And it don’t matter if you don’t believe

Venus of Shadows — Pamela Sargent
Venus, book 2


1988’s Venus of Shadows is the middle volume of Pamela Sargent’s Venus trilogy. It was preceded by 1986’s Venus of Dreams and followed by 2001’s Child of Venus.

I know it is odd to start reviewing a series in the middle … but for various reasons this seemed an apt choice for a review that will go live the same day that Americans strain to make the difficult choice between a flawed candidate and a weasel-headed fucknugget once described by helpful Scots as a “tiny-fingered, Cheeto-faced, ferret-wearing shitgibbon.” Although Shadows is a close follow-up to the first volume, Venus of Dreams, it was published in a bygone era when even series books were expected to stand on their own; thus, it can be read without having read the first book.

Centuries after Earth’s Nomarchies began terraforming Venus, the environment on Venus will still kill an unprotected human. Conditions have improved to the point that domed cities on the surface are possible. Earth is slowly relaxing its grip on Venus as the crises narrated in the first novel, Venus of Dreams, fade into the past.

Civilization on Venus is hopeful but fragile.

Venusian politics are dominated by three main factions: Earth’s Muslim-dominated Nomarchies, the off-world Habbers, and the settlers in and around Venus. The Nomarchies are determined to earn respect by transforming Venus; their need for Habber technology and funding is an affront to their pride. The Habbers would like to rebuild their ties with Earth, having essentially turned their back on the planet in the age of chaos before the Nomarchies. The settlers want the new world to be their new world.

Risa was raised on pious tales of her martyred mother Iris. Risa will do whatever it takes to protect the Project from enemies without and enemies within, whether Nomarchian careerists determined to exploit the Project for personal gain or criminal elements fleeing to Venus in search of easy prey. Risa is a hard-nosed realist; religion is not really on her radar. She regards the (new) cult of Ishtar with distant contempt.

Risa should have paid more attention. Her estranged daughter Chimene is perfect fodder for the cult. As driven as her mother, she rises quickly through its ranks. Perhaps too quickly; she becomes Guide, leader of the religion, while still a young woman. Despite her efforts, it’s clear that Ishtar’s appeal is limited, as least as long as there are no significant crises.

When epidemic burns through the population, Chimene and her supporters have a perfect opportunity to push the old order aside, to bring all Venus under Ishtar’s protection, to extend to all the opportunity, the obligation to join the one true religion. To punish all who deviate at all from Ishtar’s holy precepts.


As I recall, this series had an unusual publishing history. Dreams came out in 1986, Shadows in 1988 but Child was delayed until 2001. The first two were published by Bantam Spectra, but the third was published by Eos. The common element seems to be editor Lou Aronica, editor at Bantam from 1985 to 1994 and at Eos from 1995 to 1999. My impression is the third book in Venus series was orphaned by the exit of its editor—twice.

You may wonder “why terraform Venus, of all worlds? Surely space habitats would pay off faster and Mars has to be less impossible than arid, deadly, boiling Venus.” Historical reasons led Earth to focus on Venus: space colonies paid off so well they became the Habbers, whom the Earth sees as snooty, rich, traitors. Mars is too close to the Habbers’ preferred orbits for comfort. With the moons of the outer planets so far away, Venus was the only viable choice left for a large-scale prestige project.

Shadows is a hard SF novel, although Sargent is forced to cheat to make her plot work. The Habbers have some sort of super-science that is never clearly explained. They are using their gravity-manipulation technology to transport immense quantities of hydrogen from the outer planets to Venus. The same handwaving tech also allowed them to spin up Venus, to give it a more Earthlike day. It’s best not to calculate how much energy that would take.

Unlike a certain other trilogy I could mention, Sargent’s Project involves time scales that dwarf humans. Nobody from Earth will live long enough to see the Project through from founding to finish. Even the long-lived Habbers might not. Transforming an entire world, even with the help of handwavium, takes centuries or millennia.

While “backward, comparatively poor, authoritarian Earth versus the wealthy space liberals” is an unfortunately familiar world-building choice1, Sargent’s version has some interesting aspects. For one thing, the future Earth’s cultures are not xeroxed from any present or past real societies. North America is not our North America2, any more than our North America is the same as it was in 1400.

Sargent takes her time building up to Venus’ flirtation with bloody-minded oppression. It takes time for a comparatively small fraction of extremists to worm their way into power. Being the sole guardians of the truth, there is no need for the Ishtarians to compromise, only to search for sufficiently harsh methods that will force wrong-thinkers to abandon their errors (errors such as unconventional sexual orientations) and embrace the one true way. If they resist, well, they can be killed and their organic materials contributed to the Project.

There’s one ray of hope in this setting: Sargent’s choice of time scale. Centuries into terraforming, Venus is still nowhere near self-sufficient. To survive, it must engage with resented Earth and despised Habbers. If Venus could be a hermit kingdom, the cult of Ishtar might have enough time to eliminate all of their enemies. As it is, both Earth and the Habbers have significant leverage over Venus if they choose to use it.

Venus of Dreams is available here. Venus of Shadows is available here. Child of Venus is available here.

1: The 1980s produced a rash of SF novels that postulated distance and fraught relationships between high-tech space colonies and lower tech Earth. Sometimes authors justified their choices (war! plague! doom and destruction!); sometimes the future history seems to have been adopted because authors were wedded to the idea of cosmic relationships that mirrored their ideas about how the developed nations relate to the undeveloped nations.

2: The Nomarchies seem like a pretty sympathetic take on a global caliphate. Which might seem odd, were it not that Americans weren’t quite so bug-fuck insane about Muslims a generation ago. See also Effinger’s Marîd Audran seriesfor a fairly sympathetic view of a Muslim society.

The Nomarchies Islam is centered in the Middle East, not Indonesia. I am sure that someone somewhere will write the great Indonesian Superpower novel (plausible if we assume that sea-level rise does not devastate the region) but this book is not that novel.

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