Nebula Award-winning author Pamela Sargent is famous for writing her feminist sci-fi classic, The Shore of Women. And with her three-book saga, The Venus Collection, she delivers another complex, female-fronted tale that has a social and political conscience. Sargent opens the series with dystopian-set The Venus of Dreams, in which little Iris Angharads bucks against the conventions of her society—longing for an education, but constantly meeting resistance from her mother. Only her grandmother, Julia, appears to be supportive of Iris’ secret lessons with a futuristic teacher named Bari.
Iris is particularly fascinated by The Venus Project, a centuries-old initiative that aims to terraform the volcanic planet (as opposed to living inside spherical habitats like so many others). The more Iris learns, the more she hopes to one day help them transform this "hellish world" into a human-friendly second Earth. But to achieve such goals, Iris must first take on anyone who insists she belongs on her family's farm, and partner up with a man who shares her passion...
Iris grows up over the course of the novel, and her choices influence the events of its sequel, Venus of Shadows. Here, Iris’ children—Risa and Benzi—live together on Venus, but stand on opposite sides of a growing conflict. A bizarre religious cult has taken shape, and its existence further interferes with the Project’s progress once civil war breaks out…Even years later, in the trilogy’s epic conclusion, humans cannot live 100% safely on Venus’ surface—though there’s hope that Mahala Lianghard may finally change that. But like her famous ancestor, Iris, Mahala feels suffocated by the expectations thrust upon her. As her fellow colonists vie for the planet’s independence and rebellion starts to brew, she tries to achieve her own destiny without destroying herself—or the Project—in the process.
Massive in scope and starring a cast of fully-realized characters, The Venus Collection is a multi-generational epic that may remind readers of another terraforming saga—Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Experience Sargent’s fascinating world by reading the following excerpt from the first book, in which we learn about the Venus Project and Iris’ dream to become a part of something bigger than herself.
Venus of Dreams
The teaching image, who called herself Bari, had become Iris’s friend. The girl knew that the image was not a real woman, but only a set of complex responses presented to her by the cyberminds when she linked herself to them with her band. The real Bari who had served as the model would be living her life elsewhere, unaware of Iris, or might even be dead, but Iris forgot that when she spoke to Bari’s image.
Julia, with her talk about Venus, had aroused the child’s curiosity about that world. There, her grandmother had told her, was a place where people did great deeds; there was a place where people could do something new instead of what others had done before them, where even a worker was of value. It was Bari who explained what Venus’s transformation might mean to humanity.
With her band, Iris was able to see Venus as it had been over four hundred years ago, before its transformation had begun. She floated at the edge of an atmosphere nearly two hundred kilometers thick, then dropped through the ionized layers toward the poisonous clouds below, where the strong winds howled as they swept westward around the planet. Venus was shrieking its warning to her and to all people: You tame me at your peril; you may have named me for love, but remember the wildness and cruelty that is so often part of love.
As Iris continued to fall, the winds died and the acidic clouds thinned into a haze. Now, she seemed to be standing on a barren plain of basaltic rock; to the west, lightning flickered above a volcano. The volcano’s slopes made her think of a mountain of shields, thrown there by invisible warriors as they awaited a coming battle. An eerie orange light shone through the stagnant haze, illuminating the hellish world.
That surface, four hundred years before, had been almost nine times as hot as the hottest summer days on the Plains; the atmospheric pressure had been ninety times as great as Earth’s. Even if Iris could have stood on the surface and endured the heat without being crushed by the pressure of Venus’s atmosphere or poisoned by the sulfuric acid of the clouds, she would have had no air to breathe. The atmosphere of carbon dioxide, which kept the intense heat from escaping, would have killed her.
Yet human beings had begun to terraform that world, dreaming of making it a new Earth. If they could do that, Iris thought, then they could do almost anything; the light of the planet would show all the people of Earth their true greatness. She thought: If I could be part of it and work there, I’d be doing something wonderful. She would not return to Lincoln discouraged and unhappy, as Julia had; she would stand on the hill with her descendants and tell them proudly of her own deeds as she pointed at the beacon of Venus.
This dream had begun in one mind, the mind of a man who had somehow managed to look beyond the ruined Earth on which he lived.
Karim al-Anwar had been one of the earliest of Earth’s Mukhtars; that simple title, which any village elder in his part of the world might have claimed, belied his power. The Mukhtars who had preceded him had survived Earth’s wars over resources and had seen many of the ravaged world’s people abandon Earth for space, to make new homes in hollowed-out asteroids and, later, inside vast globes built out of the resources sunspace offered. Those left behind on Earth had gathered together, seeing that the world could now be theirs and the destiny of their people fulfilled.
