David Falkayn: Star Trader by Poul Anderson
David Falkayn: Star Trader is the second in a series of seven books collecting the writings of Anderson in his Technic Civilization universe. Publisher Bean decided to publish them in order of internal chronology, which is not the order in which they were written. In the first instalment, The van Rijn Method, we see humanity’s first exploration of the universe, the origins of the Technic Civilization and the formation of the Polesotechnic League, a mercantile organisation that soon acquires vast fortunes and political influence beyond that of a mere government. In this book the Polesotechnic League is at the height of its power. The seven works collected in this volume mostly deal with the exploits of members of the league. Most notably Nicholas van Rijn and David Falkyan.
“Territory” (1961), the opening story of the collection, sets a pattern we’ll see throughout this book. It is set on a planet where van Rijn sees trade opportunities. Van Rijn has taken it upon himself to investigate the situation on the planet and finds a colony of idealists from the planet Esperance already there, trying to guide the rather primitive population into the modern age. For some reason the creatures take offence and attack. Van Rijn and one of the Esperancian, Joyce Davidson, have to find a way to survive long enough for help to arrive. Of course van Rijn won’t settle for mere survival, he is in the game to make a profit and, as usual, understanding the alien culture is key to achieving both these goals.
Like many van Rijn stories, we get to see the man through the eyes of another character, in this case Joyce. These stories show us that neither van Rijn nor Falkayn are very sympathetic characters. Van Rijn is loud, rude, at times condescending and a sexist. That last quality is something he shares with Falkayn, who seems to think he is James Bond. Women in these stories are usually somewhat helpless creatures, irresistibly attracted to Falkyan or, to a lesser degree, van Rijn. This is one of the things I didn’t like about these stories, especially since this shallow portrayal of women is present in just about any story featuring either van Rijn of Falkayn. “Territory” is worse than most in this respect however.
“The Trouble Twisters” (1965) is one of the longer stories in the collection and introduces us to the regular crew of Falkayn and his ship Muddlin’ Through. Again they are on a planet trying to negotiate a trade agreement with the largest empire around when Falkayn takes it upon himself to rescue a damsel in distress (how typical). This act may seem noble but it does lead to serious trouble with the empire they are trying to negotiate with. Soon Falkayn finds himself up to his eyeballs in political intrigue. Not a very profitable situation. He will need all his skill as well as the help of his crew mates Chee and Adzel to find a way out of this mess.
This story clearly shows that the Polesotechnic League is not above a little arm twisting. There is no such thing as a prime directive, whether the culture is in the stone age or on the brink of leaving the planet — as soon as there is a trade opportunity, the merchants move in. Even in “The Day of Burning” (1967), where Falkayn is trying to convince a primitive alien culture to prepare themselves for the effects of a supernova in their neighbourhood that threatens to wipe out their civilization, a profit is still required. That is not to say these cultures are helpless however. Another major theme in these stories is (not) underestimating the capabilities of a primitive culture. More than once the characters find themselves in very difficult situations because of an unexpected and, in their minds, irrational outbreak of violence.
One such outbreak is documented in the story “The Master Key” (1971), in which van Rijn hears the report of one of his crews on recent events on a planet that might be profitable. Although initially everything went fine and attack by the natives forced the party to return. In the conversation between the crew and van Rijn, the master merchant works out what provokes the attack. It is this ability to work out such matters than makes van Rijn so successful as a merchant. It is also by far the most interesting part in these stories. Anderson gives the environments in which he sets them and the cultures the traders encounter a lot of thought.
It’s an ability he is going to need in “Satan’s World” (1969), the only novel length work in this collection. It features both Falkayn and van Rijn. Looking for new trading opportunities they consult Serendipity Inc, a corporation that trades in information is such a way that it’s seen as strictly impartial. Their policy is such that people are willing to sell it information that they would otherwise keep secret. The universe has become so large that keeping up with even the smallest detail of it has become impossible. Serendipity Inc uses huge databases and computers to find and analyse information that may be useful to their clients. Sounds a bit like Google avant la lettre. They soon discover that maybe the company is not quite as neutral as it pretends to be. This story intrigued me early on, but later it fell into the pattern of the other stories: figure out the motives of an alien culture and how to make a profit out of it. The story does show the first cracks in the Polesotechnic League however. Falkayn at least is beginning to see there is more to the universe than profit.
The crack is widened in “Lodestar” (1973), the final story of the collection. (I am skipping “A Little Knowledge” (1971) here, a story that again is based on underestimating a less advanced culture — a good read but not all that interesting.) “Lodestar” is a van Rijn story that introduces his favourite grand daughter (and as far as I can tell the only (human) female in any of these tales with a decent brain). It is clear that van Rijn is up to something but we don’t find out what until the last moment. Throughout the story we get hints that the Polesotechnic League is becoming more and more ruthless in its operations, not shying away from violence, torture and murder if need be. Van Rijn still sticks with them however but we get to see in this story that Falkayn has decided to do things differently.
At the end of David Falkayn: Star Trader we near the end of the League phase of Anderson’s future history. The next volume, Rise of the Terran Empire, will introduce the next phase in Technic History. Dominic Flandry, the main character in most of the stories from the Terran Empire period will not show up until part four however. I think this change of scene will be good for readers not familiar with Anderson’s work. The stories in this volume are starting to feel like repetitions, and at times van Rijn’s East India Company mentality annoys me tremendously. Anderson has shown he is not blind to the risks of an organisation like the Polesotechnic League however; it will be interesting to see what its fate will be and what follows this era of uncut capitalism. David Falkayn: Star Trader has its ups and downs but Anderson’s future history intrigues me none the less. I’d say the downs do not outweigh the ups in this volume, overall I liked it slightly better than The van Rijn Method.
This is a really helpful review, Rob. I had put these books on my list after reading your review of the first one because I like stories about intergalactic traders. But I really hate those old SF stories written by men in which the women are all beautiful and brainless. I hope this gets better with subsequent volumes. If not, I’ll have to remove them from my list.
Hmm, I don’t think you’ll be much of a fan of Flandry then. Where Falkayn seem to think he is James Bond in spaaaaace, Flandry most certainly is. Including his way with women. One of the last novels (chronologically) in the series features a daughter of Flandy as main character though.
For me, the irritation isn’t that characters have sex… it’s that the gorgeous “lady scientist” exists solely to it around and say, “Really? I never knew that!” when it’s her field. Or drop the gun and scream for help at the first crisis, so that the manly hero can save her. That’s what’s tiresome about beautiful and brainless.
Agreed. I don’t care if she’s hot and Flandry has his way. I just want the women to be equal in brain power and courage and for them to be equals in the relationship (e.g. not worshipful and adoring of the big strong smart man).
Most of the Bond women are smart AND sexy and they have an amount of control in the relationship. I like them.