Virgin Planet, by Poul Anderson

Prior to writing his major “Technic History” titles (including the Flandry books), Poul Anderson constructed another extensive “future history” series out of novels and short fiction pieces. This sequence is known as the Psychotechnic League series, ranging from the 1950 short story “Gypsy” to the 1959 novel Virgin Planet, the subject of this article. VP is an expanded version of a 1957 novella of the same title that appeared in the first issue of the SF magazine Venture Science Fiction.

Emsh cover for Venture Science Fiction, 1957. isfdb.org

VP tells the story of a wayward spaceman who lost his way on a solo exploration and landed on the isolated colonial planet Atlantis. Settled long ago by a group of women colonists, this spaceman is the first male human to see the planet in about 300 years. While the population of Atlantis has been maintained by cloning technology, over several generations its culture has broken down into feudalism and illiteracy.

When Davis, the wellborn pilot from Earth, lands on Atlantis, he not only represents his entire sex but also the sophistication of the loosely-aligned Union of settled planets. Before he exits his spaceship, a valkyrie figure named Barbara Whitley (one of many Whitley clones, all of whom are warrior-types for their villages) rides an ostrich-like beast towards it:

“Hoy! Corporal Maiden Barbara Whitley of Freetoon speaking! I come in peace! Let me in!”

The ship remained smugly silent. Barbara rode around it several times. There was a circular door in the hull, out of her reach and smoothly closed. She yelled herself horse, but there was not a word of reply, not a face in any of the blank ports.

Really, it was too much to bear!

She whipped the crossbow to her shoulder and fired a bolt at the door. The missile clanged off. It left no mark. The orster skittered nervously, fluttering useless wings. For a moment Barbara was afraid of death in reply, but nothing happened.

“Let me in!” she screamed.

Davis eventually does emerge, leaving his space-blaster in the ship, and promptly gets lassoed by Barbara. Referring to him as the Monster, she takes him into town. There, the chieftain and her advisors debate what to do with him, since he resembles the Men of their legends but has arrived alone. Eventually, they lock him in a cage and tell him to prove that he is a man by “fertilizing” Barbara.

Being the only man on a planet full of uninhibited women fits a standard adolescent fantasy, and the cheesecake nature of this premise is reflected in the cover art of several paperback releases. While VP can certainly be faulted for its sleazy passages (possibly included to fill out the novel version; I haven’t read the Venture novella), at its core it is a genuine sociological thought experiment. In a female-dominated world, it is the man who is considered property (as shown on the Paperback Library edition, by some distance the best cover art for the title).

uncredited cover for Paperback Library edition, 1970.

Despite his myriad opportunities, Davis is repeatedly frustrated to actually have sex with any of the Atlantans throughout the bulk of the story. This isn’t much of a spoiler, as the “trial” with Barbara is conveniently interrupted by an invasion from a neighboring tribe; from then on it’s easy to see what the running joke is going to be.

In any case, Anderson does make some interesting contrasts with the Dark Ages of history. The inter-tribe battles occur often enough that a protocol has evolved: the Whitleys of the losing side swear loyalty to the chieftain of the victors, and this chieftain is invariably a clone of the one their previous lord. Other phenotypes have their own shared surname, and corresponding social roles in many places.

An exception are the Burkes, who have managed to expel every other phenotype (Whitleys, the Udall chieftains, etc.) to create a more prosperous town. However, they regard outsiders as subhumans to be exterminated, and prove an ill refuge for Davis. He opts to stay with Barbara and her clone-sister Valeria, who by that point are embroiled in a jealous rivalry.

Eventually, Davis finds a relatively free-thinking clan of river-borne traders, and motivates them to overthrow the cartel of Doctors. The Doctors have elevated themselves into a superclass of knowledge-keepers, hoarding the cloning and fertilization machines so that all Atlanteans pay tribute in order to have (female-only) children. Although Davis manages to evolve from property to savior-figure, he must stay clear of the fighting during the coup attempt.

Clyde Caldwell cover for Baen. isfdb.org

There are a couple of other interesting aspects to VP: as explained in the afterword of my Baen edition, Anderson carefully accounted for the effects of Atlanta having multiple moons and two stars in its system. The nearly perpetual daylight and chaotic tides are therefore contributing factors to the barbarity of the planet. As in Vault of Ages, those who hoard technology and fight bitterly against the spread of knowledge are called the Doctors. Perhaps Anderson had his reservations about the medical profession, and its veneer of certainty?

