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Literature / Venus Prime

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Her code name is Sparta...

"Does the word Sparta mean anything to you?"
— Opening line

Venus Prime is a series of six science fiction novels written by Paul Preuss, based on stories by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Each novel is based on a different Clarke story, and all together, they tell the story of Sparta, a young woman granted extraordinary abilities by the evil Free Spirit, a cult seeking to turn her into a messiah. Along the way, she solves mysteries for the Board of Space Control, an interplanetary bureaucracy.

Originally published starting in 1988, the series has fallen into obscurity thanks to its original publisher going under in 2006.

This series provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Editions Lequeu (who is actually William Laird), the head of the Athanasian Society, is ostensibly a kindly philanthropist, but in reality, he's using his halfway house to find potential recruits for the Free Spirit. Holly Singh might also qualify; she cheerfully invites Sparta to her home for dinner and is only too happy to discuss her work in the field of neurology before she tries to murder Sparta in cold blood.
  • Alien Geometries: The interior of the Amalthean world-ship is described as being made up of nested spiral shells. The diagrams at the back of the last book don't help to make it any easier to comprehend.
  • Alien Non-Interference Clause: With the discovery of alien life on Jupiter, Earth creates the Prime Directive, which is similar to the one from Star Trek. Unfortunately, it also nearly results in some unnecessary deaths because an Obstructive Bureaucrat refuses to allow the Directive to be violated under any circumstances, perfectly willing to let the people in the pod die rather than disturb the native Jovian life forms.
  • Ambiguous Ending: At the end of the last book, Sparta and Blake go off in the world-ship, never to be seen again by the other characters.
  • Amoral Attorney: The lawyers at Vox Populi are ostensibly progressives in the mold of Ralph Nader, but as Blake learns during his brief stint with their firm, they only really care about making money, which makes it very easy for him to manipulate them into investigating the Free Spirit.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: The Free Spirit's been around since the 13th century.
  • Arranged Marriage: Khalid Sayeed is supposed to marry a girl back in his native Egypt. But since she's still underage, he's not in any hurry to walk down the aisle with her.
  • Ascended Fanboy: Professor Forster is a huge fan of Michael Ventris, a linguist, who translated Linear B, the earliest attested form of Greek script. In the sixth novel, Time Travel allows him to go to the isle of Crete during the Bronze Age, and he is given the opportunity to surpass his idol by deciphering the previously-untranslatable Linear A, a script used by the even older Minoan civilization.
  • Asian Rudeness: Luke Lim deliberately pulls this trope just to fuck with the white people with whom he's constantly forced to deal.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • In the first book, Peter Grant is one half of the two-man crew of a badly-damaged ship. With the life support system failing, he plots to kill the other man on the crew, Angus McNeill, rationalizing the murder on the grounds that only one of them has a chance of living long enough to reach the nearest port, and that he should be that person because he has fewer vices than McNeill. Unfortunately for him, McNeill figures out that he's plotting against him and forces him into a card game to determine who survives, and he loses.
    • Dr. Dewdney Moreland in the third book is a petty thief and counterfeiter who was planning to steal the valuable Martian plaque and replace it with a facsimile, but instead pissed off the wrong people and ended up being murdered for it.
  • The Atoner: After becoming notorious for killing his co-captain in the first book and barely avoiding a long sentence in prison for it (it could be argued that he was acting in self-defense, because his co-captain was Ax-Crazy), Angus McNeill becomes adamant about not leaving any of his teammates behind during Forster's expedition.
  • Big Bad: Nemo, also known as William Laird, Editions Lequeu, and Sir Randolph Mays.
  • Binary Suns: The last two books reveal that the "Nemesis theory" is correct. The Sun has a companion star in the form of a black hole. The world-ship uses it to jump back in time.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: While the Free Spirit is pretty unambiguously evil, it's not entirely clear that the Council of Worlds or Salamander are much better.
  • Clarke's Third Law: Referenced, though not named, in the fifth book.
  • Cold Equation: Comes up several times in this series.
