Star Ways, by Poul Anderson

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.

Ed Emshwiller cover for Ace Double edition.

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.

Karol Thole cover for Urania edition, 1969.

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.

Michael Whelan cover for Ace, 1978.

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.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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4 Responses to Star Ways, by Poul Anderson

  1. fredfitch says:

    Pulp writers didn’t usually have the luxury of working every idea out to its full and logical conclusion. Just getting an idea (or credibly stealing it) was hard enough. Regardless of genre, they had to get the next story pounded out, off to the editor, and hope there’s a check coming back.

    Once established in their respective genres, their rates went up, maybe they sold some books to Hollywood, and they’d learned a lot more by then–they could slow down a bit, work more carefully, and write a bit less to the marketplace (how many adolescent readers of these magazines were more interested in carefully worked out ideas, credible world building, than they were in sex and violence and cool visuals? Played any videogames lately?).

    Dashiell Hammett was a pulp writer, and we remember him now for a handful of novels and short stories–the cream of that particular crop. The dross we mainly forget about. But Hammett made it big fairly fast, in a genre Hollywood would cast big stars in when they adapted it.

    Anderson’s IMdB page has one 1994 movie I’ve never heard of on it. At least he was still alive then (not that he wrote the screenplay). Died in 2001. (Cue the music–for an Arthur C. Clarke movie).

    When I read (or read about) this kind of pulpy writing, not the best a given author was capable of, but good enough to get sold, make rent, the words that come to mind are “Nobody dast blame this man.”


    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      Speaking of Hammett, are you planning on continuing with your reviews of his novels? I read Red Harvest last year and found it less … um, enigmatic than The Glass Key. I was reminded of it when wondering whether to evaluate Star Ways here as espionage literature (it’s pretty weak sauce as espionage literature, better to consider it more of a straight-up adventure story).


      • fredfitch says:

        Hammett’s influence is hardly limited to crime fiction, as you know. He is in many ways the supreme genre author, the one who did the most to show what could be done with what had previously been dismissed as light disposable entertainment.

        And yes, I hope to get back to writing about him. I’ve been put off by various things, and have been fruitlessly hoping to get my hands on Westlake’s screenplay adaptation of Red Harvest. It’s starting to feel like I’d have an easier time getting my sweaty mitts on the Maltese Falcon. (Though I’d much prefer Brigid or Effie).

        The Glass Key may be enigmatic, but it’s also a bit of a muddle. Red Harvest knows what it’s about. Still and all, not sure I consider it the best of his novels, or even the best story featuring the Op. It’s just the most influential genre novel ever written, is all.


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

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