Poul Anderson was a prolific science fiction and fantasy author whose career ran from the 1940s to the opening years of the 21st century. Awards include the Hugo and the Nebula, and he was named a “A Grand Master” by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America shortly before his death. Unlike many prolific authors, his work was generally of a consistent quality, although I think it’s safe to say he never produced the masterpiece people might have expected from him. In science fiction, one of his fortes was world-building, about which I say more later. The combination of dependability, verisimilitude and prodigious output made him an almost ideal author for me and between the time I purchased this, my first Anderson, and when his various quirks and tics alienated me, I read the better part of a hundred of his works. I think it is safe to say that between 1977 and 1980, he was my favourite SF author.
The grade ten school field trip where I noticed and purchased this work was important in other ways, because I also discovered the Book Nook (a used bookstore at Charles and Ontario) and Now & Then Books (a used book/comic and record store at 103 Queen), establishments that would get a lot of my money over the years. The Book Nook is gone, Now & Then is gone and my fond memories of this novel, the one that convinced 16-year-old me to buy every Anderson I could get my hands on, have now been overwritten by the grim reality of the actual book.
Satan’s World is set during the heyday of the Polesotechnic League, a vast collective of trading empires spanning a region far vaster than that ruled by the effete namby-pamby “rule of law” Solar Commonwealth. Out beyond the Commonwealth, traders like Van Rijn make their own rules, settling civil wars, undermining local religions and toppling governments who get in the way of profit, taking such innocent glee in this it seems churlish to point out that not only did the League lay the groundwork for the Sack of Earth a few centuries down the road but Van Rijn’s team helped set into motion events that would eventually cause the downfall of civilization across a wide region of space in the 4th Millennium.
The volume of space through which the merchants of the League roam is a problem; it is essentially impossible for any one person to know everything that could potentially be of interest to them. Serendipity, Incorporated saw an opportunity in this – although not the one the League thought they did – and set themselves up as a clearing house of information, with the ability to search for information of particular interest to given clients. While public data bases already existed, nobody else could offer SI’s ability to correlate information and so the company has made money hand over fist.
Not much is known about the founders of SI. The company is 15 years old. The founders are human, but some of their technology appears to be alien. They are antisocial as a group and lack social skills as individuals, although they don’t appear to be malicious. Otherwise their history is a blank page.
On the orders of his boss Nicolas Van Rijn, youthful master merchant David Falkayn consults with SI. Falkayn’s personal history includes the discovery of a planetary system around the giant star Beta Centauri; giant stars typically do not have planetary systems and in fact that one is unique. As SI’s computer relates to Falkayn discovery inspired a search for more like it and while that search proved fruitless, an alien vessel discovered a rogue planet – a world of the interstellar depths – falling towards the giant star Beta Crusis. The aliens had no interest in the curiosity but the hostile world could serve a very useful and very valuable purpose for whichever merchant of the League took possession of it.
At this point, SI inexplicably violates the principles of confidentiality and fair play that they have built their business on for the last fifteen years. Falkayn is delayed at SI in a ham-fisted attempt to allow two SI executives the chance to slip away with the information that their computer produced thanks to Falkayn’s questions and when that alerts Falkayn to the very thing SI is trying to conceal, he is kidnapped, drugged and brain-washed into becoming a willing love-slave of one of SI’s dour female executives.
Sadly for SI, their grasp of the human niceties is so shaky that even though Falkayn’s teammates Adzel and Chee Lan are not human they can see red flags all through his purported farewell message to them. With the consent of their boss, the pair prepare a raid on SI’s lunar headquarters but even if it is successful, the question of what was so important about the discovery of the rogue world that SI would throw away the trust on which their business model depends remains. The answer to that turns out to be dependent on the answer to a different question: who or rather what are the true masters of Serendipity, Incorporated?
Solving the puzzle will take Falkayn and his companions back and forth over two light centuries to a desolate world covered in the grim relics of a fallen civilization and expose an existential threat to the worlds of the League itself.
One of the attractions of Anderson is that he was not a lazy author who treated planets as produced from cookie-cutters of a few types, differing in minor details but essentially alike. Instead he tried very hard to give each world its own history, reaching back billions of years. In this case, the reason the antagonists act as they do turns out to have roots in the peculiar nature of their star and the effects of abrupt climate change on the cultures of the antagonists; the world-building drives the plot.
Another strength of Anderson’s is scale, and his grasp of it. A galaxy of one or two hundred billion stars is a very large place and while the quantum microjump drives of the League can cover the distance from the Sun to Tau Ceti in a day, the core of the galaxy is still the better part of a decade’s flight away (assuming no need to stop on the way, which is likely not the case). The League has explored only a small portion of the Milky Way and even there, as Falkayn privately admits:
This tiny segment of the fringe of one spiral arm of a single galaxy which we have somewhat explored and exploited … is too big. In going to thousands of suns that intrigue us, we have passed by literally millions of others. It will take centuries even to visit them, let alone begin to understand them a little. And meanwhile, and forever, beyond the outermost radius of our faring will lie nearly all the suns that exist.
