Monday, 27 December 2010

Poul Anderson, Trader to the Stars (1965)


A fix-up of three stories straddling the Astounding-Analog name-change: 'Hiding Pace' (1956) which appeared in the former, and 'Territory' (1961) and 'Master-Key' (1963) which appeared in the latter. It's readable, as Anderson always is, although his main character, the florid, obese, extrovert merchant-prince Nicholas van Rijn, starts annoying ('well what begobbled stupiding is it I must be dragged from my all-too-much work to fix up one for you, ha?') and gets worse ('well hokay you is a pretty girl with a nice figure and stuff even if you should not cut your hair so short. Waste not want not. I rescue you, ha?'). Presumably Anderson thinks all this chaff is colourful and endearing, but it made me want to pull my own teeth out with pliers.

Anyway, I read Trader to the Stars because I'm intrigued as to how an actual 'trader to the stars' would work (it's for something I'm thinking about writing). I start, I guess, from a gut-feeling that the vast costs of interstellar transport, combined with the fact that one is trading not with climate-and-geography-limited countries but entire habitable planets, would render conventional trading (shipping pepper from India to Europe, say) simply untenable. But perhaps other modes of trade might operate. Charlie Stross probably has a post on this, somewhere.

At any rate, Anderson's book is no help in that regard. His Van Rijn is indeed a trader, but one who moves in an improbable Dutch-Seventeenth-Century of the stars. When his cargos are mentioned, only ever in passing, they are things like fine wines and spices -- things which could surely be more cheaply fabricated on the target worlds. But maugre the fix-up title, trade is not the theme here. The three stories are actually exercises in problem-solving, and Van Rijn is a kind of Polesotechnic Poirot. The wrinkle is that, in place of the standard physics-and-engineering problem-to-be-solved so typical of Golden Age hard sf, the problems here have to do with social-engineering. Van Rijn cracks the riddle because he understands alien society better than anybody else.

'Hiding Place' isn't quite this: the premise is that Van Rijn's ship, damaged and pursued by merciless space pirates called Adderkops, can only escape if it can persuade an alien spaceship to fly them to safety. But humans have never interacted with these aliens before, and when their ship is boarded they have gone into hiding, in plain view -- they are carrying a space-zoo of various alien animals, and the actual pilots are pretending to be one of these. Humans can't operate the ship without the owner's co-operation; but none of the ten-or-so alien types on board seem to possess the physique or intellect to be interstellar pilots. The solution (that the pilots are actually two creatures in a master-blaster symbiosis) is quite neat. The other two stories, though, are more ideologically freighted. In 'Territory', aid-workers visiting a marvellously hostile frozen world have been doing well with the hunter aboriginals until the latter suddenly try to massacre them. Joyce Davison, who comes from a world where mutual cooperation is the norm, can't understand it. Van Rijn, who happens to be there too, explains: the aliens are pure carnivores, not omnivores like humans: 'your gabbling about planet-wide cooperation did not sit so well. I doubt they could really comprehend it. Carnivores don't make cooperations except on the most teensy scale. It isn't practical for them. They haven't got such instincts' [91]. OK: but in that case, I don't believe the natives would have evolved the human-like levels of intelligence they actually display, and I certainly don't believe they would be interested in trade (which, with Van Rijn winning the day, is where the story ends). Doesn't trade begin with a tradeable surplus, itself in turn a function of the shift from hunting to farming? But Anderson wants to twit the liberal idiocies of the do-gooders and communitarians, without sacrificing his own ideological committment to free trade. So in goes the thumb, into the story balance. Boo.

A similar state of affairs obtains in 'Master Key': Van Rijn is able to explain why a trading expedition to a jungle world went so violently wrong. The natives, a primitive but aristocratic feline sort called 'Yildivans' keep slaves called Lugals. Actually, one of the main motors of this story is Anderson giving himself the ideological fantasy-space to deprecate social structures larger than families ('the Yildivans haven't anything like a nation, a tribe, any sort of community [except] family groups' 114). His are properly noble savages, ultra individualists: 'occasional barter, occasional temporary gangs formed to hunt extra-large animals, occasional clashes between individuals, and that's about it.' At least in this story Anderson follows-through a little more, thought-experiment-wise: 'But hold on,' I objected. 'Intelligent races need more. Something to be the carrier of tradition, something to stimulate the evolution of the brain ... else intelligence hasn't got any biological function.' Quite right. But Anderson misses the actual point -- that intelligence itself is a product of longterm social determination and interaction. Instead he suggests the slave-race, the Lugals, somehow bridge the gap ('the Yildivans are the creators and innovators, the Lugals the communicators and preservers'). At the end we learn the Lugals are not slaves as such, but more like pets: superintelligent dogs. But the mouthfeel of the whole story is wrong, an ideologically tendentious fantasia bordering on the actively mendacious, and climaxing with a live-free-or-die peroration. 'We,' Van Rijn announces to his fellow-traders, 'are wild. We do what we do because we want to or because it is right ... If you made slaves of us, you would for sure not be wise to let us near a weapon.' Is there a 'but' coming?
But how many slaves has there been, in Earth's long history, that their masters could trust? Quite some. ... And how many people today is domestic animals at heart? Wanting somebody else should tell them what to do, and take care of their needfuls, and protect them not just against their fellow men but against themselves? Why has every free human society been so shortlived? ... he glared out across the city, where it winked and glittered beneath the stars, around the curve of the planet. 'Do you think they yonder is free?' he shouted. His hand chopped downward in scorn.
Oh, fuck off.

