Much of Poul Anderson’s prolific output belonged to a handful of loosely-connected “future history” series, where the scientific, political and cultural trends of his time were projected into the future. The Psychotechnic League was the first attempted future history, comprised of several short stories and two novels: Virgin Planet and Star Ways. Virgin Planet (1959) had some ideas relating to a far-out civilization spread across a sporadically-connected “union” of planets, but it was mostly a play on the adolescent fantasy of one man stranded on a world of virile women. Star Ways (1954) is a more serious space adventure story, investing more attention to the concepts of the Psychotechnic League; this tale builds upon the setting of the series, instead of merely taking place within it.
Star Ways tells the story of a clan of space-traveling Nomads, a people descended from a lost colonial mission described in “Gypsy.” Every clan populates a starship, exploring alien star systems and acquiring navigation expertise beyond that of the Earth-based Union government. Being at the forefront of exploration, as well as accumulating wealth through trading, make the Nomads targets for spying by an underfunded agency named the Stellar Union Coordination Service. One of the protagonists is a “Cordy” agent who manages to infiltrate a Nomad ship, the Peregrine, while it was docked on the frontier planet Rendezvous.
It does not take long for the Cordy agent, Trevelyan Micah, to be unmasked by the Nomad captain and brought aboard the Peregrine as a prisoner. As a native of Earth–called “Solmen” by the Nomads–he is viewed with extreme suspicion while being marched to the captain’s quarters for interrogation:
His group accumulated quite a procession of Nomads, men and women and children; many looked highly intelligent. His bemused vision sharpened to sudden focus as one woman stepped from a doorway ahead of him.
She was young, and bigger than most, and there was grace in her movements. The hair that fell past her shoulders was a deep-blond rush of waves, and the blue eyes were frank.
“Hello, who’ve you got there?” she asked. “Since when are we adopting Solmen?”
A couple of the guards scowled, and Trevelyan remembered that in Nomad society women had well-defined rights, but were expected to keep in the background. One of the younger men, however, smiled at her. “You ask him, Nicki. Sean brought him up but wouldn’t say why, and neither will he.”
Fortunately for Trevelyan, the Nomad captain is an enlightened leader about to embark on a dangerous mission into an unknown sector of space. Other Nomad ships have been disappearing in the area, without explanation. The Cordy is kept on board to keep him from reconnecting with his agency, and because his training could be needed when they encounter alien planets.
As hinted in the quote, a relationship develops between Trevelyan and Nicki. Anderson takes time and care in their interactions, and while it’s not perfectly done, he adequately sets up each character’s emotional choices throughout the story. Nicki is the source of truths for Trevelyan about Nomads’ culture, sexual mores and centuries-long trepidation towards the Union. In turn, she probes the depth of Trevelyan’s mental programming at the hands of his employers; his dedication to the Union cause is too axiomatic to be natural for her. Through her challenges, we can see Trevelyan as a prototype of the Anderson’s spy character Flandry.
The Peregrine also takes on board the mysterious woman Ilaloa, a native of the forest on Rendezvous. She’s the love interest of one of the Nomads (Sean, from the above quote), who had been lovesick from a previous marriage to an outsider that decided to settle on a planet. Ilaloa possesses some psychic sensitivities (the ability to sense the emotions of others among them) and suffers extreme anxiety in urban settings. She’s a curious character who spouts SF cheesiness (“It was a cruel and hollow night filled with stars! Cold! Cold!”) but her alien quirks make her an unpredictable focal point.
SW features alien encounters, dangerous ship maneuvers, and a classic near-shipwreck. These stressors bring Trevelyan and Nicki closer together, and give the book a lot of action, but there is little room left for the SF ideas we might expect. How do the Nomads select their trading partners, what is their monetary system, why do the clans share so little information with each other? There are also many unanswered questions about the Union and its need for a successful mission by Trevelyan. These are not necessarily gaps for a middling SF adventure, but the lack of depth is noticeable after reading something like Silverberg’s Star of Gypsies and Anderson’s Flandry series.
SW is more than passable as an adventure story, but it lacks the development of science fictional ideas we have already seen in Anderson’s more ambitious titles, e.g. Ensign Flandry, “For the Duration” and “Duel on “Syrtis”. The cultural integrity of the Nomads is threatened on a bioengineered paradise, and we’re not left with much justification as to whether we’d expect them to remain gypsies or not. The novel also cannot decide which character is the emotional center–the person whose fate we’re most compelled to care about–which is fine in a book of ambitious ideas; here, that content is missing. This review in SF Ruminations, using an Anderson-written foreword in the 1978 “Peregrine” edition, states that a lot of the more cerebral passages were cut out of SW to make it fit into an Ace Double. I have to agree with SF Ruminations (and perhaps Anderson himself) in that we’ve been left with a readable but somewhat unfocused yarn. Nonetheless, it is interesting for the characters and political ideas that we see more fully-formed in Anderson’s later works. 5/10.