    • The first book is an expansion of Clarke's classic short story Breaking Strain, in which two men are stuck on a damaged ship and only one of them can survive the voyage. In this version, McNeill survives by forcing Grant into a rigged card game to determine who gets to live.
    • In the fifth book, McNeill is again forced into a cold equation when he must decide whether to leave Nemo to die in orbit around Jupiter or use up the fuel in his jetpack to rescue the bastard. All the while, Nemo taunts him, pointing out how similar this is to the Star Queen incident. Luckily, the world-ship intervenes, rescuing him, Nemo, and Tony Groves.
    • In the sixth book, Marianne suddenly goes into labor in the middle of the sudden collapse of Mars, and the team wrestles with whether to focus their energies on her or attempt to rescue Tony Groves.
  • The Conspiracy: Free Spirit. Possibly also Salamander.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Dimitrios Pavlakis, who is found to be responsible for the sabotage of the Star Queen; the company was failing under his mismanagement, and he intended to collect on the ship's disaster insurance to recoup his losses.
  • Cosmic Horror Reveal: The first three books are about a young female detective who solves mysteries in space while trying to discover The Conspiracy that caused her to lose three years' worth of memories. In the fourth book, she pretty much wipes out the conspiracy. And then, suddenly, the Starfish Aliens start to show up, and the rest of the series is about her and her allies trying to prevent one faction of the aliens from attempting to re-write history so that Earth becomes more like their homeworld - which would make it uninhabitable to humans.
  • Cyanide Pill: A few of the Free Spirit's operatives get captured in the second book. They decide to take this method rather than risk getting interrogated.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: The prologue of the third book takes follows Dare Chin, the harried assistant mayor of Labyrinth City, a settlement on Mars, as he deals with paperwork, his irritable girlfriend, and the asshole in the lobby who insists on "studying" the Martian plague. By the end of the prologue, Chin is dead.
  • Elective Broken Language: Luke Lim can speak English perfectly well, but uses an exaggerated stereotypical accent when dealing with white people in the hopes of putting them off.
  • Empty Shell: Kara Antreen at the end of the first book has all her memories wiped out in a tragic accident.
  • Failed Future Forecast:
    • Since the novels are based on old short stories from back when the Soviet Union was still around, it's implied in the early books that Russia is either still Communist or has reverted to Communism.
    • The last book, written in 2001, clarifies that the Soviet Union is still around, but the second "S" in "U.S.S.R." stands for something else, and apparently, there are still a lot of die-hards who want to return to the days of Communism. The openly-Communist Mars colony seen in the third book was apparently an attempt to keep that faction happy by giving them their own planet.
  • Fangirl: Marianne Mitchell is a huge fan of Sir Randolph Mays, and thus he decides to hire her to be his assistant.
  • Fanservice: The series has nude scenes and sex scenes throughout.
  • Fantastic Religious Weirdness: Khalid Sayeed is a devout Shiite Muslim who happens to live on Mars, which might make it difficult to pray facing Mecca since Mecca is on an entirely different planet. He compensates by using a specially-designed astrolabe to calculate the present direction of Mecca relative to his current location on Mars.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: The members of Forster's expedition group become very close-knit after all the shit they go through in the last two books.
  • Future Society, Present Values: Back in the eighties, when Preuss began working on the series, being outed as gay or lesbian could ruin your career, and this is used as unspoken leverage by Sparta to get Sondra Sylvester to cooperate with the investigation into the Star Queen sabotage, and eventually leads to Sylvester snapping and killing Vincent Darlington. While there are still places in the modern world where gays and lesbians are forced to stay in the closet, it's hard to believe that the North Continental Treaty Alliance, which includes several countries that now have marriage equality, would be one of those places.
  • God Guise: In the last book, Sparta, Blake, Forster, and Nemo travel through time, impersonating gods in an effort to influence human history so that it develops more or less as it was supposed to.
  • The Grotesque: The Commander's hands and face are unnaturally dark, the result of years of traveling in space and getting soaked in ultraviolet radiation.
  • The Hedonist: The series has several - Angus McNeil is probably the biggest, with Vincent Darlington and Wolfgang Prott not far behind.
