Footsteps in the Sky by Greg Keyes
Footsteps in the Sky, by Greg Keyes, is on one level a wholly enjoyable science fiction action story that offers up a whole bunch of fun surface action involving laser rifles, fusion-powered seedships, augmented humans, AIs, rebellious space colonies, and the like. You can read it for those elements alone and have yourself a good time. But the novel offers much more, as Keyes builds onto the surface elements an evocative, deeply felt exploration of identity, compassion, faith, community, and of just what it means to be human, much of it through the prism of the Hopi culture/belief system, presented here in detailed, respectful, and often touching manner and presented as well in a fashion that could clearly stand as an analogue to modern-day conflicts within such native cultures: How does one maintain ancient traditions in a modern world? Should one? Who is of the people? Who is not? Has modern science made obsolete old ways of thought? Serious questions given serious treatment even as the lasers are a-blastin’. Granted, I’ve been on a rough run of books lately, but Footsteps in the Sky is easily one of the better novels I’ve read in the past few months.
I’m going to spend some time on the set-up, but the rest of the synopsis will be brief. The novel opens up with a Hopi origin tale of the people that once lived in the world below and how they found their way up to the Fourth World (ours). The “Fifth World” is the setting for the novel — an extra-solar planet being slowly terraformed in 2421 by Hopi descendants (who left the fourth world as their ancestors had left the prior four) under contract to the Vilmir Corporation (called “The Reed” by the Hopi). The prologue introduces one such Hopi, Pela, and through her the Hopi belief system with regard to Kachina spirits, a faith she is no longer sure she has:
She would never forget when she became a woman, and the truth stood naked before her. The fierce Whipping Kachina… bereft of his horrific mask, he was her mother’s brother. As were the others, all of them. Cousins, grandparents — older friends. Lies on two legs, and everyone older than her was involved.
The Kachina in the sky were lies too… satellites that orbited the Fifth World unceasingly. But made by people, just like the masks.
Oh, it had been explained to her that these people and these machines were merely the conduits for the real Kachina powerful and distant among the stars. But the feeling of betrayed wonder has ruined them for Pela. The more she learned, the more she doubted.
And so the themes of faith and doubt, conflict and betrayal are introduced immediately and will wind throughout the novel. It’s also through Pela’s thoughts that the precipitating plot event is presented, as she muses about the strangely accelerated and somewhat hospitable evolution of this planet:
The universe did not work so on its own. For fifty thousand years someone had labored to make the Fifth World ready… Somewhere, beyond the masks… beyond the winking stars themselves, the Kachinas lived. And some day they would return.
Little does she expect though that she will be the one to greet them. The “Kachina” in this case are three seedships and their respective AIs who have arrived overhead only to find the planet they had begun to transform ages ago for their “Makers” has been further transformed and possibly “ruined” by some sort of pesky lifeform. After an argument over what to do, one of the options being to sterilize the planet and begin again, one of the AIs sends down a “little brother” kind of probe to examine whether these life forms might have “etakotetak,” a somewhat more complex version of compassion/empathy. To further complicate matters, the AIs are so ancient they’re at varying stages of AI “senility.”
Meanwhile, the AI ships have been noticed by the “Lowlanders” (coastal Hopi who look down on their more tradition-bound, “superstitious” brethren), who hope to convince whoever is up there to ally with them against the corporation that they’re sure is planning on taking their world from them once the terraforming is complete. And still meanwhile, a corporate spy has notified the Vilmir Corporation, who sends a ship in response.
The story then jumps ahead some years and follows the many conflicts, misunderstandings, betrayals, and twists and turns involving the several characters and their respective factions:
- Tuchvala: a clone of Pela acting as liaison/scout for one of the AIs
- SandGreyGirl: a mesa Hopi and daughter of Pela who meets Tuchvala and takes her under her protection
- Hoku: leader of the coastal Hopi who will stop at nothing to try and use the aliens to prevent the Vilmir Corporation from taking Fifth World from the Hopi
- Teng: Captain of the Vilmir ship sent to deal with the aliens and Hopi
- Alvar: an agent of the Corporation sent with Teng to pass as Hopi and replace their current spy on the ground
Granted, the recap above doesn’t present, outside of the Hopi, anything of particularly originality. We’ve seen the mega-corporations, the AIs, the internal conflict of a machine becoming something more human, rebellious colonies, etc. So the bare bones are pretty well worn tropes, but this is true of most genre works, and Keyes does a good job in his execution and deployment of said tropes. The characters are mostly complex; as are the conflicts; while the twists and turns and fight scenes are handled deftly so as to create excitement and tension.
What separates Footsteps in the Sky though is the emotional tenor and range of the novel. One such storyline is Tuchvala’s slow, often moving development from ancient, rational, disembodied AI to, well, whatever she becomes (no spoilers) after its mind inhabits the human body it cloned from Pela. And in typical fashion with this trope, she serves as a good mirror to hold up to humanity. That Tuchvala has taken the form of Pela, Sand’s mother, and that she (and her father) are forced into close interaction with the image of their dead mother/spouse adds greatly to the emotional impact of this character. The relationship, meanwhile, between Sand and her father is emotionally wrought, shifting greatly and abruptly at times as such relationships are wont to do. Other characters as well have their poignant stories as they wrestle with being an outsider, with the costs of their own ambition, with the consequences of past choices, with difficult love.
The social relationships are no less moving than the personal ones. The rift amongst the Hopi grows more and more painful as the novel continues as they struggle with how to reconcile their traditions to their current existence, their belief system to modern technology and science, their differing attitudes toward the planet, the sense of the individual’s place in the community.
And over it all, lending it a freshness of POV, lies the Hopi perspective, as when Tuchvala recognizes the changes within herself:
“I don’t really know what I am anymore,” Tuchvala replied. “I’m not what I was.”
Yuyahoeva settled back in his chair. “Fascinating… When a human being wears the mask of a Kachina, he becomes something different. He becomes the Kachina. I never thought to wonder what might happen to a Kachina wearing a human mask.”
In terms of the mechanics, Keyes shows more than an able hand. The book moves at a good pace and varies smoothly between action scenes and more introspective moments, the various POVs are distinctive and transitions amongst them fluidly executed, the prose clear and precise with a few lyrical lines that linger in the mind.
Footsteps in the Sky isn’t perfect, though my only complaint of any note has to do with a relationship that doesn’t feel earned and that thus mars the read and the close just a bit. Speaking of the close, Footsteps in the Sky ends fully resolved, but there is certainly room for more stories in this universe. I for one would be happy to read them. Highly recommended.
Delighted to see this exists in hardcopy! This sounds like a good one; thanks, Bill!