Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Avatar by Poul Anderson

"The single definition of government I've ever seen that makes sense is that it's the organization which claims the right to kill people who won't do what it wants."

When the doors opened at Half-Price Books on "Black Friday" the wife and I, and a few of the in-laws, were among the one hundred early birds who received five dollar gift cards.  I didn't actually buy anything at Half-Price that day, but later on, at the Salvation Army (the in-laws accompanying us love to shop at thrift stores) I picked up a 1979 Berkley paperback edition of Poul Anderson's The Avatar.  The breathless cover text and the illustration (which is giving me a kind of Star Wars vibe, despite the blue jeans) are at the same time silly and intriguing.  My fifty cents was leaping out of my pocket to buy this thing and see what it was all about.

It is the 22nd century, and mankind has colonized the planet Demeter in the Phoebus system, using an alien star gate device discovered orbiting Sol.  The people of Earth call the mysterious and apparently benevolent aliens who built the device "the Others." There is a second star gate orbiting Phoebus, and a multinational squad in the space ship Emissary went into it five months ago.  As the novel begins, the Emissary returns with exciting news of first contact with a friendly alien civilization (the "Betans") and opportunities for humankind of explore the galaxy.  But a ruthless faction of the government, the Action Party, which opposes further exploration of space, doesn't want the people to know about the universe beyond the star gates, and quarantines the Emissary.  The Emissary's crew is imprisoned in an abandoned space station back in the Solar System.  The richest man on Demeter, Dan Broderson, has friends on the Emissary and access to the highest human technology, and realizes what is going on. The Demeter branch of the government puts him under house arrest, but he escapes to the Solar System with a team of like-minded individuals in his own ship, the Chinook, and tries to rescue the Emissary's crew.

Around page 225 the Chinook escapes the Solar System through the star gate, but due to haste (they are pursued by government ships ordered by the Action Party to destroy them) Broderson and friends reappear in uncharted territory, and begin a desperate exploration of the universe, travelling through space and time from one star gate to another, facing challenges and meeting various alien civilizations along the way.    

1978 hardcover edition
The Avatar is long, 404 pages of quite small type in this edition, and there is a lot going on.  Most importantly, all the hard SF stuff--the spaceships, the astronomy, the aliens, the human-computer interface business, and the fights with government agents and hostile aliens--works; it is all interesting, believable and entertaining.

Free market/small government politics often goes hand in hand with hard SF, and a veneration of freedom and a disdain for government interference are the underlying themes of Anderson's novel.  Broderson, the wealthy businessman, is contrasted with Ira Quick, lawyer and politician, the bigwig of the Action Party who leads the effort to neutralize the troublemakers from the Emissary and Chinook.  Broderson's passion is for man to expand throughout the galaxy; out there among the stars are boundless opportunities to enrich mankind's material and cultural life.  A mere two planets are too cramped an environment for humanity, he believes; if the human race doesn't have room to grow it will explode and destroy itself. Broderson sees plenty of signs on Earth of the need for greater elbow room: terrorism, wacky religions and the revival of long discredited Keynesian financial policies.

The Action Party, in contrast, ostensibly opposes space exploration because the resources spent on it could be better used financing welfare spending and a new government agency tasked with preparing Earth's population for climate change. Quick also complains that it is unfair that the products of space exploration disproportionately benefit the middle classes and the aristocracy.  Why should the bravest and smartest humans be allowed to leave Earth and Demeter and enjoy themselves on adventures; shouldn't their talents be put to use by the government to achieve social justice?  The reality, of course, is that the leaders of the Action Party are largely motivated by a desire to maintain their own power and satisfy their lust to control others.  In an interior monologue Quick admits that he enjoys being cheered by a crowd as much as having sex.

A 1981 British cover that is
boggling my mind
There are many characters in the novel, and most of them have elaborate back stories and psychological issues revealed in long flashbacks and inner monologues.  Anderson spends quite a bit of time on their relationships with each other, especially their sexual relationships.  There is a lot of what you might call soap opera drama, much of it revolving around Broderson, who has a loving wife and kids on Demeter, but also quite a few mistresses, two of whom end up in the Chinook: Caitlin Margaret Mulryan the Irish bard (yes, in Avatar we witness more American romanticism of Ireland, as we have recently in Leigh Brackett and Henry Kuttner stories) and Joelle Ky, a computer expert who can plug herself into a computer to expand her mental abilities a thousandfold.

