World in the Clouds

Bob Buckley

buckley

Well, this was a bit of a curate’s egg.

This ran in Analog from March to May in 1980. Although I believe that for a time Andrew Burt was providing Buckley with a venue to sell his fiction, he never made this particular work available. I reread it thanks to the efforts of Royce Day.

If time allows, I will also discuss what else is in these three issues.

Roger Teale grew up in a “dead-end-end ghetto” of the “dying city” [March, 22] of New York, snapped up by a roving Federal Welfare patrol immediately after Roger murdered three fellow “gutter animals” [March, 22]. This is not “the good old days when fifteen year old butchers got five years and a kiss on the cheek while they learned to become better killers” [March, 32] but a time where after “swift and streamlined (trials)” [March, 22] anyone whose crimes warrant a longer term than five years is simply put to sleep [March, 32]. Roger gets lucky; instead of being put down on the spot, he is paroled to the Sayre Foundation for whatever use they deem suitable, explicitly including, as Roger puts it, “[sticking] me in a sleep drum and [rendering] my lovable little carcass down into spare parts for the terminally accident prone” [March, 22].

The Foundation does have a use for Roger and that use is on Venus. In a distant year when May 23rd is a Saturday, humans have colonized the Moon and Mars; although it is a very challenging environment, Venus is slated to be next, a world that will be tamed by a work-force composed in equal parts of the educational elite and condemned prisoners not quite bad enough to be swiftly euthanized as is the custom of this time. The elite are there because Venus requires genius and inspiration to tame and the prisoners are there because it’s best if the legions who die taming Venus are people who won’t be missed. Nobody would ever miss Roger, at least not as he was in N’York.

Happily for Roger, the love of a good woman prevents him from exploring career choices that would land him in that sleep drum. Less happily, the good woman in question is fridged in the opening pages of the novel, just one of an entire team of people whose deaths illustrate how dangerous Venus is. More regrettably, she dies after she and Roger argue (one ironically provoked because she inspired him to better himself) and before they can reconcile.

Rather than give into guilt and despair, Roger throws himself into education and his role as a designated expendable crew member. Unlike “others of [Roger’s] particular breed”, Roger is intelligent and trustworthy [March, 53] enough for brilliant researcher Forsyth to bring Roger into his confidence; while Venus is dangerous and unfamiliar territory, not all of the lethal accidents are actually accidents. Someone is engineering deliberate failures with the apparent goal of sabotaging the Foundation’s efforts on Venus.

Roger and Forsyth don’t lack for suspects, not least everyone involved in the project. Even at the best of times, working on Venus is dangerous, hard work and if the project were to be closed down the survivors would be shipped off to safer colonies like the ones on Mars.

What follows is a two pronged plot:

We see various gambits to exploit Venus as it was understood in the late 1970s, from a very long term project to terraform Venus to cloud-top ecopoiesis to the construction of cloud-level floating cities, from Roger’s point of view. He finds a new lover and later wife, and prepares raise his new family on Venus or die with them if human ingenuity fails in the face of Venus’ storms, acid rain and searing heat. As an added benefit to this plot, we get an answer for where all the extra air on Venus came from.

At the same time, Roger and his allies play a deadly game of cat and mouse with an unknown opponent whose ability to recruit from among the Project members is enhanced by the nature of the Project, an enemy who does not hesitate to kill to advance their plans and enhance their security. Whoever the player on the other side is, they are motivated, determined and well-funded.

While the Foundation does not seem to have a concrete idea about how to profitably exploit Venus, I think this is a plot point and not a flaw. They try various ideas and most of them fail, which is in no way unreasonable under the circumstances.

Their insistence on sending crewed vessels down to the surface of Venus even though any exposure to the conditions down there is lethal is a bit odd, if typical for science fiction. There are no signs that anyone has considered using remotely piloted vehicles or robot for the surface and it’s not because they lack for robots; a security robot turns up in the third installment. My suspicion is that there’s very little incentive to use robots when they have an endless supply of completely expendable parolees to toss into the grinder.

Buckley’s Venus is the Venus of the late 1970s and I really wish I had a handy time-line detailing what we knew about Venus when. The explanation for why Venus is why it is is convoluted and unlikely. There is no apparent direct1 awareness that Earth and Venus have roughly the same amount of CO2; it’s just ours is mostly sequestered and theirs is in the form of gas.

Buckley isn’t one of the people who think a handful of algae will turn Venus into Earth2 any time soon. Clouds of VACU units can safely sequester all the carbon but it will take thousands of years to do this. Biologists can craft plants and animals to live in the clouds of Venus but those clouds will never be welcoming to humans, just less hostile.

Something else I wish I possessed is a better knowledge of the history of the discussion of aerostats on Venus. I did check Geoffrey Landis’ paper2 but the works in his his bibliography are either too recent for Buckley to have read them or don’t appear to discuss aerostats at all. Was Buckley drawing on some older paper I cannot find? Did he independently come up with the idea of exploiting the datum +50km level of Venus on his own? I cannot say.

I confess from time to time I wondered if there was a subtext in the references to Earth’s ghetto dwelling, irresponsible, free-breeding, criminal welfare element. More accurately, I hope like hell the subtext I see isn’t the one the author intended. I also wonder how it was if justice in this time is so swift and sure, an entire city seems lost to civilization.

Buckley’s prose is … functional Analog-style prose and his sabotage plot mainly exists to provide a framework of danger without which this could all too easily have been a collection of paper-thin characters spurting streams of exposition at each other in the manner of Milton Rothman’s “Fusion”. I can’t really imagine Buckley being published in a more demanding venue, which is a shame because I can see him making an effort in other ways. In the hands of a better editor….


  1. There are points during the discussion of how the atmospheric transformation units work where the author could have summed and compared the total amounts of CO2 on Earth and Venus. Oh, well.
  2. http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20030022668.pdf

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