Monday, September 25, 2017

Virgin Planet by Poul Anderson

"You know," answered Davis, "this is the kind of thing I used to daydream about in my teens.  A brand new world, like Earth but more beautiful, and I the only man among a million women.  Well...I've found it now and I want out!"
So many SF novels have covers that I really like produced by artists whom isfdb is unable to identify.  There's the cover of the 1970 Lancer edition of Damon Knight's World Without Children and The Earth Quarter, the cover of Belmont's 1963 Novelets of Science Fiction, Ace's 1975 edition of Leigh Brackett's The Sword of Rhiannon, and Dell's 1971 collection of A. E. van Vogt stories, More than Superhuman. Well, we can add Paperback Library's 1970 printing of Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet to the list.  The use of color and metaphor (the women in the book are not giants) gives the cover a very poster-like, "graphic design," feel which I like and which distinguishes it from the many more literal and realistic covers produced for Virgin Planet over the years, while not neglecting the obvious erotic overtones of a book about being the only man on a planet full of women.

Virgin Planet first appeared in book form in 1959, an expansion of a 1957 novella published in the very first issue of Venture with attractive illustrations by Emsh, and has been reprinted frequently.  I just sang the praises of one of Anderson's Dominic Flandry stories; let's see if Virgin Planet provides me a chance to issue further encomiums to the man who built a houseboat with Jack Vance and Frank Herbert.

The Delta Capitas Lupi system of two stars and five planets and many moons has been cut off from the human space federation (the "Union") for as long as anybody can remember by a "trepidation vortex," the kind of thing in other SF you might call a warp storm.  The vortex has largely shifted out of the way, and playboy Davis Bertram (is this a Wodehouse reference?), girl-chasing son of a wealthy businessman, has purchased a one-man space ship with the idea of being the first to explore the system and win some prestige.  When he lands on the Earth-like third moon of the subordinate star's larger planet he discovers it is inhabited by the cloned descendants of a lost all-women colonization vessel that crash landed on the moon 300 years ago; these women have only preindustrial technology and are illiterate and have only dim legends about their ancestors' origins and ordinary human sexual life!

Anderson's narrative begins in medias res, with Corporal Barbara Whitley of the flightless-bird-riding cavalrywomen of Freetoon, one of the competing settlements of clones on planet Atlantis, as they call it. She captures Davis (in the Union, family name comes before personal name) with a lasso and drags him to imprisonment in Freetoon.  After a few flashback chapters which give us insight into Bertram's character, the novel's plot showcases the radical effect Davis's arrival has on Atlantean society.

Women who have been resorting to celibacy or lesbianism all their lives jealously compete for the attention of Davis, while the rulers of the towns see him and his spaceship as the key to absolute hegemony, and war erupts over him.  Barbara Whitley and her genetically identical comrade Valeria free Davis and they escape into the wilderness with him as a coalition army from other towns is storming Freetoon.  Davis insists on bringing along Elinor Dyckman, a voluptuous brunette who makes her way in the world via flattery and sex appeal and for whom the athletic and belligerent red-headed Whitleys have contempt.

The novel is quite readable and entertaining.  Anderson devotes considerable time and energy to setting the scene, describing in detail the sky of Atlantis, for example, with its many heavenly bodies that include the huge planet about which Atlantis orbits, a gas giant which looms 14 times the size of Luna as seen from Earth and  whose amber light alters colors on the Atlantean surface, where the numerous moons often paint a complex multiplicity of shadows.  We learn all about Atlantean society.  The 300-year old ship which brought the very first iteration of Whitley and Dyckman and all the few hundred women who are the prototypes of the hundreds of thousands of people now living on Atlantis is now the base of a sort of papacy.  Women from all the many towns go to Ship City as pilgrims, to be impregnated by the mysterious "Doctors" via a parthogenetic process which splits one of their ovum so they can give birth to a baby genetically identical to themselves.  The Doctors stay out of the endless political disputes between the warlike towns but demand regular tribute and live relatively luxurious lives.

Though there are no explicit sex scenes, Anderson plays up sex angle--one of the first things Davis witnesses in captivity is Barbara Whitley stripping and bathing in a trough, and on their harrowing journey over the mountains and through the woods to a different region of Atlantis, Davis repeatedly gets within seconds of getting into the quite willing Elinor Dyckman's pants, only to be interrupted each time by a jealous Whitley or a monster attack.  Anderson also talks about genetics and sex differences that maybe we aren't supposed to talk about nowadays?  For example, how women's muscles are weaker than men's, which results in Atlantean close combat yielding relatively few fatalities rates-- the women are not strong enough to easily penetrate each other's armor with their axes and spears.  Because an individual's personality, inclinations and abilities are determined by her genetic identity, each class of clones becomes a caste and fits the same niche in each town near Davis's landing spot--every settlement is ruled by mannish Udalls, and wherever you go all the aggressive Whitleys are members of the warrior class while the selfish Dyckmans (a Dickensian joke name?) are lovers and advisers to Udalls and mercilessly manipulate everybody at court.    

In the region of Atlantis beyond that mountain range the party of Freetoon refugees encounters a town in which all the women are the same type of clone, Burkes.  The Burkes have a republican society with a council and social equality, everybody taking turns at menial tasks, a contrast to the  the Udall monarchy and rigid castes--among them a class of helots--found at Freetoon and neighboring settlements.  The Burkes take Davis captive, hoping to breed with him and thus throw off their reliance on the Doctors and generate a more diverse, vital and physically strong nation which will be able to take over the entire planet.  Our heroes escape to an island where resides a settlement inhabited by a small variety of different genotypes, all creative and artistic people, a sort of decadent artists' commune.  These sensitive types are also eager to mate with Davis, for less utilitarian reasons, but the jealous Whitleys yet again interfere.  Then a representative of the Doctors shows up.  Uninterested in having their exalted position disrupted, the Doctors want Davis killed at once, hiding their fears behind the allegation that he is no man, but an alien monster.

The last third or so of the 150-page novel covers Davis's cobbling together of a military alliance of women disaffected from the Doctors and their conquest of Ship City. Anderson keeps this realistic rather than John-Carteresque--like you would expect of an actual political leader, especially in a society like the galactic Union which has abandoned war, Davis is far in the rear with the generals, watching the assault and not even issuing orders but letting an old native, a veteran ship captain, command the operation, until his special expertise is required when it is discovered that the Doctors have his ion blast pistol.  In the end Davis and Barbara and Valeria are able to neutralize the Doctors and make peace among the Atlanteans.  Davis leaves the planet with his lady love (one of the Whitleys, though Anderson keeps it a mystery which) to open up Atlantis to the Union--soon the women of Atlantis will all know the joys of heterosexual sex and sexual reproduction!

After the novel proper Anderson provides a seven-page explanation of all the science in the story, telling us he is emulating Hal Clement's well-respected and very science-based Mission of Gravity.  

A quite good example of the traditional SF story--an adventure with violence and danger that portrays a paradigm shift, expresses skepticism of religion and slings a lot of science--in this case astronomy, biology, sociology and political science--at you in an entertaining and thought-provoking way.  Anderson also succeeds in presenting characters who all have motivations, personalities and relationships that make sense, and who evolve as the novel proceeds.  Thumbs up for Virgin Planet.

1 comment:

  1. Thumbs up for Poul Anderson generally. I'm in the middle of reading the BAEN Books RISE OF THE TERRAN EMPIRE collection of Anderson's work. Poul Anderson was the consummate professional. I think he produced his best work in the 1960s.