Poul Anderson’s 1966 The Trouble Twisters is a collection of three stories, all set in Anderson’s Polesotechnic League, all featuring young David Falkayn.
The Three-Cornered Wheel • [David Falkayn] • (1963) • novelette
The interstellar merchants known as the Polesotechnic League cached emergency supplies on Ivanhoe because the planet was conveniently located. They located the cache near Larsum because it was the most advanced culture on the backward world. The League otherwise took little interest in Ivanhoe. It fell to the unlucky crew of What Cheer to discover some important matters overlooked by the League.
Damaged on route through the Pleiades, What Cheer set down near Larsum’s capital, one thousand kilometers from the emergency cache. The replacement machinery is inconveniently heavy — but nothing a wagon cannot handle. Too bad for young David Falkayn and his crewmates that the Consecrate have issued an absolute prohibition on using divine circular shapes for mundane purposes. To complicate matters, the native biochemistry is toxic to terrestrials. What Cheer’s food supplies will run out long before the necessary generator can make its way to the crippled spaceship.
Starvation does not appeal. Neither does being torn apart by superstitious mobs or assassinated on the orders of conservative priests. The solution? Applied geometry and weaponized Kabballah.
A Sun Invisible • [David Falkayn] • (1966) • novelette
The Kraoka aspired to interstellar empire, but first had to deal with some major impediments.
- A: they can live only under F class stars and F class stars are rare.
- B: they’ve never discovered the hyperdrive.
They have mastered sublight starflight and planetary engineering; they’ve managed to settle other worlds and establish a small, fourteen-system empire. It has expanded so far and no further. Without hyperdrive, they can’t communicate or coordinate over great distances. The empire collapsed into its component systems, which settled into into three hundred centuries of stagnation.
Stasis is broken by the arrival of warships from Antoran. The Antorans, surprisingly enough, are Kraokans. Kraokans from outside the empire, Kraokans who have human allies. The Antorans have been given the secrets of hyperdrive and up-to-date military tech. They plan to conquer the remnants of the old empire and then expand .
Kraokan imperial dreams threaten the Polesotechnic League’s cozy commercial set-up. Kraoka must be crushed lest it imperil the bottom line. There are a few League agents on Kraoka, among them young David Falkayn. It is up to these few to protect League interests.
It just so happens that the Antoran general, Jutta Horn, is a girl, stolen from a proper life of dresses and makeup and thrust into a military role by the would-be empire’s lack of human
manpersonpower. Nothing for it but for Falkayn to use his irresistible charm to steal from Jutta secrets that will locate the Antoran system. Good thing she’s pretty!
Alas, clues abound but they don’t add up to anything that makes sense.
The Trouble Twisters • [David Falkayn] • (1965) • novella
Nicholas van Rijn has a dream: covertly contacting previously isolated alien worlds to establish profitable trade arrangements without the unpleasant complication of competition from other League merchants. Ikrananka seems ideal: it’s a garden world where humans can live unprotected and whose native civilizations are advanced enough to sustain trade but backward enough to be dependent on off-world starships. The Muddlin’ Through ’s crew — David Falkayn, Chee Lan, and Adzel — are the lucky trio selected as the contact team.
The trio soon discover that the hasty initial survey overlooked some important details. Contrary to van Rin’s impression, Ikrananka had its first interstellar visitors generations ago. Some humans were marooned on the alien world by space pirates. They adapted, thrived, and found a niche as a military caste. Now, they have dreams of setting up their own country.
The crew of Muddlin’ Through has no desire to become embroiled in local politics, but the only alternative is repatriating the humans to Earth. That would reveal Ikrananka’s existence to the other members of the League. What to do?
The Technic timeline features dozens of civilizations with access to FTL drives. How is it then that Earth was not colonized by aliens many thousands of years ago? Because the galaxy is very very big and even diligent explorers skip past vast swaths of the Milky Way:
The galaxy, even this tiny fragment of one spiral arm which we have somewhat explored, is inconceivably huge. In the course of visiting and perhaps colonizing worlds of obvious interest to them, space travelers have leapfrogged past literally millions of others. Many are not even catalogued. Without a special effort, they are unlikely to become known for millennia.
It’s always fun to mock the terrible covers that Baen slaps on helpless books. This never had a Baen edition, but … Berkley more than made up for that lapse with this Reagan-era cover.
The Polesotechnic League may appear to modern eyes to be a gigantic bag of dicks, what with their off-handed political interventions, one-sided trade deals, and steadfast pursuit of profit. This is because they are a gigantic bag of dicks, who should be resisted with every weapon that comes to hand. In the short run, the League delivers exploitation. In the long run, it delivered the Terran Empire, which was worse, and then the Long Night that followed.
Oddly enough, it seems as though the author initially thought the League were the good guys or at least charming scoundrels. Anderson seems to have rethought that by the Carter-era Mirkheim , a comprehensively gloomy study of the League’s decline (which as I recall came down to the little guys in the League discovering that being treated like natives isn’t much fun).
The League is a bag of dicks and smarmy, sexist1 David Falkayn is a dick as well. Falkayn has utterly bought into the League’s belief that it has the right to rearrange the universe for its own convenience. Take comfort in the knowledge that Falkayn becomes a sad old man who regrets the deals he and people like him arranged, deals that hurt their trading partners2.
Still, this is an Anderson novel. Anderson was damn good at worldbuilding. He’s imagined a galaxy that is vast and diverse. Each planet is unique, each alien race given its own cultures and history, its own evolutionary past. Anderson does acknowledge that humans will tend to see their alien neighbours as a collection of Planets of Hats, but makes clear that such stereotypes are convenient but false. He does his best to stay true to science as it was known at the time of writing (well, I’ll give him FTL and antigravity, because plot). He even hangs a story or two on efforts to reconcile science with the apparent facts.
None of that makes up for Falkayn. While reading this book I couldn’t help wanting to beat the protagonist about the head with a sack of ball-bearings. Well, perhaps rotten tomatoes, because I’m not homicidal. Usually.
The Trouble Twisters is out of print, although the stories themselves may be found in more recent collections.
1: Everything Falkayn learned about treating women as sex objects he learned from his boss van Rin. One can only imagine the old fellow’s reaction the day that van Rijn discovered Falkayn had hooked up with van Rijn’s daughter Coya. Sure, monogamy resulted, but it could have gone another way.
2: Not that Falkayn lived anywhere long enough to learn this, but the bitter Terran-Mersian rivalry that shapes several centuries of conflict can be traced back to decisions he and his two chums made in 1967’s Day of Burning , which in turn means that one can pin the Long Night on him as well.