VP is a readable yarn with its fair share of interesting SF ideas. However, for even a remotely experienced reader, it will inspire more eye-rolling than a Pavement concert. Not a classic, but worthwhile if you are willing to take the good with the bad. 5/10.

NOTE: See this review for a more favorable take on VP (its better points are given more detail).

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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8 Responses to Virgin Planet, by Poul Anderson

  1. Pingback: Star Ways, by Poul Anderson | gaping blackbird

  2. fredfitch says:

    I’m sure you, like I, am somewhat in awe at the way the Futurama writers were able to draw upon the limitless reserves of space opera tropes that somehow we all know, even though we haven’t read most of the stories that originally inspired the bad movies that later got sent up by MST3K or Svengoolie (well maybe you have).

    In this case, it would be “Amazon Women in the Mood.”

    What we tend to forget is that the vastly less well-compensated wordsmiths who first came up with this stuff thought it was funny too.

    What’s not so funny is how rarely they got checks when Hollywood lifted their stuff wholesale.

    I’ve enjoyed your extended look at Mr. Anderson a lot.

    Been trying to come up with a name for a blog entirely about him.

    The Poul School?

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      The Anderssance? That’s pretty bad.

      Anyway, the trope of the female-dominated society certainly didn’t start with Virgin Planet, but Anderson may have been the most successful (at the time, anyway) at injecting both humor and ideas into it. His Atlantis is not a dystopia for the lack of men (VP, for all of its faults, is not some Victorian-age confirmation of the male-dominated status quo), but for the hoarding of the cloning technology. Anderson has been pretty consistent in his skepticism of planned societies.

      Wondering why I haven’t seen more Futurama over the years, I took a look at its broadcast history … it boggles the mind how the networks messed that one up.

      Like

      • fredfitch says:

        They brought it back, it ran just about the right number of episodes with a fitting finale, and it’s in daily syndication on cable. I got no kicks. Except there should have been a Zoidberg spin-off.

        I think I may already have mentioned Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang here. About a post-apocalyptic society of clones that reacts badly when sexual reproduction reasserts itself, but that’s not exclusively female.

        James Tiptree Jr’s Houston Do You Read? famously shows us a few space faring members of an earth populated entirely by cloned genetically engineered women, following a plague that wiped out all the men. It’s neither dystopian nor utopian. Far more stable and non-violent, but without two sexes to strike sparks off each other, it’s also rather boring and static, and essentially running down over time. Not a continuation of the human experiment, so much as a coda. Some feminists may take it as a wish-fulfillment fantasy, but Alice Sheldon didn’t mean it as such. Some equations aren’t meant to be balanced out.

        The Anderson Tapes is already taken, and there are no tapes. Andersonville has unsavory connotations (though he did like civil wars). Anyway, his last name isn’t distinctive enough.

        The Poul-ar Express
        Pouls Apart
        Fools for Poul
        How Many Pouls Does it Take to Screw in a Lightbulb? (too busy)
        April Pouls (because how long could you keep doing it?)
        Poulhouse Rock
        Last One in the Poul

        It goes on.

        Liked by 1 person

      • pete says:

        That Tiptree story is a really good suggestion, I totally missed that one. Virgin Planet is recommended as background reading for “Houston, Do You Read.”

        I know that I haven’t endorsed Virgin Planet as a classic or anything, but it still represents a genuine attempt to write to the demands of the market. Especially, and I’ll have to check my Malzberg book of essays on this, if it was written in the years following the collapse of the pulp magazine market. Anderson, Dick, Farmer, Brunner, Silverberg, et al. were probably not in a position to say “no” to the Ace Doubles editor.

        Poulled Pork Flandrywich

        Liked by 1 person

  3. fredfitch says:

    All this man/woman stuff reminded me of a story I read in an anthology, long ago–that wouldn’t you know, is Gutenberged now.

    https://www.gutenberg.org/files/51150/51150-h/51150-h.htm

    Different idea–earth is an absolute matriarchy, where men don’t even have the vote, because of all the wars they started. But they’re settling wild planets like Venus, and there men have the advantage again. And women are lining up to go to that untamed planet with its lusty untamed men.

    (Given how white women voted in the last election, I’m not sure this counts as so horribly unrealistic, leaving aside that Venus is nobody’s world. Tiptree/Sheldon always said the problem with feminism is that there’s too many Ado Annie’s who can’t say no. We’re in a terrible fix.)

    Like

  4. Pingback: After Doomsday, by Poul Anderson | gaping blackbird

  5. Pingback: Shield, by Poul Anderson | gaping blackbird

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