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' . 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.