Broderson and his wife Elisabet Leino, a successful businesswoman, have what amounts to an open marriage, and alternatives to traditional marriage and traditional attitudes about love and sex are another theme of this lengthy novel.  We are expected to believe that Broderson loves Caitlin as much as he loves Elisabet, and that the wife and bard love each other.  Anderson also portrays sex as a kind of therapy for people who are depressed because their friends just got killed by government thugs or alien barbarians, and Broderson and Caitlin both have sex with numerous people on the ship in order to comfort them or raise their morale. This all reminded me a little of the alternative marriage schemes we see in Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  However, while in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress the narrator (and/or Heinlein himself) portrays the Lunar group marriages as flawlessly happy, essentially propagandizing for such arrangements, Anderson, more believably, depicts the frictions we expect to see in any sexual relationship.  Some individuals express envy, or jealousy or distaste over other people's sexual relationships, and Broderson's brother-in-law Martii Leino (a traditional Christian who's also on the Chinook) is offended by what he sees as Broderson's flagrant infidelities and insensitivity to his sister.

I wouldn't say I actually enjoyed all this relationship stuff (the way characters are always complimenting each others' performances in bed and saying gushy romance goop like "You are my heart" or "my life" is actually kind of goofy) but it is not that distracting or irritating.       

One of the remarkable thing about the characters is how cultured they all are.  These people don't watch sitcoms on TV, or follow sports, or listen to pop music.  They listen to classical music (one character asserts that Beethoven's First Symphony is "excellent background for fucking"), they quote Kipling and Swinburne and pepper their conversation with allusions to the works of Rupert Brooke and William Shakespeare, and if they activate a TV screen during off hours it is to look at Hokusai's Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji or a video of views of York Minster.  I guess this is wishful thinking on Anderson's part, the idea that in 200 years, when society is different in almost every way, that people will still like the art, literature and music that he himself likes; even in 1978 the number of people passionate about Hokusai, Swinburne, and Sibelius must have been pretty small.  Perhaps Anderson included all these references to Kipling, Bach, et al, in hopes of inspiring a similar appreciation in his own readers, a small blow towards creating the future he hoped would unfold.

Behold!  The TV of the Future!

As I have noted, The Avatar is long, and it does feel long.  Anderson is long winded, and many scenes include more or less extraneous description of rooms and scenery and weather.  Some of the characters smoke, so in dialogue scenes we have to hear all about their exhaling, inhaling, lighting pipes and cigarettes, etc.  Similarly, Ira Quick likes to touch his own beard, a van dyke, during his internal monologues.  Anderson also displays some odd tics; he uses the word "yonder" numerous times--I almost never encounter this word being used unironically.  He also mentions people's body odors quite a lot.

One of the strengths of the novel is its ability to surprise; I honestly didn't know for sure if Broderson and crew would meet the Others and return to Earth to discredit the Action Party and open the universe to mankind; there really seemed a possibility of a bittersweet or even tragic ending.  (You could still argue the book is bittersweet, owing to the fact that several people get killed and some members of the crew who survive are disappointed in what they find out there in the depths of the galaxy.)

The biggest surprise for me was why the novel is called The Avatar, which I was wondering about the entire time I read the book.  In the last 40 or so pages it is revealed that the Others observe life on other planets by implanting in plants and animals microscopic cells that can record their lives.  The hosts of these cells, called "avatars" in English, can then be Summoned so the aliens can "become One" with them and experience life on a planet such as Earth first hand. Caitlin, it turns out, is one of these avatars.  Anderson foreshadows this on page 1 of the novel, and several times later, but I was too obtuse to pick up on it.

The Avatar is far from perfect, but I enjoyed it for all the traditional outer space/rocket ship/aliens elements, and as a personal statement of Anderson's own interests and beliefs.  I'd judge it moderately good, though readers committed to "social justice" or marital fidelity be forewarned: you will probably be groaning at 202 of its 404 pages.


I recently thought it odd that Ace's The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein would include many advertisements for crossword puzzles and books relating "true" stories about ghosts and sexy witches, but Berkley's The Avatar takes the cake, with an ad for everyone's favorite epic about an evil stepmother's war to the death with wire hangers, Mommie Dearest!

Would the same people who read The Avatar be inspired by this ad to pick up Mommie Dearest?  I doubt it!  But, on reflection, The Avatar and Mommie Dearest have much in common.  Each is about the corruption, the abuse of power, and the stifling control people suffer from an institution it is all too common to hear mindlessly put on a pedestal, the government on one hand, parenthood on the other.  

Mommie Dearest also enjoys the over the top promotion that The Avatar was graced with--"the most shocking heartbreaking love story ever!" is about as silly as "that surge of greatness that comes when a writer's vision is expanded to the full, his powers gathered, his masterwork ready for creation."  The people at Berkley in 1979 were clearly of the "go big or go home" school!

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