James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Mystery Dance

Virgin Planet

By Poul Anderson 

3 Mar, 2018

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

1959’s Virgin Planet is a novel-length expansion of Poul Anderson’s 1957 novella of the same name. It takes place in Anderson’s Psychotechnic League, a future history he developed from the 1940s to the late 1950s (it is in fact very nearly the final work in that setting.).

Davis Bertram, the young, proud owner of a splendid starship, is determined to make a name for himself. He sets out on a voyage of exploration to the Delta Capitis Lupi system. The system has only recently emerged from a fifty light-year-wide trepidation vortex; the system may or may not be home to an Earth-like world. What is certain is that Davis will be the first man to visit the system.

But not, as he discovers, the first human.

Corporal Maiden Barbara Whitley has no idea what to make of the peculiar entity she encounters near the unfamiliar starship. It could be one of those mythical Men or — much worse! — a Monster. She will let her betters resolve the question. Barbara lassos the strange being and drags it off to Freetoon.

Davis claims to be a Man, but he is hardly the godlike figure he should be. The holy tales are quite specific about Men:

(…) The Men are taller and stronger than we, infinitely wiser and more virtuous, and they have hair on their chins and no breasts.…

Davis wasn’t even wise enough to avoid capture. It seems very unlikely that he could be a Man.

But if he is.…

Three centuries ago a shipload of female castaways was swept by the trepidation vortex into the Delta Capitis Lupi system. They had no hope of rescue or escape. Rather than accept that their fledgling community was doomed to dwindle and vanish as the castaways aged and died, the ship’s doctor turned to induced parthenogenesis to ensure the survival of the human race on this alien world. Three centuries later, the Doctors still have a monopoly on the reproductive technology required to people Atlantis.

If Davis is the Man he claims to be — something that his performance anxiety leaves unresolved — then his man-bits could allow restive women to do an end run around the Doctors’ monopoly of power. The tech on his starship could also tip the political balance on the planet. Davis and his ship may be the keys to ruling the world itself! 

Freetoon finds itself under siege from an alliance of rivals determined to have Davis and the power he promises. When the town falls, Barbara, her equally martial cousin Valeria, flighty arm-candy Elinor Dyckman, and Davis himself are forced to flee into the wildness. This may not be a safe refuge, as every town on the planet either wants to capture Davis or kill him to keep him out of the … let’s say hands … of their rivals.


The covers this book has had over the years range from blah”

to what were they thinking?” 

The cover I picked is the one on my copy, but I don’t know if it will survive Facebook’s censors.…

One does not often read sex farces whose astronomical features are as thoroughly worked out as those of the Virgin Planet. 

Overhead, though, were two crescent moons, dim by daylight, one almost twice the apparent size of Earth’s, the other half again as big as Luna seen from home. And there was the emperor planet, the world of which this was only another satellite. When full, it would sprawl across fourteen times as much sky as Luna. Just now it was a narrow sickle, pale amber. The morning sun was approaching it. That is, the smaller, Sol-type sun, Delta Capitis Lupi B in standard astrographic language, about which the giant planet moved. The primary sun, bluish-white A, had not yet risen; it would never seem more than the brightest of the stars. 

There’s an afterword that goes into a lot more detail about the system. It seems churlish to point out that not only could an A‑type star not last long enough for complex life to evolve on a world in its system, Anderson’s notes on the system make that clear:

Delta Capitis Lupi A (later called Daedalus) is of type AO, a hot bluish star with a mass of four Sols and a luminosity of eighty-one Sols (taken from the mass-luminosity diagram).

If it’s four times more massive and eighty-one times brighter, all things being equal Daedalus should run through its fuel in about one-twentieth the time as Sol will take. 

I’d like to say the presence of birds on the world suggests that some alien (aka Monster) race terraformed the planet to suit terrestrials (for some inexplicable alien reason) but no. Evolution in this setting seems to have produced Cenozoic-era-style lifeforms on an Earth-like world. Ah, well. Anderson was really more of a physics-oriented writer. Having done all that homework, Anderson never returned to the Delta Capitis Lupi system. Too busy creating other worlds, I suppose. 

It’s not all stars and orbits, though. There are racy passages like 

Davis gasped. Her breasts stood forth from shadow, gleaming in the light, like the cobblestones: but there the resemblance ended. Fifth order function, isn’t it? said his mathematical reflexes. Five points of inflection, counting the central cusp as three. He checked again to make sure. Yes, five. Of course, his mind mumbled, that was thinking in terms of plane geometry, whereas the view here was decidedly three-dimensional.… The girl stretched her self, muscle by muscle, standing on tiptoe and arching her back. Four dimensional! Mustn’t forget the time variable! 

Steamy stuff.

Anderson isn’t content to have fun showing how a shallow young man’s fantasy could go awry. He does give some thought to how a society of parthenogenic women might develop, given time. In Freetoon, the reproductive system has given rise to a caste system, one in which each person, genetically identical to their mothers, are expected to do the same job as their mother did. It’s an excellent system from the perspective of the ruling Udalls, perhaps not as excellent for the more expendable Whitleys. 

Other cities, other systems (save that everywhere, the Doctors control reproduction). Nice touch there. If they are written by Poul Anderson, even Planets of the Sexually Deprived Single Women are diverse. 

Speaking of diversity, Anderson does tackle the question just how the ladies provided themselves with … companionship … in the three centuries without men. The Whitleys appear to prefer generations of frustration, but other solutions are hinted at by the tendency of the subtly surnamed Dyckmans to attach themselves to Udalls and other powerful women. 

It’s good that Atlantian women get to enjoy all manner of boisterous adventure because their counterparts in the Union most certainly do not:

First a planet was thoroughly surveyed. Then an all-male party landed, spent two or three years building, analyzing, testing. Finally the women came.
He didn’t know the history of Atlantis’ Ship. Somewhere in the Service archives lay a record of a female transport with a female crew — you didn’t mix the sexes on such a journey unless you wanted trouble.

Girls! So pesky! 

It has been decades since I read Brin’s Glory Season … but … but I remember enough to see parallels between Anderson’s Atlantis and Brin’s Stratos. While Stratos’ aphid-like reproductive options include hetrosexuality, parthenogenesis is the most common strategy. There, it too has given rise to a caste system. I wonder, if one looked at Brin’s shelves, would one find Anderson’s book? 

The parallels go farther than that. About half way through Glory Season, we learn that the Hominid Phylum does not tolerate too much diversity, that a vast fleet of colonists is on its way, intent on bringing Stratos’ reproductive customs in line with the Phylum’s, whether not the people of Stratos want this to happen (pages 517 – 520 of my MMPB edition.). Similarly, the Union may rule human worlds lightly, but they do find Atlantis too weird to tolerate.

However — -he knew enough Union law to be sure that just about anything he did to the Doctors would be all right with the Coordination Service. This was not a matter of passing anthropomorphic judgments on some non-human civilization; Homo sapiens values were rigorously established, and they included a normal family life. 

Bad luck for the Doctors, but also for all the loving lesbians on Atlantis. Perhaps I should have compared this book not to Glory Season, but to Joanna Russ’ When It Changed.

I could not say if there is a recent edition of this book. Happily, this book was produced in an era when novels were short and print runs were huge. Virgin Planet can no doubt be found at your favourite purveyor of used books1.

1: My editor informs me that Anderson’s (unrelated) The Virgin of Valkorian is available in a cheap-ish Kindle edition. Also in a high-priced rip-off paperback with the original cover. It too has a remarkable cover.