She thought: If I could be part of it and work there, I’d be doing something wonderful.
The New Islamic States became the first Nomarchy, which stretched from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean to the Central Asian plain. A few people in that region had seen their chance for power at the end of the last of the Resource Wars, when the Russians who had dominated them for so long had finally lost their grip on that territory. If the soldiers of the New Islamic States could seize control of the weapons in Earth orbit, the world would be theirs.
Those soldiers, along with the rest of Earth, endured the humiliation of being forced into peace, for those living on the space stations had repudiated any allegiance to Earth and taken control of the orbiting weapons, and it was then that the Islamic soldiers saw their opportunity. They became the first to negotiate with the spacedwellers, and swallowed their pride to plead their case, for they saw that the spacedwellers did not want the burden of holding Earth in check, and were already planning to abandon the home world for habitats in space.
The New Islamic States did not win the Earth. It was thrown to them, a worn-out husk that the spacedwellers no longer wanted. Unity under one power might enable Earth to rebuild; it had not mattered to the spacedwellers which group held that power.
The first Nomarchy’s old enemies, drained by war, made an alliance with the Islamic States; nations that had once been stronger were in no position to fight. Once, the Mukhtars and their people had been suspicious of the culture that had dominated the world; now they saw that they would have to make it their own in order to survive.
Earth began to rebuild. More Nomarchies were formed, each with some autonomy, but ruled at first by one of the first Nomarchy’s Mukhtars, and later by those the Mukhtars had trained. The Guardians of the Nomarchies, all that remained of the armed forces that had once fought Earth’s battles, would maintain the orbiting weapons systems and keep the peace.
Karim al-Anwar might have contented himself with helping to keep what Earth had managed to wrest from the ruins. But where others saw people finally at peace, Karim saw people who needed a new dream, a goal that might lift them to greater endeavors that would rival the accomplishments of the Associated Habitats and their people, who had abandoned Earth. The people of the Nomarchies needed more than the placid hope of preserving what they had. They had been fortunate; Earth’s most destructive weapons had been used only intermittently during the Resource Wars. Yet Karim believed that, without an outlet, widespread violence might once again be visited upon his world.
Karim might have had hidden reasons for his dream. Perhaps he had wanted his name to live forever; perhaps his vision had been the product of a half-mad mind wanting to dominate human history. Maybe he had wanted to bury the shame of knowing that his own people would have had no power if the spacedwellers had not given it to them. There was no way for Iris, as she learned of Karim, to be sure, for Karim’s true self had been swallowed by the legend he had helped to create.
Karim had dreamed of transforming another world. The ways of the Associated Habitats were a break with Earth’s past, while Karim sought a continuity with the older culture. Planets were the proper homes of humanity, not the closed Habitats. There were worlds within Earth’s grasp, planets that could become new homes.
Mars had seemed the most likely candidate for terraforming, but Habbers lived on the two Martian satellites and had already established their claim to the Red Planet. The gas giants beyond the orbit of Mars offered too many obstacles to transformation, and people inhabiting their satellites would be too far from Earth and its influence. That left Venus, Earth’s so-called twin.
The ancient goddess who had borne the names of Venus and Aphrodite had been born of the sea and the blood and seed of the ancient god Uranus; she had risen from the sea in all her beauty, alighting on the island of Cythera to be worshipped. The death of the old god had given her life; his blood had become her beauty. So the planet named for her would also be transformed, and its people become a new Nomarchy of Cytherians.
Though the legend said that Karim al-Anwar had quickly brought others to share his dream, it was likely that many had thought him mad. His Venus Project would demand much from Earth, and there was little enough to give. Why should more resources be drained by such a task?
Karim, as it happened (though the legend might also have exaggerated his capabilities), was not only an engineer but also a student of history. The Venus Project, he argued, costly as it might be, would stretch Earth’s abilities; the new technologies that would have to be developed would enrich the home world, and Earth would acquire a new generation of knowers and doers, as the Associated Habitats had done. Earth, he believed, had suffered strife not because its resources were too few, but because the world had not seized the opportunities for greater resources that space had offered; it was no surprise that the spacedwellers, growing impatient, had escaped Earth’s bonds.
In the future, Karim claimed, Earth might in fact need the knowledge the Venus Project would yield, in order to transform itself. Many had noted the rise in Earth’s temperatures, the slow melting of its polar ice caps, the gradual flooding of coastal cities, the increase of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. When Karim thought of the barren, hot, dead land under Venus’s clouds, he saw Earth’s own possible future, and feared for it.