Although it does not come up much in this book, his worlds are similarly huge: having visited one region of an alien world is no guarantee of information useful in another part of it. Even basics like family structure vary widely from place to place; if an alien race happens not to have much in the way of variation, that’s likely not Anderson being lazy but a significant detail the reader should pay close attention to.
Anderson’s astronomical sources differed from both Peterson’s A Field Guide to Stars and Planets and the annual booklet the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada put out each year, which vexed me greatly. His stellar densities also seemed to be too high. Now that it is too late, I wonder what texts were on his book shelves.
As a teenager I responded well to this sort of verisimilitude; it is a nice change of pace to encounter a “hard SF” author who bothers with more the lip service to the sciences. As an adult I still appreciate that kind of detail but I find myself distracted by the aspects of the book that have not aged well. Like a lot of male SF authors of his era, Anderson started off a liberal and slowly evolved into a libertarian of the sort of who would say “Keynesian economics” with the prim horror of a conservative Baptist forced to teach a Sex Ed class for the first time, and that really shows in this book:
“Some piglet of a king burns our plantations, we give troops to his enemies what beat him and make terms allowing us poor sat-upon exploited meeters of inflated payrolls enough tiny profit we can live. Nie?” The man objected. Van Rijn’s beady eyes popped. He tugged his goatee. His waxed mustaches quivered like horns. “What you mean, no local troops can face his? What you been doing these years, selling them maybe jackstraws for deadly weapons? — Hokay, hokay, I authorize you should bring in a division outplanet mercenaries.
Van Rijn’s people go on to carry out bloody raids in the territory of the Lunar Federation, and the old man skillfully eludes every attempt by the frustrated government to apply the law to him. Except for the people who get killed, this is all good fun and the fact that all this will come back to bite the League in the ass – for example, the Gorzuni mercenaries SI uses are the ancestors of the alien raiders who will take human slaves from Earth - makes up, at least in my eyes, for Van Rijn’s obnoxious glee in what he does.
Unfortunately it’s not all self-sabotaging mercantile empires: socially speaking, Anderson was pretty conservative in his views and his grasp of the target market for his work did not include women. His treatment of women is pretty wretched even when one takes into account that this novel is almost half a century old. We’re talking Keith Laumer levels of blatant sexism here, whether it’s Falkayn, who dismisses the woman with whom he is exchanging erotically charged infodumps on the structure of the League as an obvious spy and prostitute:
You’re the devil I know. You’ll keep off the devils I don’t know, and meanwhile provide me some gorgeous fun. A dirty trick, perhaps, for a cunning unscrupulous yokel like me to play on a naive city operator like you. But I believe you get honest enjoyment out of my company. And when I leave, I’ll give you an inscribed fire stone bracelet or something.
She pulled loose from his grasp. Her tone stiffened again. “I never asked you to violate your oath,” she said. “I do ask not to be treated like a spineless, brainless toy.”
Ah, so. We put frost back in the voice, eh? Hoarfrost, to be exact. Well, I can’t argue for the rest of this week. If she won’t reverse vectors, forget her, son.
(Correctly, as it turns out, but it’s Anderson’s decision to make her so inept at her job that anyone can spot her for what she is), or Van Rijn, an unattractive, unpleasant man who uses his wealth to attract crowds of attractive sex kittens to physically abuse
Van Rijn dismissed the girl who had been playing with his hair; though friendly meant, his slap to the obvious target as she started off produced a bombshell crack and a wail. “Hu, hu, little chickpea, I am sorry. You go buy that shimmerlyn gown you been wheedling at me about, and maybe tonight we trot out and show you off — you show plenty, shameless way such things is cut, oh, what those bandits charge for a few square centimeters cloth!” She squealed and scampered away before he changed his mind.
While it is true one team member is female and isn’t portrayed as an affordable commodity, Chee Lan comes from an alien species whose females are dominant and she is if anything even more abusive to her male partners than her human friends are to the women in their lives
Tai Tu was smaller and a less aggressive carnivore. During their evolution, male Cynthians were never required to carry the cubs through the trees and fight for them. He had been flattered when Chee Lan told him — a humble visiting professor at Lomonosov University, whereas she was a xenologist in the service of Nicholas van Rijn — to move in with her.
Still, he had his pride. “I cannot accept this treatment,” he said.
Chee bared her fangs. They were white and very sharp. She jerked her tail at the door. “Out,” she said. “And stay.”
The antagonists likewise fall somewhat short of sexual egalitarianism:
Four-fifths of their adults must be counted out as significant help — because the females outnumbered the polygynous males by that fraction, and were dull-brained subservient creatures.
The only significant character in the book who does not seem favour abusive romantic relationships is the Wodenite Adzel and that’s because due to the details of how his people handle reproduction, he is not interested in that kind of bonding at all outside of mating season.
In the end, the adventure story was diverting, the puzzle interesting enough but the rampant sexism impossible to ignore, a recurring detail that kept driving me out of the story. I don’t regret having read so much Anderson – I think there are things he did well that few other authors bother with at all – but while I am grateful to this book for drawing him to my attention, the flaws are such that I doubt I will ever reread it, and that genuinely makes me sad.