Poul Anderson’s 1971 The Byworlder is a stand-alone near-future science fiction novel.
Earth is inching toward global peace and prosperity. Military-industrial complexes are hobbled by governmental fears of thermonuclear doom. Automation accelerates production of necessities and luxuries. These conditions are sufficient to allow the formation of what might have, in another decade, been called a counter-culture. So-called Byworlders are rejecting buttoned-down social conformity (which they dub Ortho) in favor of less conventional lifestyles.
Enter a visitor from Sigma Draconis.
The alien starship embodies technology far beyond human abilities. Humans have envisioned the Bussard ramjet, but nobody on Earth can build either the great magnetic fields that gather fuel or the photon drive to propel the ship. The power output of the ship dwarfs the power output of all humanity. The drive could easily scour cities. Happily, the lone Sigman on board the ship appears entirely peaceful.
The Sigman’s purpose in visiting the Solar System is unclear. Thus far humans have not only failed to bridge the communications gap between species, but they have failed to hold the visitor’s attention for long. On occasion, the alien permits humans to board its ship but visits have led to no real breakthroughs.
Two unrelated events could break the stalemate.
- Wandering musician Thomas John “Skip” Wayburn forms a hypothesis that would explain the Sigman’s behavior.
- Linguist Yvonne Canter manages to bridge the communications gap.
Verifying Skip’s idea would be easy if Yvonne could ask the Sigman a certain question … but Skip doesn’t know Yvonne and has no way of contacting her.
Luck intervenes in the form of an attempted assassination. The would-be gunman is too dead to interrogate, thus the question of who ordered a hit on Yvonne cannot be answered. Suspects range from the Chinese (her co-worker Wang Li’s home nation is ever paranoid about US intentions), to religious lunatics, to the US itself (the military-industrial complex might have wanted to scare Yvonne into obedient compliance). For Yvonne’s sake, she is placed in hiding under an assumed name. Among the Byworlders.
The people protecting Yvonne have many fine qualities1 but operational security is not among them. Byworlder gossip soon alerts Skip to Yvonne’s whereabouts. He obtains a position on the boat where Yvonne is sheltering and befriends her … which results in a friendship with benefits!
Yvonne’s enemies penetrate her protectors’ laughable security measures; Yvonne vanishes. It’s up to one bohemian drifter to do what the US government cannot: find Yvonne and rescue Yvonne. Only then will the world learn the truth behind the alien visit.
Let’s put all the negative stuff up here at the top, so readers will forget it by the time they reach the book purchase links. Not that there are many purchase links.
First: something not under Anderson’s control: this novel appears to have been cursed by the cover-art gods. It’s not until the 1993 Baen (!) edition that the book gets a fairly decent cover. Before that, the covers were uninspired or worse. The banner of covers below illustrates what I mean.
What does it say about publishing when the Baen cover is the good one?
Second: the plot is contrived, indeed silly. The US government is hilariously incompetent at protecting Yvonne2. The crooks are equally inept at killing or kidnapping her. Finding her after she is abducted turns out to be as simple as terrorizing a random cult leader.
(The notion that all cult leaders are likely to be criminals does not seem outrageous, but it’s unlikely that the crooks are so tightly networked that they ALL know or can easily discover where Yvonne is stashed.)
Third: while every nation-state has good reason to worry about some other nation getting their hands on that photon drive, Wang Li’s Chinese bosses are portrayed in a manner that has not aged well3. Wang Li himself is a stock Anderson sympathetic antagonist, someone driven to do terrible things because of his fear that children will die should general war break out. See also Ira Quick from The Avatar and frequent Anderson protagonist Dominic Flandry.
A cynic might call this a short story padded out to novel length4. I think the problem was that Anderson’s actually cool idea about the alien’s motivation did not lend itself to the action plots Anderson favored. He couldn’t write this a short story, as the market conditions prevalent in 1971 strongly favored novels.
However, The Byworlder has a number of qualities that recommend it5, not least of which is that Yvonne gets to make a significant scientific breakthrough. Three years later, Anderson would assert in his “Reply to a Lady” that“the frequent absence of women characters has no great significance, perhaps none whatsoever” and“Certain writers, Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke doubtless the most distinguished, seldom pick themes which inherently call for women to take a lead role. This merely shows they prefer cerebral plots, not that they are antifeminist.”
Of course, Skip has to tell Yvonne what to say to the alien and the two do hook up6 but, hey, baby steps.
Why does the Sigman invest time and wealth into sublight interstellar travel? It’s not war7; not need for resources ; not religion. Anderson imagines an unlikely reason: [rot 13 for spoilers] neg.
What stood out for me was that this novel is as close as Anderson ever got to writing an upbeat hippie novel. This world is rich, comparatively peaceful, and has good odds of getting through the Great Filter. While many of the countercultures are a bit silly, there isn’t the snarling hostility towards kids-these-days8 that one sees in Anderson’s 1972’s There Will Be Time. In general, Anderson’s 1970s output leaned heavily towards depressed pessimism. The Byworlder is a rare exception.
The Byworlder is available here (Amazon UK). Otherwise, The Byworlder appears to be out of print.
1: We don’t learn much about the fine qualities of the Byworlders picked to protect Yvonne. One likes to think they must have some. Given other decisions in the book, her bosses may have selected her protectors by throwing darts at a list of candidates.
2: The government isn’t bad at protecting Yvonne because “big government always sucks.” One might expect that from an increasing libertarian Anderson. No, it’s just that the whole intelligence community seems to be bad at their jobs in a way that suggests employees have been recruited from the disappointing nephews of highly placed people.
3: Wang’s background is ‘linguatherapy,’ which Yvonne thinks is valued less because it can used in therapy and more because it facilitates “absorbing Tibetans, Mongols, and other minorities.” I think she disapproves. But this is from an era when minorities were supposed to be absorbed by the melting pot, so maybe she doesn’t.
4: This is a short novel: 160 pages in mass market. But it doesn’t seem to have been inflated from a short story. If you have information to the contrary, please let us know in comments.
5: One thing I liked: the novel features something like a World Wide Web. Information is only a public terminal away. This notion was not at all common in 1970s SF.
6: The Skip-Yvonne romance was unusual for its time in that Yvonne is older than Skip. Before he falls for her, he thinks she might be old enough to be his aunt. AILF?
7: The Earth governments aren’t at all sure that Sigman isn’t a danger … something that has unfortunate consequences for the Sigman. He expected a peaceful civilization, like those in the rest of the galaxy. He couldn’t know that humans hadn’t yet passed through the Great Filter.
8: Anderson may not be showing much hostility to Byworlders/hippies/kids-these-days, but he sure as heck hates their rock ‘n roll.