The Sky People
As anyone who has followed my career (if you can call it that) knows, I have a special love for the genre often called “Sword and Planet” or “Planetary Romance”. The platonic ideal of this genre is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom chronicles. The essential feature of the genre is an alien world filled with monsters, princesses wearing next to nothing, advanced technology alongside swords and arrows, and a heroic square-jawed Earthman who will come along and save the oddly-colored natives from some terrible threat, usually rising from a despised outsider to a revered leader in a matter of weeks. You know… Avatar. Only a lot less pedantic and preachy.
Anyway, this genre is known for several things, good and bad… the bad being ludicrous science, cardboard characters, and considerable sexism and racism. When modern authors approach the genre, they tend to do a conscious pastiche of the “old school” minus the political incorrectness, but otherwise identical to material which would not have been out of place in a magazine published a century ago. (Some of us also attempt a respectful, albeit tongue-in-cheek, approach.)S. M. Stirling tries a surprisingly new approach — take all the tropes of the genre and dump them in world which is psychologically, politically, and scientifically real. Does it work?
Well, I wouldn’t have finished the book if it didn’t, so there’s not a lot of suspense to that question. But click the “Read More” button anyway, OK?
Fur Bikinis, Dinosaurs, and AK-47s
“The Sky People” is set in the 1990s of a world very much like our own, but with a few minor political differences. The Cold War is still going on, though some of the players have shifted a bit. Technology is slightly more advanced than it was during that decade. Oh, and both Venus and Mars have habitable environments, and Venus is populated by sexy cavewomen in fur bikinis, vicious Neanderthal savages, and dinosaurs.
And… and here’s what kicks the book away from the pack… the Earthmen who come to Venus know that that’s totally effed up.
Oh, and there’s Earthwomen, too.
And not everyone from Earth is white. Or American.
And they got there via late 20th century rocket technology, a journey of several months and ludicrous expense, and it’s a one-way trip.
However, this isn’t a “deconstruction” of the genre. While there’s a lot of realism in terms of characters, action, and technology, there’s no heavy-handed “message” or “twist” you saw coming a light year away. It’s a very good look at, and answer to, the question of “What if we found out that the inner worlds of the solar system were habitable and inhabited? What would we do, how would we react?”
Well, the Russians and the Americans each reacted by starting up small colonies, composed of the best of the best of the best. This is a nice way of justifying the often ludicrous levels of competence displayed by the genre’s human heroes. It costs a bloody fortune to send anyone to Venus, so the people who are sent are the best possible investments. All have at least two doctorates, and are in peak physical condition. (Since it’s a one way trip and there will be breeding going on, this makes double sense . First, it’s a rough, harsh, pioneer life, and second, if you’re creating a colony, you want to start with the best genetic stock you can.)
The main plot of the novel consists of an attempt to rescue the survivors of a crashed Russian craft. What begins as a “simple” (by which I mean “incredibly dangerous and risky”) dirigible trek down a few thousand miles of Venusian coastline turns into an incredible adventure with psychic powers, alien intelligences, and computer-controlled dinosaurs. There is romance, action, excitement, and all the rest of what you’d expect from the genre, but written like a novel from the 2000s, not the 1930s. The novel ends with some mysteries answered and many more revealed, and there’s a sequel, set on Mars, already out. (Haven’t read it yet, will soon.)
Setting a roleplaying game on the Venus of “The Sky People” is relatively straightforward. Any RPG system which supports heroic but human characters and which can handle large scale creatures, such as dinosaurs, can do it. GURPS: Lands Out of Time is an, ahem, obvious choice. Ditto HERO system, FATE, or D20 Modern, though with the latter, I’d recommend starting characters at around 5th level to reflect the competence of the humans who made it to Venus. Likewise, all (human) characters should have high intelligence, in whatever system you’re using, and the appropriate skills in the sciences. No one is sent to Venus just to be dumb muscle; if there’s a grizzled Marine sergeant on the planet, he’s a grizzled Marine sergeant with a PhD in neolithic cultures, a master gunsmith who can start with raw, unrefined, ore, and a professional linguist. The native humans have cultures ranging from the Neolithic to the Bronze age, so if you want a character whose skills are more purely physical, that’s really your best choice, and you get to do the whole “Tell me more of this Earth thing called kissing” routine. Well, not really, as the locals are not innocent naifs in any way, and are more likely to say “Tell me more of this Earth thing called ‘krav maga'”, frankly. In one scene (minor spoiller), the classic “barbarian princess in a fur bikini” manages to capture an AK-47 from a tribe of brutal Neanderthals (who had, in turn, taken them from the Russkies), and by dint of careful observation and experimentation, figures out how to use it very effectively. The book drives home the point, over and over, that “primitive” and “stupid” are by no means synonyms. (The lower your technology, the smarter you need to be just to get by, because you have fewer second chances and much less stored and easily accessed knowledge.)
Combat can be lethal, but not overwhelmingly so, because there is a lot of action in the setting and it’s no fun to be useless from a single shot. At the same time, characters deeply respect the power of guns, knives, and angry triceratops. Hit locations and specific injuries fit the feel of the setting better than a vast pool of hit points, but it’s not so vital that the tone of the books would be ruined forever if you went with a D20 based ruleset. (While I think a more classic kind of sword&planet roleplaying game could be done with Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, I think this particular setting is too gritty for that.)
Likewise, maintaining technology, especially if cut off from the human colony, is difficult. Bullets are not in infinite supply, and there’s a constant threat of mud, rust, and other contaminants that can foul the works of any piece of complex hardware. Characters should be prepared to lose their toys, both in terms of player expectations and character abilities. In other words, don’t put all your character building eggs in the basket of gun skills.
There are some campaign pitfalls potential GMs must be aware of. For one thing, the game is limited to one planet, which obviously isn’t a problem most of the time (most “sword and planet” novels either have a single world, or multiple mini-worlds, ala Flash Gordon, which basically turn each biome of a normal world into a world of its own — the ice world, the swamp world, etc.) With Venus, it’s pretty much a planet-wide rainforest/swamp/ocean. There are some variant areas, some places dryer or higher or colder, but you don’t have the “fantastic” landscapes of fantasy or pulp worlds — there’s no forests of mile-high trees, or caverns of crystal, or floating islands (gahk…). Likewise, while there is some (again, spoilers) Clarke-level “sufficiently advanced technology” that includes psychic powers, it’s well outside of the expected capacity of the PCs and should be introduced by the Game Master with considerable care. Lastly, high-speed travel is very limited. Dirigibles are the vehicle of choice for long-distance overland travel, as the infrastructure to support heavier-than-air craft isn’t there. (Of course, a campaign set in this universe could click the timeline forward a decade or two, to the point where the colony has a population in the low hundreds, mostly native-born, and the process of establishing a local industrial base is further along, but I think that loses some of the frontier/survival feeling, where setting up basic smelting and mining operations are a key concern.)
This hybrid of a realistic, scientifically accurate, world with complex and psychologically real characters and classic pulp tropes, imagery, and concepts makes for a challenging and different game setting, one which isn’t just the same old thing with “Green Martians” scribbled in for “Orcs”. If anyone tries it, let me know how it goes!