Karim al-Anwar spoke of revitalizing Earth’s cautious and fearful culture with the great task of the Venus Project. From scraps of evidence gleaned by those who had studied the Cytherian planet and who had posed the possibility that Venus might have had oceans during its distant geological past, Karim composed a dreadful picture of Earth’s possible future fate, and spoke of human history passing into Habber hands if Earth could not learn how to transform a world. Perhaps he also suspected that the Venus Project would occupy those who might otherwise have interfered with the Mukhtars and their control of Earth’s Nomarchies, and did not voice those particular thoughts.
Karim lived only long enough to see a study of the Venus Project’s feasibility begun, but he had imbued his followers with his goal, and died knowing that others would achieve it. That, at least, was what the legend claimed. Perhaps Karim, contending with those who considered him an impractical dreamer, had begun to despair before then; maybe some of those who at first opposed him took credit for furthering his vision later. Some, in the centuries to come, might even have thought that Karim was fortunate not to have seen the results of his dream; history, as always, would confound both visionaries and naysayers alike.
Karim, Iris saw, would long be remembered. Karim had not been content with what he had, even when his power was greater than that of most; he had reached for more. Somehow, Iris felt a bond with this man, even though he had been a Mukhtar and she was only one of those millions the Mukhtars ruled. She could share his dream. She could become more than another name in the list of her line, more than another farmer who kept the bellies of Earthfolk full. Making grain grow on the Plains was little compared to seeing a world bloom under one’s hands.
Making grain grow on the Plains was little compared to seeing a world bloom under one’s hands.
Bari’s voice would fill with pride as Iris viewed the history of the Project’s beginnings. Without being shaded from the sun so that its temperature could begin to drop, Venus could not be changed; the Project’s first goal had been to provide a shield. The immensity of that task alone was enough to cause even Karim’s most devoted disciples to doubt the wisdom of the Project.
The space station called Anwara had been built, and circled Venus in a high orbit; soon, new modules were added to it to house those who would build the Parasol that would shield Venus from the sun.
A large disk, kilometers wide, was set up between Venus and the sun, and metal fans were linked to that disk. Iris gazed at images of the Parasol’s construction; as more fans were added, Iris found herself thinking of a flower’s petals, while the tiny ships moving near it reminded her of insects.
The Parasol had grown until it was almost as wide in diameter as Venus itself, and it had taken over a century to build. Dawud Hasseen had been the chief engineer and designer of the Parasol; his name was remembered. The names of those who had died building the vast umbrella were also remembered, and there were many such names, for the work had held its dangers. Their lives might have been shortened, but the beginning of a new world would be their legacy.
More people, undeterred by reports of injured and dying workers inadequately protected from solar radiation during the construction of the Parasol, came to Anwara. Often, the new arrivals were greeted by those who were ailing and who would soon be too weak to continue to labor for the Project themselves. A few arrivals lost heart when they saw such people but many more took courage from their example and came to feel that a short life doing great deeds was better than a long one waiting for the time when one would return to the dust of Earth. More modules were added to the station, but new dwellings were needed, new and more pleasant homes for those prepared to spend their lives with the Project.
The Cytherian Islands began as vast platforms built on rows of large metal cells filled with helium. Dirt and soil were placed on top of the platforms, which were then enclosed by an impermeable, lighted dome. The Islands were gardened; soon they bloomed with trees, grass, and flowers, and those who came to live on them longed for no other home. These Islands were part of Venus, the first outposts of those whose descendants would be the first settlers. The Islands, located north of Venus’s equator, floated in the upper reaches of the Cytherian atmosphere above the poisonous clouds and were protected by the Parasol’s shade; they were tiny beacons lighting humanity’s way.
The Parasol was the greatest structure human beings had ever built and was a monument to Karim al-Anwar’s dream. Venus was cloaked in its shadow. The Parasol had succeeded in cooling the world it shaded, but even with what the Project had done since then, Venus was still a hot and deadly place. Bari had spoken movingly of those who had died helping to bring life to a world that they would never live to see.
“Venus might have been a world like ours,” Bari said, “but its development took a different path. Now our world is also changing. We may need to transform it in the future. Look at Venus, and consider how tenuous our grip on life is, and how easily it could have been otherwise on our world.”
It’s my star, Iris thought, my world. I might even stand on it someday. She was like Venus. Bari would shield her for a time as the Parasol shielded that world, protecting her as she learned. The clouds around her mind would vanish as Bari led her to light.
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Featured image of Venus' surface: Wikipedia
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