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.
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).
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.
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).