It’s interesting that The Empire Strikes Back is considered by most to be the best Star Wars film of them all. Is it the love-triangle between Leia, Luke, and Han Solo? Luke’s time with Yoda? The emergence of Boba Fett? Or is it that the Empire wins in the end? Regardless, what can’t hurt are the sensawunda set pieces. The asteroid hideout with a surprise, the battle over the ice plains of Hoth, training in the jungles of Dagobah, the requisite time aboard star destroyers, and of course, the stunning scenes in the climactic sequence at Cloud City. Following in the footsteps of George Lucas’ mode of sci-fi, and seeming particularly entranced with idea of Cloud City, Geoffrey Landis’ 2010 novella The Sultan of the Clouds is mini-space opera of wholly retro proportion.
The Sultan of the Clouds is the story of David Tinkerman. A technician living on Mars, he is asked to go to Venus with the lovely and intelligent Dr Leah Hamakawa. Invited by the planet’s magnate, the 12 year old Carlos Fernando Nordwald-Gruenbaum, Tinkerman doesn’t know what to make of the invitation but accompanies the woman he secretly loves, anyway. Arriving at the ruler’s lavish domain in the cloud cities of Venus, things quickly turn mysterious. For reasons Tinkerman cannot comprehend, Norwald-Gruenbaum seems sets on courting and marrying Dr. Hamakawa regardless of the age difference. Tinkerman’s presence extraneous as the magnate pours traditional Venutian gifts on the Doctor, he has plenty of time to explore the magnificent floating globes and transport systems, and in the process gets himself into more trouble than he imagined. The beautiful yet toxic atmosphere of Venus threatening, it’s only a matter of time before he comes to the bottom of Norwald-Gruenbaum’s ambitions.
The Sultan of the Clouds is full-on retro sci-fi. Landis obviously steeped in the writings of yesteryear genre, Heinlein (the unusual marriage structure) and Clarke (the squeaky clean space life, not to mention the pedal-power gas-flyers) have as much influence on the novella as the planetary adventures of E.E. Doc Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Jack Vance do on the plotting. If mystery and fun in the high-flying atmosphere of another world is what you’re looking for, Landis offers it up in tried-and-true yet quality form.
And indeed the imagination invested in the set pieces is the strongest point of the novella. Landis taking his time describing Tinkerman’s surroundings, coming to sparkling life are the infrastructure, industry, and civilization of Venus—all framed by:
“The surface of Venus is a place of crushing pressure and hellish temperature. Rise above it, though, and the pressure eases, the temperature cools. Fifty kilometers above the surface, at the base of the clouds, the temperature is tropical, and the pressure the same as Earth normal. Twenty kilometers above that, the air is thin and polar cold.
Drifting between these two levels are the ten thousand floating cities of Venus.”
The ensuing story filled with swirling gases, dirigibles, mountains of cloud upon cloud, crystal living spaces, and massive transparent globes, The Sultan of the Clouds is a visual feast.
Problems with the novella all stem from mode. Looking back rather than forward, the story is pulp eye-candy with little else to offer. Damsels in distress, planetary takeover schemes, connivers behind the ‘throne’, and highly conventional plotting characterize elements beyond the vivid scene setting. About the only positive thing that can be mentioned thematically is the parallel drawn between questing for money and power and the mind of a twelve year old boy. Otherwise, the treatment of women, the effort needed to suspend disbelief (the climax is particularly demanding given the context provided), and overall comic book feel do not empower the novella beyond entertainment.
In the end, The Sultan of the Clouds is a throwback story packed with visuals of the Silver Age and storyline of the Golden Age of science fiction. Landis descriptive, it is a classic story that hearkens back to the age of Modernism, all set in a vividly realized setting. Holding zero relevancy to the current state of sci-fi and social concerns beyond, the plot cleaves to pulp without asking for forgiveness, but just squeaks past being wholly bland given the quality of the visuals.