17 comments:

Steve said...

Many attempts to portray a plausible interstellar trade seem to depict information-exchange, which can be transmitted at low cost.

Physical products should be available, synthesizable, or reproducible locally.

I've often thought that cultural artefacts or antiques, which have value primarily as originals, not reproductions, could be traded ... you'd probably need a very motivated buyer however.

Steve said...

Oh, or alien love slaves.

Adam Roberts said...

How much are you charging for your alien love slaves, incidentally?

Paul McAuley said...

Anderson was on to something. People (or alien dog-crocodiles, or green-skinned humanoids)with highly specific and valuable skill sets are about the only commodity worth trading, as far as I can work out. Especially if they can do it more cheaply than the indigenes of whichever star system they're targeting - much like plumbers or bricklayers in the EC.

Of course, it depends how cheap interstellar travel is...

Adam Roberts said...

I think it's Steve who's on to that only-too-plausible idea, Paul. Anderson's first story is about a kind of space zoo, not a collection of working slaves. The other two treat free market capitalism as the criterion of ethical good: Anderson's Van Rijn would never stoop to trading slaves, or would never act as a provider of passenger transit for the future equivalent of plumbers and electrician. He deals in actual commodities, like pepper and wine.

Steve said...

>How much are you charging for your alien love slaves, incidentally?

11 billion 1981 dollars a kilo?

http://www.costik.com/inttrade.html

Paul McAuley said...

What I meant (and failed to adequately explain) by 'Anderson was on to something' was that Van Rijn's skill in assessing alien races was obviously his chief export. Doesn't excuse the silly application of a C17th model of trading, of course. James Blish's Cities in Flight series provides a better model, perhaps. The motto of the flying city of New York, New York was 'Mow your lawn, lady?'

Adam Roberts said...

Paul: ah yes I see -- got the wrong end of the stick (sorry). That makes a lot more sense.

Adam Roberts said...

Thanks for that link, Steve: that's very useful.

todd said...

would you consider The Culture (Banks) as an interstellar information trader example?

Steve said...

Todd, I wouldn't think the Culture trades anything ... the Outsiders from Niven's Known Space are the best example I can think of:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outsider_(Known_Space)

Chardonnay Chap said...

The problem with the Outsiders in Niven is: what could they possibly want with the money? OK, they 'rent' a moon, but presumably did so before they obtained any Earth money. Besides, they're supposed to be migratory.

The objection to planet-bound space trade is the enormous expense of getting anything into orbit. Space trade might be possible between asteroid dwellers but no commodity or product is worth as much as the rocket needed to escape Earth's gravity.

I have thought about stories in which this problem is overcome with v high altitude balloons lifting payloads, but again I doubt that works.

The best, IMO, story about interstellar trade is "The Trouble with Tribbles". Cute animals make a sort of sense, the alfalfa stuff, not so much.

BTW, excellent critique of Anderson. Good insight into his story-telling strengths and prejudicial weaknesses.

Steve said...

See, I think tribbles, or any organism, wouldn't be worth trading over interstellar distances, because they can be expressed as information through their genetic code and simply engineered on the other end.

I think this is what happened in the movie Species ... thus my alien love slave example of an interstellar commodity is invalidated and suddenly seems less attractive anyway.

Chardonnay Chap said...

I've never seen any of the Species movies, although the synopses make them seem derivative of Fred Hoyle. The idea of information being transmitted like that is also in Carl Sagan's "Contact" and how people 'travel' through space in the Greg Egan novels I've read (only "Schild's Ladder" and "Incandescence"), not that I'm at all comfortable with that concept.

It is very hard to think of anything which would be worth trading given the time lags, hassle, and enormous expense of moving any commodity a few light years.

After reading Adam's post, I borrowed 'The Van Rijn Method', which has 'Hiding Place' but not the other two, from the library. I don't really like Anderson much, and I thought 'Hiding Place' was awful. There's a neat little puzzle-story in there, but it's hiding beneath a lot of pointless flab. It's badly written too, and all the worse because Anderson thinks he's a stylist. I'll give one more story a shot, but I think I'm going to bail.

Steve said...

"It is very hard to think of anything which would be worth trading given the time lags, hassle, and enormous expense of moving any commodity a few light years."

The 'fax' devices in Wil McCarthy's Queendom of Sol series require a large and extremely sophisticated economy to create, so Earth's colonies are unable to make their own in sufficient numbers.

From memory though, in the books Earth can't spare any anyway ... plus the colonies wouldn't have anything worth trading in return.

Peter said...

Surely there are two types of space-based trade - inter-system trade, between local planets, and inter-galaxy trade where voyages of many light-years must be made to deliver material (be it physical or information).

I suspect that the latter type of trade wouldn't be viable in any meaningful sense of "trade" - the time and resources required would be prohibitive to say the least, and any requests for material would be take centuries simply to be replied to. As Steve mentions, the only likely kind of trade on an interstellar scale would likely be cutural artefacts for private collectors.

Inter-stystem trade, on the other hand, is a far more realistic prospect. One could foresee standard industrial uses - ores and elements from jovian planets, for instance - as well as more interesting transactions. How much would you pay to have information-backups stored in the Oort cloud, far from disturbance? Private data recording may also become a profitable area. Space is really, really big, and I could almost see that research institutes would pay for data from areas that they themselves do not have the manpower to observe.

padraig said...

surely we must recognize allegory and not let our prejudices blind us to what anderson has to say about today