  • Hufflepuff House: The Latin-African bloc. It's mentioned in the first book, but plays no real role in the series.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Cannibalism is one of the Free Spirit's traditions.
  • In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: Sir Arthur C. Clarke's name is prominently featured on the cover of every book.
  • Inscrutable Oriental: Subverted with Luke Lim, who tends to react in an exaggerated manner. Of course, whether or not his expressions correspond to what he actually feels is left highly ambiguous.
  • Jerkass: Sharansky. She deliberately sabotages Blake's efforts on Mars for no other reason than the fact that she was sent to pick him up when he was dropped off on the planet and thus had to see him naked.
  • Knight Templar: The Free Spirit is full of them.
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • At the end of the first book, Kara Antreen's attempt to inject Sparta with a drug that would wipe out her memory again results in Sparta accidently pushing the syringe back on her. She ends up losing her own memory, instead.
    • After cheating his way out of a cold equation in the first book, Angus gets confronted by more cold equations as the series goes on.
  • Later-Installment Weirdness: The last book in the series is very thematically and stylistically different from the previous five. Most of its events are narrated in the first person by Prof. Forster, Sparta and Blake are seen entirely through other characters' eyes, and at one point, they and Forster go back in time to Ancient Mycenae. At another point, the book awkwardly diverts for three chapters to a first-person account by Klaus Muller, a Swiss deep-sea engineer who stumbles across the world ship.
  • The Load: Marianne Mitchell. While she's not completely useless, she spends much of the last book sulking over being stuck with Forster's expedition.
  • MacGuffin: The Martian plaque in the third book. The first book has a subversion in the form of the first-edition Seven Pillars of Wisdom - Sondra and Vincent are fighting over it, but it turns out to be incidental to the sabotage of the Space Queen.
  • The Man in the Mirror Talks Back: A weird variation occurs in the fifth book, with Sparta conversing with a virtual therapist who takes the form of her nineteen-year-old self.
  • Mind Manipulation: The Free Spirit does it. So does Salamander.
  • Missing White Woman Syndrome: Subverted in the fifth book with Marianne Mitchell. When she goes missing on Amalthea, the Space Board makes no effort to find her, because the Jovian moons are already a hotbed of separatist activity and they're afraid that sending a Space Board cutter out there to track down a missing white girl might start a riot on Ganymede.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: William Laird's attempts to consolidate power over the Free Spirit make it a hell of a lot easier for Sparta to seriously injure the whole organization.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: Josepha Walsh's nationality is never specifically given, although she's said to come from a "green island" in the Caribbean. Similarly, the exact membership of the Indo-Asian bloc is never fully explained, though one can assume that it includes India, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Tibetan diaspora.
  • No Name Given: The Commander, though a few characters call him "Kip".
  • Only Known By His Nickname: The Orange Man.
  • Pet the Dog: Holly Singh is very fond of her superchimps.
  • Planet Spaceship: The Amalthean world-ship is huge. It also turns out that the ice moon Amalthea has been the ship all along with a layer of ice that has built up around it over the millennia.
  • Psycho Lesbian: Played with in the first book. Sondra Sylvester is initially considered a strong suspect for the Space Queen sabotage, because she has a longstanding feud with one of the recipients of the ship's cargo, a feud that stems in part from her stealing his wife. She turns out to be innocent of the sabotage, but then murders her rival anyway.
  • The Reveal: Howard Falcon is pretty much a human brain in a robot body.
  • Scottish English: Angus McNeill is a Scotsman, so his dialogue is lightly tinged with a Scottish accent.
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: In the sixth book, Forster's team must try and repair history after Nemo gets his hands on a world-ship.
  • Skinny Dipping: During volume 3, Sparta witnesses a half-dozen group of men and women swim naked in the hotel's pool thanks to the business paying them to be what Sparta considers to be less tourists and more like models.
  • Slasher Smile: Holly Singh's smile reminds Sparta of Kali, the Goddess of Destruction.
  • Solar System Neighbors: Jupiter is inhabited by massive cephalopods. Another, more intelligent race of cephalopods inhabits the moon Amalthea.
