Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Three Worlds to Conquer by Poul Anderson

"As always, he found engineer thoughts soothing.  Forces and matrices were so much easier to deal with than people." 
My (and Bill Meeker's) copy of the novel

Jesse at Speculiction recently reviewed The High Crusade, one of Poul Anderson's more famous novels. I read High Crusade soon after the start of my exile (it was in the local library here on the prairie), like four years ago, and I have to agree with Jesse that the novel is just too incredible. The idea that medieval English fighting men might have admirable qualities that are lacking in modern technological societies, like physical courage or a willingness to take risks or whatever, is an interesting insight and is typical of Anderson's work, but it is too difficult to accept them conquering societies with the wealth and organization required to achieve interstellar travel.

(On the other hand, I recall High Crusade being more readable and memorable than some of Anderson's later work, like For Love and Glory, which I read and have completely forgotten, and Harvest of Stars, which I read and remember being tedious.)

I may not be Poul Anderson's biggest fan, but I enjoyed Brain Wave and The Enemy Stars, and on this blog I have praised several Anderson stories and collections. I am quite sympathetic to Anderson's point of view, so, despite periodic bumps in the road, I keep going back to him.  This week I read a novel published four years after 1960's High Crusade, Three Worlds to Conquer, which was first serialized in If in the first months of 1964. I have the Pyramid paperback, X-1875, printed in 1968.  This copy, for which I paid $1.50 in Minnesota, was originally owned by a Bill Meeker.  

Fellow SF fan Bill Meeker,
we salute you!
Three Worlds to Conquer is a traditional science fiction story about science and wars.  Our hero is Mark Fraser, an engineer on the Ganymede colony of 5,000 people.  He's a skilled pilot of space craft and also the human most adept in the lingua franca that has developed between humans and the natives of Jupiter known as the Nyarr.  Because Jupiter is so inhospitable to human life, humans and Jovians have never met in the flesh, but for over a decade the two civilizations have corresponded via a neutrino-based transmitter system.  As the novel begins Fraser's counterpart on Jupiter, Theor, is asking for Fraser's help because another Jovian society, the Ulunt-Khazul, have launched an aggressive war on the Nyarr.  But Fraser has his own problems--the civil war taking place on Earth has just spread to Ganymede, and the crew of a space battleship (a huge sphere bristling with gun turrets--awesome!) is arresting all the technical personnel on the colony!

The narrative alternates between Theor and his war on the Jovian surface and Fraser's struggle on Ganymede; Theor and Fraser conduct their relationship entirely through electronic communication.  Three Worlds to Conquer thus reminded me of those hard SF classics A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge (1999) and Mission of Gravity, by Hal Clement (1954), which also centered on long distance human-alien relationships.

After suffering military defeats at the hands of their enemies, Fraser and Theor use their engineering ability, rhetorical skill, and willingness to incinerate people with rocket exhaust, to win the day.  

There is a lot of science in Three Worlds to Conquer; we hear all about neutrinos, the solar wind, the atmosphere and geology of Jupiter, and what kind of orbits space ships have to take to efficiently travel about the solar system.  I think Anderson spends two entire pages of Chapter 2 describing the neutrino communications device to us readers.  For the most part this stuff is convincing and interesting.  More fun, perhaps, is the strange ecosystem Anderson comes up with for Jupiter, particularly the plants, animals and people that fly/swim in the thick Jovian atmosphere.  He also makes a creditable effort to figure out what kind of technology the Nyarr and other people living on Jupiter's surface, under tremendous pressure and in terrible cold, would have.

