Thursday, August 21, 2014

In The Courts of the Crimson Kings - S.M. Stirling

I guess when I have the vague urge to read something, I fall back on sci-fi. I saw this at a yard sale two of my friends wanted to stop for, and it was a quarter, and why not?

As it turns out, In The Courts of the Crimson Kings is the second book in a series, the first book having taken place on Venus, this one on Mars. In this universe, Mars and Venus are both inhabited worlds, and both were altered to accommodate life, and then had it brought there by some incredibly powerful, largely unknown group of beings. They left a few things around, but they seem to operate on levels beyond human comprehension, though there's evidence of still greater things in other star systems.

That's more background music for most of the story,  and Stirling teases a lot of it out through entries about Mars and other topics from fictional encyclopedias at the beginning of each chapter. Whatever things that happened in the first book that are relevant here Stirling makes sure to work into the story. I never felt lost for not having read The Sky People.

The primary story concerns an Earth archeologist, Jeremy Wainman, who has been granted permission to travel to one of the dead cities of Mars to study it. The guide/bodyguard/ship's captain hired to lead is one Teyud za-Zhalt, who is a Martian lady at a sort of crossroads in her life. There are matters of her past that keep her running and hiding, but the life this forces her to live is one she's growing tired of. So the expedition is at least a change of pace, and it fortunately or unfortunately coincides with her past insisting it can't be outrun. Which is in of itself a good and bad thing. Bad, because it means suddenly everyone is trying to capture or kill her. Good, because if she can survive, she won't have to run and hide any longer.

The book feels a bit like a combination of a lot of different authors' work. A little Arthur C. Clarke, a touch of Asimov, a fair amount of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I'm pretty sure this is intentional - Stirling leads the book with a large collection of science fiction authors watching the first Viking lander on Mars confirm that it, like Venus, has intelligent life. The book feels like Stirling is trying to write a sort of classic sci-fi story, but perhaps combined in different ways. You have the brave Earthman on a world not his own, but he's an archeologist who's already studied what they know about the world he's on, and the people who inhabit it. He speaks their language passably well from the start, but doesn't know all their customs, and their are sufficient differences in the personalities of Earthlings and Martians he can still be out of his depth. He falls in love, but she ends up saving him at least as often as he saves her, and she's the more direct, physical one, while he seems at least somewhat more crafty (or more inclined to act that way, perhaps. Teyud actually probably is more clever, but a lot of times opts to go right at a problem).

It's not a book I see myself needing to reread in the near-future, but it is an enjoyable, fast-paced story. Stirling seems to have put a fair amount of thought into the Martian society he's put forth. I don't know if it's realistic, but the pieces seem to fit, especially the idea that the Martians are a fairly pragmatic species, at least in part because they live on such a resource-restricted world. It reminds me of something Bellwood discussed in Man's Conquest of the Pacific. He mentioned a few islands that seem to have been accidentally settles by a small group of people (probably shipwrecks or exiles) who then held on for several generations on these outcroppings of mostly bare rock. He noted that there was little change or modification in the tools and settlements that were found over time. There simply weren't the resources to expend on trying new forms of tools that might be better, but also might not. A conservatism sets in out of necessity.

This is somewhat similar to what Stirling does with the Martians, except there's also a certain stubborn nostalgia, a belief that everything was better before the Age of Dissonance, and they're simply existing in a continual state of decline since then. Both of which combine to produce a society that had largely stagnated, and is surprisingly comfortable with that, or at least not working very hard to reverse the trend. Stirling does introduce a serious game-changer right at the end, and I'm sort of curious what it might do to the Martian culture in subsequent books. I'm not sure I'm curious enough to find those books, but maybe.

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