My strongest memory of my grand-père Jacques is of his callused, weathered hands, rolling tobacco from a tin in the cabin he’d built by hand. He was a difficult man by many accounts, and also not atypical for the French Canadian side of my family: a strongly dualistic culture of tight familial bonds, and often fierce and obstinate familial divisions.
So let me be clear from the outset: if there is any culture you can expect to keep smoking literal cigarettes and joints in an environment where oxygen is at a premium, like the Venusian cloud colony of Derek Künsken’s The House of Styx, it’s definitely the Québécois.
Details matter when you’re writing hard SF. We’re a long way from the whimsical days of mid-century science fiction, when we didn’t realize how profoundly inhospitable to life Venus truly is. A 2015 anthology, Old Venus, illustrated how wildly our ideas about life on this sister-planet were free to wander before certain atmospheric truths became inescapable. No more. But as I moved through Künsken’s carefully constructed Venusian adventure, which follows a family of coureurs de vents (wind runners) living in the planet’s sulfuric acid clouds and striking upon a once-in-a-lifetime find on the super-heated surface, its use of an independent Québec that colonizes the overlooked world became less of a quirky conceit (and excuse to cry “Tabarnak!” quite often) and more of a piece with the story’s core themes and preoccupations.
The hardest facts of SF, after all, are always shaped by human priorities. Questions about how one might survive at different depths on Venus only emerge in response to our interest in exploring those terrains in the first place. Are we talking about a quick trip, or looking to make a long-term investment? If the latter, are we planning to live solo, or with others? Will we be bringing families? Making them? And if so, what forms of family count? What restrictions on self-discovery would growing up in that level of isolation create? Are certain pregnancies not worth bringing to term, if the resulting child might not be able to live independently?
And who would continue to support this far-off project when local crises emerged? If the far-off Québécois government decided to break ties, what new Venusian authorities would arise, and what broader solar-system economies would sustain investment in a world that cannot provide its inhabitants with all the necessities for life? Moreover, what would happen if all this petty politicking were ever to meet with a game-changing discovery for all humanity?
Künsken’s novel uses the wide-ranging D’Aquillons family to address all of these questions (and more), while advancing a series-opening mystery at the heart of Venus itself—and presenting a splendidly paced race-against-time, in which the family must secure its claim on the dread planet’s surface. The family’s patriarch, George-Étienne, moved from Earth to la colonie in search of a better future, but his wife and daughter lost their lives to Venus, in part because he had made another stark decision: to refuse all aid from local government when they first refused to provide rations to Jean-Eudes, his son with Down Syndrome. George-Étienne’s eldest, Émile, came to blows with him over the hardships that these decisions created, and left for the upper levels, where he struggles at our story’s start with drug addiction and a complex array of malaise and obsession found among disaffected young colonists who want to do more on Venus than survive. Meanwhile, Jean-Eudes is a loving uncle to ten-year-old orphaned Alexis, and also a warmly accepting brother to Pascal, the sixteen-year-old who starts the novel never having seen the sun. The eldest sibling, Marthe, serves the family from afar, protecting them as best she can from the political infighting of l’Assemblée, a council that is far too indebted to the Bank of Pallas, the colony’s cut-throat offworld investor, to be called a real democracy.
This range in familial ages, abilities, and atmospheric positions allows Künsken to flesh out a fully formed set of Venusian cultures, complete with varying expectations and responsibilities, and different ways of learning and growing up depending on one’s point of view.
Even though Pascal lives in a world of sulfur rains and “trawlers” (a buoyant plant species used to sustain life and livelihood), the teen is not somehow excused from every human being’s need to understand themselves, and to try to make their inner truth work within the society they’ve been given. Likewise, Émile and Marthe, for all their attempts to make a go at life in a colony that represents dreams far bigger than any given colonist, are not exempt from falling prey to toxic one-on-one relationships. And even when Pascal and George-Étienne discover something groundbreaking on the surface of Venus, Pascal’s idealism is quite pragmatically no match for George-Étienne’s understanding of how bank and bureaucratic systems bigger than themselves will exploit any finding that they don’t exploit first. Humanity’s smaller and more intimate struggles abide even amid our grandest adventures in the cosmos.
One of the most important facets of good hard SF is also the easiest to lose sight of, especially when we can point to much more obvious markers of technical precision—say, in a book’s descriptions of craft design and field operations, environmental variation, and vehicular crisis management. All of these well-researched details, and more, are indeed wonderful to find in a book like The House of Styx—but they work so especially well because of their clear and present relevance to the characters’ ongoing lives and livelihoods. The tedious daily diligence of cleaning rust spots gains narrative urgency from the knowledge that combatting erosion is what protects Venusian homes from destruction. The painstaking neutralization of all sulfuric acid on one’s outerwear is a ritual of social care that not only saves lives but also fortifies communal priorities. Carefully calculating flight paths isn’t just about showing off: it’s literally what allows a person to reach their destination without cooking themselves in Venus’s superheated lower levels. And if you don’t recognize yourself in the mirror? If you feel estranged from your body as you move through the world? Having access to the right medication, difficult though the production and delivery process might be, can become a critical matter of personal well-being, too.
Derek Künsken’s The House of Styx uses its exceptional attention to technical detail to explore the human motivations that make those same details matter. In his work, we get a fully realized colony on an unforgiving Venus—but also a wealth of familial connection, journeys of self- and planetary-discovery, and the building (and dismantling) of broader social alliances. This is a worthy and memorable start to the Venus Ascendant series—not just because it ends with the stage set for further planetary struggle, but also because it closes on a sense of unity where it matters most, however far out our species’s sense of “family” might roam.