Anderson has a tragic sense of life, and, besides all the people who get massacred in these wars, this is expressed in Fraser's relationships.  A skinny 40-year-old who complains about getting old, he has a wife and children, but his marriage has obviously grown stale.  When Fraser returns from a week-long mission to Io, he goes to the neutrino transmitter to talk to Theor before he goes to see his family.  ("Bros before hos," I guess, even if your bro is an alien you've never seen.)   Fraser and Lorraine Vlasek (mmm, pickles), a woman whose loyalties seem to vacillate between the two different sides in the Earth civil war, have a sad unconsummated love affair.  Fraser also deals with the stress of his work on Ganymede by smoking a pipe and taking "happypills," and frets when tobacco and "psych medicine" are in short supply.  Anderson doesn't imply any moral judgments about Fraser's attitude towards his family or his reliance on stimulants to get through a Ganymedean day.

Characters and style aren't the strong point of this short (143 page) novel; it's a story about plot and ideas.  There aren't any libertarian speeches like the one at the end of the Van Rijn collection Trader to the Stars, but Anderson's politics are in evidence; Fraser carps about government censors and bureaucrats, and Theor gets out of a predicament by trading with primitive natives he encounters.  Anderson portrays war as preferable to living under tyranny or surrendering what is yours, but many minor characters are willing to give up and/or collaborate and have to be convinced by people like Fraser and Theor to do the right thing and stand up for what is right.  And while wars will happen, at the center of the novel is the idea that different cultures will most profit through trade and friendship.

Not spectacular, but solidly entertaining; Three Worlds to Conquer has all the classic hard SF elements, and doesn't outlast its welcome, as new things keep popping up to maintain the reader's interest.

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Some four years ago Joachim Boaz reviewed Three Worlds to Conquer; you'll have to take my word for it that I read his review after drafting mine. 

If we have any substantial disagreements about the novel, it is about Fraser's wife, Eve.  Joachim seems to think her lack of "screen time" is a careless flaw, perhaps a sign of sexism.  I, as I have suggested above, think this is a conscious artistic choice by Anderson, an effort to depict a stale marriage.  The very last line of the book is actually about Eve, and Fraser's strained relationship with her, suggesting Anderson thought the Fraser marriage an important element of his novel.

Joachim also suggests the aliens in the novel are silly-looking, but I thought them better than the cat people, teddy bear people, and girls with blue or green skin we so often get in SF.

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The last page of my edition of Three Worlds to Conquer is an ad for the "Latest Science Fiction!" published by Pyramid.  Of the seven books advertised, I've only read the two included Jack Williamson Legion of Space novels, first written in the 1930s ("latest" indeed.)  I remember enjoying The Cometeers (yay, space war!), but being disappointed in One Against the Legion (instead of interstellar naval warfare we get a detective story in a space casino.)  Joachim read the Sturgeon collection A Way Home last year, and gave it a mixed review.

Feel free to let the world know via the comments why we should seek out The Butterfly Kid, Venus Equilateral, Against the Fall of Night, and The Synthetic Man, or why we should avoid them like we'd avoid the ammonia seas of Jupiter.



5 comments:

  1. I quite like your description of reading Anderson as having a few bumps in the road, but something you keep going back to. I feel the same. I disliked The High Crusade, which leaves me doubtful as to his supposedly similar Three Hearts and Three Lions. Have you read the latter? At the same time, I enjoyed his The Broken Sword, and am told his Half Kroki's Saga (title?) is similar, which leaves me interested. Have you read it? With Anderson you truly never know...

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    1. I haven't read Three Hearts and Three Lions or Hrolf Kraki's Saga, though they look interesting. I read The Broken Sword as a kid, and will reread it someday, i expect.

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  2. The Butterfly Kid is one of those LSD inspired ultra New Wave type SF novels. Copies are hard to find -- $25 dollars online. If I find one I'll grab it although it's not high on my list to read.

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    1. Ahh. Somehow the title conjured up the image of a novel about a boxer, maybe with powers of empathy who decided to get out of the boxing game because during a bout he could feel the pain of his opponent, the bloodlust of the crowd, the anxiety of his girlfriend and family, etc.

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    2. For that story, but with non-butterfly title, see "Beast of the Heartland" by Lucius Shepard... (And thanks for correcting the Hrolf title. I knew I was close, but not close enough.)

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