Book Review: Derek Künsken, “The House of Styx, A Venus Ascendant Novel”, Solaris, 2021

Review by Duncan Lunan

(First published in different form, Parsec # 1, August 2021.)

The House of Styx, set in the atmosphere of Venus, is “the first of a ground-breaking new series, 250 years before The Quantum Magician”, which is the first of a four-book series, The Quantum Evolution.  The book ends with a sample first chapter from The Quantum Magician, and as there’s no Contents page, that obscures the fact that The House of Styx ends with a Glossary.  That would have been useful to know:  Derek Künsken dedicates the book to his Québécois family, and there’s a lot of their speech in the book.  I know enough general French to have got through, but the particularly Québécois expressions gave me difficulty.  To get a minor point out of the way at the outset, most of them are profanity, blasphemous uses or corruptions of terms from the Roman Catholic faith, and that’s a little odd because there’s no emphasis on it otherwise – no mention of icons, statues, Mass, Confession, or any of the other elements which I would have expected to find in a society where Roman Catholic oaths are still so meaningful.

Fig. 1. NASA Langley HAVOC cluster

How they got there is not entirely obvious.  As I mentioned in ‘Balloons in Space’  (ON 12th February 2023), NASA’s Langley Research Centre has a plan called HAVOC  (High Altitude Venus Operational Concept), which would deploy blimps into the Venus atmosphere and cluster them to build floating settlements  (Fig. 1).  Strangely they have blue sky above them;  although the 1-atmosphere pressure level is about 55 km above the surface, the sulphuric acid clouds go up to 90 km and even the Sun is invisible below 68 km..  (For details of the hellish conditions on and over the planet, see ON, June 13th, 2021.)  Künsken more realistically portrays a multi-tiered society with living conditions becoming more basic, the deeper into the atmosphere that people have to live and work.  The original idea may have been NASA’s, but this is a ruthless commercial operation, a long-term investment by the interplanetary Banks, often mentioned but offstage for most of the action.  The cover  (Fig. 2)  rewards viewing at full-screen, because that reveals some of the highly dangerous things which are going on, like skydiving from one habitat to another, with certain death below if you miss. 

Fig. 2. Derek Kusken ‘The House of Styx’ cover

There has recently been controversy about whether or not there’s life in the Venus clouds, and indeed I have a paper in preparation on the subject.  It exists, in the novel, but like the exploitation of Jupiter life which I described in last week’s review of The Medusa Chronicles, the Venus life is subject to large-scale commercial exploitation in a way that would have horrified the late Carl Sagan, who believed that not just actual but even potential locales for life elsewhere should be under long-term preservation orders.  It’s characteristic, though, of a society in which it’s hard to separate mercenary tendencies from the demands of survival.  When the protagonists find an artefact on the surface which would be of intense historical significance, without hesitation they cut it up and sell it for scrap  (high-tech scrap, but still scrap)  partly to finance the next stage of their operation, but mainly to pay the day-to-day bills.

The family in question, the D’Aquillons, have it rougher than most.  A generation earlier the paterfamilias, George-Étienne, defied the authorities’ in order not to have his Downs Syndrome son aborted  (definitely not Roman Catholic authorities as we know them).  The whole family has been on short commons ever since, scraping by in the lowest habitable level of the clouds, harvesting the jellyfish-like Venus life and selling what they can to the more comfortable levels above, in exchange for the necessities of life and the minimum of parts and materials they can get by on, to keep their habitats in one piece and floating.  Some members of the family have given up and retreated to the easier conditions of the upper levels  (which Künsken has mapped out, by pressure, temperature, composition and rotational speed, in meticulous detail), and it takes concentration to keep track of who speaks to whom, who’s trying to get away from whom and who would like to get back together with whom – all playing out among the different levels, social as well as atmospheric, as their occupants move around the planet at different speeds in the ‘super-rotating’ Venus weather systems  (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Venus circulation detail, NASA

Things are falling apart for the D’Aquillons, literally as well as figuratively, with the new-adult family chafing increasingly under George-Étienne’s near-tyrannical rule.  But they have two things going for them.  The governing body of Venus has lost interest in the surface, as have the Banks, and both are looking outward to the asteroids.  That has allowed George-Étienne to get his hands on an old but working bathyscaphic surface explorer, and he’s seen something below which might just possibly be important or even profitable:  an anomalous wind, strangely cold, at the bottom of Diana Chasma, one of Venus’s few geological rifts  (Fig. 4 – view at full screen).  It’s comparable to Valles Marineris on Mars:  4000 km. long, 159 km. wide, and up to 5 km. deep, with another deep parallel cleft on each side of it  (Fig. 5).  Magellan radar mapping, more detailed than the Pioneer-11 scans of Figs. 4 & 5, found unexplained smooth patches on the rift valley floors, so maybe that’s the place to look for other anomalies.

What they find down there will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read Patrick Tilley’s Fade-out  (1975), and I won’t spoil the surprise – which is a big one – for anyone who hasn’t.  Suffice it to say that the D’Aquillons see an opportunity to gain a monopoly of what’s down there, and they grab it with both hands.  The chicanery fills the second half of the book and requires healing the old breaches in the family, to get what’s needed and to head off the authorities, who are becoming aware that there’s unknown high-tech around somewhere.  To establish the surface base which they need, they have to to steal their government-owned habitat and hide it in the lower clouds, while they dismantle it to build a surface facility  (Fig. 6).  The government has deliberately been running it down before scrapping it, which makes a catastrophic breakdown and fall easier to fake.  Belying the ruthless dog-eat-dog ethos which supposedly rules, that triggers a race with well-meaning rescuers, trying to stop what they see as a suicidal plunge.  For one of the family, it turns out to be one, though the others succeed in arresting its fall, and literally going off the radar.

Fig. 6. Venus clouds from surface – ESA

And as Spike Milligan might say at this point, “So ends Volume 1.  Book now for Volume 2.”  I certainly shall.  

(Postscript:  although the book and the first version of this review were published in 2021, Vol. 2 has yet to appear.)  

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