  • Space-Filling Empire: The Earth in Venus Prime is divided up into the North Continental Treaty Alliance (North America, Europe, and Russia), the Azure Dragon Mutual Prosperity Sphere (China, Japan, and the Middle East), a Latin-Africa bloc, and an Indo-Asian bloc.
  • The Spock: Every graduate of the SPARTA program is a genius.
  • The Squadette: Pilot Josepha Walsh is initially the only female on Forster's team. Unusual for this trope, she does NOT die after Ellen Troy joins them.
  • Stage Mom: Ari Nagy, Sparta's mother. She wanted to use her own daughter to test her theories on intelligence, and later made a deal with the Free Spirit whereby Linda was turned into something more than human.
  • Starfish Language: The Amaltheans communicate with various clicks and booms. Sparta had her vocal apparatus modified to allow her to produce those sounds. However, the Big Bad also learns the language and uses his hands to produce the clicks by snapping his fingers.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Tends to happen when Blake Redfield's around.
  • Terraform:
    • The Shining Ones involves the protagonists traveling through a black hole into distant past and witnessing a race of squid-like aliens attempting to remake Venus based on a very specific template. These aliens, called the Amaltheans, redirect comets to crash on Venus and create water. Unfortunately, they fail to anticipate a meteor storm that destroys their efforts. The Amaltheans then split based on their opinion towards the official doctrine, which states that settled planets must be exactly like their homeworld. The Adaptationists end up joining the humans and traveling to Mars to terraform it. One of the ways they do that is by inserting artificial spinning black holes (in containment, of course) into the poles in order to increase gravity to Earth-norm. In the end, though, the Traditionalists end up attacking Mars and destroying their efforts, returning the planet into the desolate rock we know. The Adaptationists settle for traveling to Earth and lying dormant in the oceanic depths for human life to emerge.
    • In the first book in the series, Sparta muses that at the same time that humans are trying to make Venus more like Earth, Earth is becoming more like Venus, thanks to extensive use of coal power, coupled with humans' over-reliance on air-conditioning.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: The Free Spirit has operatives all over the place.
  • Time Skip: The series has several of these, to cover the time that Sparta and Blake spend either in transit or establishing cover identities (for instance, the first book skips over the two years that Sparta spends establishing her identity as Ellen Troy.)
  • Timey-Wimey Ball: The sixth novel's timeline gets a little confusing with a single world-ship splitting off thanks to the over-use of Time Travel by the two opposing factions, culminating in dozens (if not hundreds) of world-ships converging to the same location, all of them being versions of the same ship from different timelines.
  • Tyke Bomb: The Free Spirit creates quite a few of these. Sparta was supposed to be the ultimate one, but rebelled against their attempts to brainwash her. Josepha Walsh was also supposed to be turned into a Tyke Bomb, but got caught and recruited by Salamander.
  • Villain: Exit, Stage Left: Nemo manages to escape twice - first when Blake figures out his secret identity, and then when Sparta shoots up Kingman's Lodge. His third attempt is less successful; he gets his hands on a world-ship, but thanks to his own machinations, ends up being erased from reality.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Tony Groves is terrified of drowning. This is problematic, because traveling in the world-ship requires being drowned repeatedly.
  • Wretched Hive:
    • Labyrinth City is a colony on Mars, so it's freezing, there's no breathable air, very little water, and sanitation is still being worked out. Meanwhile, there's a vicious fight being waged between the various unions.
    • Shoreless Ocean, on Ganymede, is somewhat better, but there's a strong undercurrent of racism and separatist sentiment.
  • Yellowface: In the fifth book, Blake Redfield, who's half Chinese, puts on makeup to try and pass for completely Chinese. It doesn't quite work.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: At the end of the third book, William Laird kills Rupert Kingman, ostensibly because Kingman failed to secure the Martian plaque, but also in order to take over the Free Spirit.
  • Zeerust: Preuss began writing the series back in the eighties, and of course, every book was an expansion of an older story that Clarke had written (the first book was an expansion of Breaking Strain, which was written back in 1948 and first published in 1954.) Naturally, a lot of the technology sounds horribly dated to modern readers.