Millennial Review XIII: The Byworlder by Poul Anderson (1971)
By Poul Anderson
Signet, 1971,160 pages
Synopsis: it is somewhere between around 2002 and 2010. No significant wars have been fought in ages. Technology is advancing nicely and significant breakthroughs have occurred in the technology of teaching. The relative international calm was broken three years before the book opens by the arrival of a Bussard ramjet from Sigma Draconis. The ramjet is a hybrid ramjet/photon drive of extreme power, and the great powers are very interested in not letting the ship fall into any one nation’s hands, since the drive could be used to erase whole cities from existence casually. To everyone’s immense frustration, the “Sigman”, as the ET is called, is apparently not very interested in communication with humans, spending far more time zipping around the solar system than trying to talk to humans.
Enter Skip Wayburn, wandering artist and drifter between the many splintered countercultures or Byworlds in the US. He thinks he knows why the Sigman is here. Unfortunately, he’s a 22 year old drifter, lacking credibility in the Ortho world. Skip begins trying to use his connections to get an interview with the President [Using Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon logic, he figures there’s only three or four steps between him or any random American and the President].
Also enter Yvonne Canter, one of two scientists trying to talk to the Sigman. She’s just achieved a breakthrough of sorts talking to the Sigman. Unfortunately, she’s also high enough profile that rich nutters who hate the alien might pick her as a target and one does. She manages to kill the assassin and for her protection she is placed under a false name on a Byworlder ship to hide from future assassins until she can go back to space.
Skip tracks Canter down and they meet. He sees through her disguise instantly. He eventually tells her his idea and she is intrigued. Back they go to Ortho civilization to see if his theory can be proven.
A kidnapping occurs. Skip is dumped. Fans of the ‘I have just broken this man’s finger. Who killed the Comedian’ scene in Watchmen will enjoy Skip’s method of finding Canter: he goes to a major cult leader and tortures him until the cult leader agrees to use his vast intelligence network to find the kidnappers. Canter is recovered.
Skip, Canter and Wang, a Chinese scientist go up to the Sigman’s ship. Skip’s theory is correct: the Sigman, for reasons of biology, has a very highly developed esthetic sense. What it wants from us is art. A communications watershed is crossed. The three humans and the Sigman go haring off across the solar system, sightseeing. Unfortunately, Wang becomes increasingly worried that the Westerners are keeping important information from him and when he finds out the Sigman has taught Skip how to to fly the ship, he tries to take over the ship, killing the Sigman and getting killed himself. Skip and Canter decide that the ship is too important to hand over to any one authority and decide to keep it for themselves, controlling access to it as they see fit.
I was going to review Anderson’s Shield but noticed it is set after 2010 [There’s a 2012 Eisenhower aircar]. My copy of After Doomsday is out on loan to a customer and the Psychotechnic League stories I have seem to be set either around 1970 [Marius] or well after 2000 so I settled on The Byworlder as an Anderson most folks wouldn’t have read.
This is unfortunately very minor Anderson. It suffers from the stylistic quirks that mar other Anderson stories, in particular the tendency of characters to blurt out reams of background information under stress, which to my taste is only very slightly better than a ‘as you know’ speech. The plot is light and implausible: I expect that there are better ways of dealing with an attempt on a VIP’s life than sticking them on a boat you don’t control halfway around the world and I am pretty sure that the investigative method of torturing random cult leaders is a flawed one. Poor Wang gets stuck with a character which is two dimensional at best [And parts of it get reused in The Avatar ], although he is acting out of sympathetic motives.
On the positive side, the book has some very nice moments: the biology and motivation of the Sigman and the tour of the solar system, for example.
This is a fairly upbeat 2000+: things are mostly peaceful and the splintering of cultures doesn’t appear to me to be a bad thing in itself. Anderson got a few details right: there’s something akin to the web, aithough it uses hard-copy printouts instead of screen displays. The Soviets are having money problems. OTOH, we don’t have a Peace Authority not do we have replicators able to make extremely good copies of objects. Not yet anyway.
Not one of the best Andersons out there but at 160 pages, a quick entertaining read.