Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Satan's World by Poul Anderson

"You're better off without a lord," said Falkayn.  "Every human being is."

Over a year ago, in the 1964 collection Trader to the Stars, we met Nicholas van Rijn, Poul Anderson's hairy and obese space merchant, the head of Solar Spice & Liquors Company.  In The Trouble Twisters we were introduced to some of Van Rijn's employees, the multi-racial explorer team consisting of handsome human aristocrat David Falkayn, acid-tongued little cat-monkey Chee, and hulking alligator-faced centauroid Buddhist Adzel.  These four heroes of entrepreneurial capitalism get involved in a major interstellar crisis in Satan's World, a 1968 novel first serialized in Analog.  I read the 1977 Berkley Medallion paperback with the pleasant but generic cover by Rick Sternbach and the misspelling of Falkayn's name on the back cover.

Satan's World is unabashed libertarian hard science fiction: there is lots of chemistry, astronomy, and biology; there are lots of force fields, computers, robots, space warships, ray guns, nuclear bombs and brain-scrubbing and -washing techniques; there are innumerable intelligent alien species; and our heroes are businesspeople who love to smoke, drink and make a profit, and who have to outwit interfering government bureaucrats at every turn.

Our adventure starts off on Earth and Luna, at the heart of the Commonwealth. Falkayn is consulting with Serendipity, Inc., the leading clearinghouse of information in the Commonwealth, thanks to their (mysteriously acquired) computers, the best in the human-inhabited sector of the galaxy.  Pooling their information, Falkayn and the Serendipity people discover the location of a very valuable rogue planet. Unfortunately, Serendipity, Inc. is a deep cover spy operation of the ruthless imperialistic slaver aliens known as the Shenna!  The Serendipity staff, victims of a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, send a ship to alert their masters about the rogue planet, and hold Falkayn captive--that is until Adzel, Chee and Van Rijn launch a commando raid and liberate him from Serendipity's fortified moon base.  While Van Rijn and Adzel deal with meddling Earth and Lunar bureaucrats (it turns out those government busybodies frown on private commando raids) Falkayn and Chee blast off for the rogue planet, racing to get their before the Shenna do.

This planet, which Falkayn dubs "Satan" has been passing through interstellar space for eons, just a big frozen rock.  It is currently approaching a spectacularly huge and bright star, and the radiation from the star is thawing the planet, leading to all kinds of dramatic storms and volcanic activity.  Anderson spends a few pages explaining the physics and economics behind how Solar Spice & Liquors Company can make a pile of money by setting up factories on this planet--the same science means that if the Shenna get their hands on Satan they can build a super war fleet that can threaten the Commonwealth.  A Shenna flotilla shows up shortly after our heroes arrive; can Falkayn and Chee escape to warn the Commonwealth before it is too late?

There follows a series of naval battles, gun fights, tense negotiations, people getting captured, people escaping captivity, etc.  (And plenty of science lectures.)  Van Rijn, Falkayn, Chee and Adzel all have to make tough decisions and run risks to preserve peace and freedom.  In the end, the Shenna are pacified (with no help from the Commonwealth government) and integrated into the Commonwealth economy, and Van Rijn and associates make a pretty penny!  A triumph for the bourgeoise!

Satan's World is more streamlined and faster-paced than Anderson's 1978 novel, The Avatar, with fewer characters and briefer descriptions, which I appreciated.  Of course I love all the traditional SF elements Anderson packs into the book--the anti-grav belts, the spherical space battleships bristling with energy cannons and missile launchers, the robots and space suits, et al--and I like the plot.  Anderson's style is not great, but Vin Rijn's many malapropisms, and Anderson's occasional odd literary references that sent me to google and Wikipedia (e.g., an oblique reference to the work of Leslie Charteris, whom I have never read) are entertaining.  Satan's World is a lot of fun.

In addition to the pervasive "business is more efficient and just than government" theme, there are a few elements which may irk all you social justice types out there. There is a lot of biological determinism; the behavior and social structure of each of numerous intelligent species is explained by the environment in which they evolved. The Shenna exhibit extreme sexual dimorphism, with the females basically stupid and useless.  Van Rijn and Falkayn exhibit a sort of cavalier attitude towards women, and while the alien female Chee does more shooting and killing than anybody, the principal human females in the story are all manipulative spies.

Several editions of Satan's World bear the Frederick Pohl blurb "A rattling good space story."  I tend to think of Pohl as some kind of commie, but he always gives those iconic anti-socialist SF writers, Heinlein and Anderson, a fair shake, and I think his five-word assessment hits it on the nose; Satan's World is a fun space adventure that effectively employs a battery of well-worn and well-loved SF tropes.


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