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High Profits And High Adventure

And now the second volume in the Technic Civilization saga, with young David Falkayn taking center stage. Not that Nicholas van Rijn is through having a few more adventures of his own (including—literally—one armchair adventure), adventures which he would just as soon have delegated to someone else, such as in the first story in this book, but Falkayn is now not the only one front and center, but his trader team is ready for action.

Team leader is David Falkayn, a member of the aristocracy on the planet Hermes, where he had the misfortune (or, perhaps, not misfortune at all) of being the younger son of a baronial house, a spare part in case something happens to the older son who's the rightful heir, and consequently obliged to strike out on a career of his own. The reader will have met him in the first volume, The van Rijn Method (and if the reader hasn't read that book, the reader should hasten to the local bricks-and-mortar bookstore, or else get online and acquire it; it won't be on sale forever, even if it certainly should be). As detailed therein, he had a trial-by-fire (not to mention trial-by-alien-arrows), acquitted himself well, and was given assignments of increasing importance and authority. And now he has his own ship, and a most unusual crew.

Besides Falkayn, there's Chee Lan, a tempestuous felinesque being, considerably smaller than a human but with enough attitude for a whole battalion of monkey-boys (or girls), covered with silky-white fur, and a crack shot with a blaster. Better not beat her at poker—or do anything else to get her mad. But she keeps a cool head in a crisis: "glacially self-possessed," as Poul Anderson puts it.

Then there's Adzel, as imperturbable as Chee Lan is high-strung, and I suspect that his imperturbability has less to do with his being a Buddhist than with his reptilian species' having evolved on a planet where they're the biggest life form—not quite elephant sized. They are dragonlike, but also centaurlike, with four legs and an additional two arms. He abhors violence, but has no problem with self-defense—or defense of his comrades.

Muddlehead completes the team. Their ship, Muddlin' Through, has an intelligent computer that tends to show initiative at the most unexpected times, sometimes exasperatingly so, but at other times with highly welcome ingenuity, outsmarting the bad guys. Now if only it didn't sound so smug, particularly when it wins at poker . . . .

Their first adventure, between these covers as "The Trouble Twisters," finds Poul Anderson having some more fun with space opera stereotypes, much as he did with The Man Who Counts (included in The van Rijn Method). This time, it's the intrepid spacefarer who has to rescue a woman (human, that is) from pursuing alien bad guys. The whole thing is straight out of the stories that writers for Planet Stories (and Anderson was a frequent contributor to that marvelous pulp magazine) wrote with a straight face. This time the author has his tongue at least in the vicinity of his cheek, and even Falkayn comments, "No . . . . Such things don't happen." The author gives a solid reason for finding a human damsel in distress on an alien planet, and there's just as much adventure as Planet could have boasted, plus a bit of humor. But that's enough from me—go read the story.

In fact, I should shut up now and say, "Go read the book." But I'll make a few more comments, beginning with "Day of Burning," which is a pivotal moment in the Technic Civilization universe. A planet is menaced by a nearby supernova, and the Polesotechnic League, with Falkayn's trader team first on the scene, is going to help the planet's race as much as possible to survive. But no good deed goes unpunished, and not only do things get dangerously complicated for a member of the team, but the planet happens to be Merseia. And centuries later, Dominic Flandry and the Terran Empire would have ample reason to regret that good deed.

Then, there's "The Master Key," which has van Rijn back on Earth, in the lap of comfort, while he listens to his agents describe their adventures on a troublesome planet. He listens to their story, takes in all the facts, then solves a mystery without getting out of his chair, making me wonder if perhaps centuries ago he might have had a similarly rotund ancestor whose name was Wolfe.

But, though he'd rather stay back on Earth while paying others to face danger and have adventures, it's not that kind of universe, and in the novel Satan's World, van Rijn and the trader team are together again for the first time, facing a menace not just to van Rijn's beloved profits, but to Earth itself.

And while they're both in action in the concluding novella in this volume, they're not really together. Dark times are coming, though the real darkness hasn't fallen yet (but it will in the third volume, Rise of the Terran Empire), and it's not always easy to stuff a genie back into the bottle. Poul Anderson's universes, that of the Polesotechnic League and Technic Civilization included, are places with love, joy and heroisms—but they are never cozy. The center may hold for a time, but never holds forever. The darkness is always lurking out there, waiting to descend. James Blish once noted Anderson's strong sense of tragedy: " . . . as a physicist, he knows that the entropy gradient goes inexorably in only one direction, and he wastes no time sniveling about it."

Neither do Anderson's heroes snivel. It's not a friendly universe, but those heroes and heroines do what they must, bringing forth light for a time and driving back the darkness in their corner of an uncaring cosmos. Even if they finally are defeated, they still fought the good fight. While Poul Anderson claimed no loftier status than a craftsman whose object was to entertain the audience—a role he fulfilled admirably—his sf often had a larger dimension; a dimension which is very much on display in the Technic Civilization saga.


The van Rijn Method made use of the introductory material that Poul Anderson had written for the stories appearing in the earlier collections Trader to the Stars, The Trouble Twisters, and The Earth Book of Stormgate. This time, the novel had no introduction in any edition that I'm aware of, "The Master Key" was preceded by a quote from Shelley's poem "Hellas," and "Territory" was prefaced by an excerpt from the first van Rijn story, "Margin of Profit." Since "Margin of Profit" (the revised version) was included in The van Rijn Method (and the original, unrevised version was added as an appendix to the online version of the book), I was at first uncertain about including the excerpt, but finally decided that: (1) Poul Anderson had decided to include it back in 1964 and, being much more intelligent than I (and most other people), he must have had a good reason, (2) You don't have to read it, if you've read either or both of the full-length versions, (3) Even so, it won't hurt you to read it again, and (4) It doesn't add anything to the cost of the book. (When all other arguments fail, hit 'em in the wallet.)

As for three of the introductions, I'll reiterate (for the reader who hasn't read The van Rijn Method) that The Earth Book of Stormgate had introductions to its stories (and one novel) which were written as if by Hloch, a member of the winged race called Ythrians. And I'll add that, while the Ythrians are not represented as fully in this second volume as they were in the first, they will occupy a whole novel in the third. Stay tuned.

Finally, the story "Lodestar" has an introduction (by Hloch) and also an afterword by the author, which was originally a foreword when it first appeared in an anthology of all-original stories. The anthology was called Astounding, edited by Harry Harrison, and subtitled John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology. Unfortunately, almost four decades after John W. Campbell's death, it's possible that some readers may not know who he was. This is not the place for a complete treatment of the man who was the pivotal figure in sf in the 1940s, editing Astounding Science Fiction (later and presently, Analog), the leading magazine in the field, raising the standards for sf almost overnight and discovering writers who would become titans of the field, such as Heinlein, Sturgeon, Asimov—and, a few years later, Anderson. While the afterword doesn't add much to our understanding of the Technic Civilization series, it does have a touching anecdote, it indicates that Poul Anderson was considering writing no more Polesotechnic League stories after "Lodestar" (but apparently changed his mind, fortunately), and it emphasizes that the series might have been much shorter, except for Campbell's liking for the Polesotechnic League stories. Thank you, Mr. Campbell.

And thank you, Mr. Anderson.

—Hank Davis, 2008

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