history. When the space programs did the first drive-by of Venus back in 1962, they found a planet very capable of supporting life, instead of an 800 degree hellhole with an almost entirely CO2 atmosphere. So a probe was launched, and not only was life discovered, but humanoid life. This diverted the course of Earth history. JFK gets a second term. The cold war comes to an early end as governments focus obsessively on the exploration and colonization of Mars and Venus.
This is an extremely cool premise. But Stirling does what he seems to do too easily. He sticks in his stock characters, and runs them through an adventure that seems like a coy reworking of The Lost World or One Million Years B.C. As always, his hero is a brash and hyper-competent guy with a quasi-military background. You could take Marc in this book and plug him into almost any other Stirling hero without noticing much of a difference. This time, the hero is Cajun, and that means he starts some of his interior monologues with the word "Mais", and he makes a roux once. Otherwise, he's the same guy I've seen at least five times before.
He and some other hyper-competent folks go on a rescue mission, trying to save the crew of a downed Russian shuttle. Along the way there is a Russian plot, the possibility of a love triangle, the mystery of a saboteur, Neanderthals with AK-47s, and some other engaging possibilities. For the most part, these threads simply fizzle. The action remains fast paced, well described, and fun. But there is so much possibility here, some just from the set-up, and other bits from plot tensions that Stirling deliberately created. And he just doesn't do much with the material he's created. To me, it felt like he just got lazy. To a certain extent, this book feels like an homage to Burroughs. It's almost as if Stirling couldn't bring himself to take his premise seriously, and yet he doesn't make a really good joke out of it either. Great premise, but disappointing execution....more