Review: Venus of Dreams, by Pamela Sargent
When I was nine or ten years old, the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar showed up on my black and white television. I liked the music and was confused by the tanks and American soldiers showing up in place of Roman centurions, but what i remember best was a scene in which Caiaphas or Pilate — some official anyway — looked out on the crown of Jesus' supporters and sang about how "There must be more than 50,000" of them.
Thing is, Jesus Christ Superstar was made on the cheap (or looked to be) and, unless my memory utterly fails me, that "crowd" was much closer to fifty people than it was to fifty thousand. At that age, such a discrepancy utterly shattered my suspension of disbelief, no matter how good the music.
Unlike a film's, a novel's crowd scenes are limited only by power of the author's imagination, which is one reason why there are a great many epic science fiction novels but very few epic science fiction movies.
So it is particularly strange that the scope of Pamela Sargent's ostensible epic, Venus of Dreams, feels every bit as small as that crowd dancing on the sands of the Judean desert. A 500 page novel about terraforming the planet Venus, that takes place over decades, ought to be a sweeping and complex tale encompassing science and culture, technology and politics, with a large (if not necessarily larger-than-life) and representative cast of characters throwing light on societies and mores other than our own.
Venus of Dreams manages none of these things. Instead this confused mess of a novel begins as an unconvincing bildungsroman, awkwardly transitions into an even less convincing story of political intrigue and ends with an utterly improbable attempt at revolution against a government we never really understand in the first place.
Two planets, one dimension:
'Epic' novel is anything but
|Venus of Dreams
By Pamela Sargent
(E-Reads.com), March, 2009
(First published 1986)
Paperback: 480 pages
ISBN-10: 0759230609 ISBN-13: 978-0759230606
One of the rarest types of SF is political science fiction, especially that which in any way resembles the complex and multifaceted reality of politics as it exists in the real world. Among the few writers who come to mind as exceptions are Samuel R. Delaney and Kim Stanley Robinson, the latter of whom goes the extra step in his Mars books by showing us not just an alternate future, but the transition from one political and economic system to another. (One of these days I'm going to write a long, serious and (I hope) insightful piece about those books, but this isn't that essay.)
I bring up Robinson's Mars because I've seen it mentioned in conjunction with Sargent's Venus, as if the series are not just parallel in super-science themes, but also comparable in the depth and breadth of their speculations on matters of politics and sociology as well as science. That Sargent has a reputation as a feminist only served to further whet my curiosity.
Sadly, the magnificent, if wildly inappropriate, buttocks that grace the cover of the first edition are the best thing about the book, and certainly more apt than any comparison to Robinson's powerful and sophisticated Red Mars. Billed as an epic and praised by the likes of James Gunn and Gregory Benford, Venus of Dreams isn't epic, its politics are simplistic and its world-building and science are unconvincing. Even its remarkably limited cast are characters are too shallow to believe in, their world notable only for its narrow scope and Potemkin depth.
Set 500 years in the future, the first 50 or so pages of Venus of Dreams promise at least an original take on a standard science fiction theme, that of the post-upheaval (if not post-apocalyptic) society. Following a near-collapse of our fractious, violent and chaotic world, a unified, unified, peaceful and very orderly world has risen from the ashes. The Nomarchy is a light-handed, world-girdling dictatorship run by "Muhktars", an Islamic ruling class descended from today's petro-states, though we never learn much about its economy or how much it does or doesn't different from one part of the world to another.
The resource-depleted and conservative world is one that stifles initiative and change. There is but one exception, one long-term, heroic project that seems intended to provide the people with a psychic release more than it is with short-term profit in mind, the terraformation of Venus.
We are introduced to this society through the eyes of a precocious child named Iris Angharads, daughter of a locally powerful woman in the matrilineal (if not matriarchal) culture that has emerged on the plains of what was once the mid-western United States. It is circumscribed, largely illiterate, yet comfortable society in which the women own and farm the land, and the men are itinerant craftsmen and mechanics, where fathers have little or not contact with their children and permanent couples are a scandalous rarity.
Iris is a rebel who stumbles onto the educational possibilities veiled in computerized technology that can be described as a sort of centralized internet. Against the wishes of her mother and in the face of suspicion and mockery from her peers, Iris perseveres in her studies and (you guessed it) Dreams of Venus. Indeed, we are told she becomes obsessed with it.
That obsession takes a long time to reach its goal; we are halfway through the book before Iris (and her young estranged son) leave the Earth. And despite that page-count, Iris never becomes much more real than a starlet in a daily newspaper's half-page feature. We don't really doubt that Iris wants to work on the Venus project, but we don't much care, either.
The second protagonist in this "epic" is Liang Chen, an illiterate worker (and who never does bother to learn to read) who has his own inexplicable obsession with Venus — and with Iris, no matter how much she abuses him (which is an awful lot). Preternaturally patient, this paragon's loyalty is as boring as it is unbelievable.
When these two cyphers finally make it to Venus they become involved in (spoiler alert!) political and revolutionary machinations just as sketchy and unlikely as their characters. We don't even care when their now-adult son Benzi "betrays" his parents' dream of colonization and runs off to join the Habbers. (Didn't I mention the Habbers? Sorry, they are the people who've abandoned the earth for orbital habitats, who apparently live in some kind of techo-utopia — but we never really learn anything specific about their society either, so never mind.)
As you may have gathered by now, despite the fact my copy runs 536 pages, despite the fact the novel covers decades and takes place on or around two different planets, Venus of Dreams features only two major characters, Iris and Liang Chen.
Psychological dramas can get along with two or three major characters (or even with just one — Bob Slocum for a brilliant example), but an epic needs more. A successful epic must convince the reader that the world he or she is visiting is filled with masses of people behind the scenes, with layers of history and myth informing their characters, their beliefs and their actions and that he or she is only touching a small (though usually vital) part of a much greater and complex whole.
Venus of Dreams is not a successful epic any more than it is a successful psychological novel. So if the personal and the political are too small-scale to qualify as epic, and too simplistic for verisimilitude, maybe what we have is an over-long prologue to a Clarkian hard-SF novel about the science and the technology of terraforming itself? After all, the Project isn't just about cooling down and transforming Venus' atmosphere, but also about speeding up the planet's very rotation by something like an order of magnitude or more. Super-science indeed.
But no. The details are few, the concepts hand-waved and attributed to Habbers' technology that might as well be magic so far as our view-point characters are concerned. Just as Venus of Dreams is not really a bildungsroman, so it is not a terraforming novel, a political or a social science fiction novel. Though a reader might hazard a guess any number of guesses as to what Pamela Sargent hoped to accomplish with the book, no one surmise seems any more likely to be correct than another. In the end, Venus of Dreams itself doesn't seem to know what kind of novel it was meant to be.