The Van Rijn Method by Poul Anderson
Poul Anderson was a prolific author in fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction. A couple of years ago I read one of his last novels, Mother of Kings, a historical work based on the life of the tenth century Norse queen Gunnhild. The prose requires a bit of patience on the reader’s part but both the subject and style of that book appealed to me. In science fiction Anderson is probably best known for his work in the long running Technic civilization setting. Between 1951 and 1985 Anderson wrote countless novels and stories in this universe. Baen has collected these in seven omnibus editions with The Van Rijn Method being the first.
Although the Technic civilization stories share the same setting, there is no overarching story; all the works in this volume can be read independently. The editor, Hank Davies, has chosen to order the stories by internal chronology, which differs greatly from the order they were published in. Although Anderson rarely mentions years, or even references other stories in the setting, the order seems to be roughly correct; the historical progress matches, at least. According to the chronology in the back of the book, drawn up by Sandra Miesel, this first book encompasses the period from ca. 2055 to the 2420s, a period where humanity is exploring the galaxy and colonizing new worlds. This era also sees the rise of the Polesotechnic League, a galactic mercantile organisation of significant power and influence. Many of the stories in The Van Rijn Method deal with representatives of this league.
The first story in the collection, the Hugo and Nebula Award winning “The Saturn Game” (1981), does not feature the league, however. It is set in the 2050s when humanity has started exploring the gas giants and their moons. On the journey to Saturn, which at sub-light speeds takes years, a fantastic role-playing game provides part of the crew with relief from the tedium of space travel and the claustrophobic environment of their spacecraft. But when distinction between reality and fantasy start to blur, the game becomes a danger to the crew. This novella is a beautiful piece of fiction. With his poetic style, Poul Anderson manages to make the transitions between the game and reality so smooth as to be hardly noticeable. Like the characters, the reader could easily get lost in the game. A stronger opening for this collection is hardly imaginable.
In the stories “Wings of Victory” (1972) and “The Problem of Pain” (1973) we fast-forward a couple of centuries to the time when humanity has developed faster-than-light travel. The galaxy is still an awfully big and dangerous place, though. In both these stories Anderson exposes us to earth-like worlds where, despite their deceptively familiar environment, danger lurks in every corner. Anderson also spends quite a bit of time on the problems of communication with alien species. These stories show the thought Anderson put into the physics of the planets he describes. There is quite a bit of scientific explanation on the how and why of unexpected events and encounters on these alien worlds. I’m not quite sure I agree with his approach on evolution though — he seems to believe a similar environment will send species down a similar evolutionary path. In a way that makes sense, but I have to feeling it is too simplistic, and too linear, a view of evolution. It does provide a good rationalization for encountering numerous humanoid aliens though.
In “Margin of Profit” (1956, revised 1978) we are introduced to the man who gives the collection its name. Nicholas van Rijn is a big, loud, influential and rather rude space trader. He appears to be of Dutch origin and regularly butchers the English language (apparently on purpose). Originally “Margin of Profit” was published in 1956 but Davis included the 1978 rewritten version in this collection. In the story van Rijn outsmarts his opponents by pointing out simple economic principles. Van Rijn is one of Anderson’s most popular characters. I must admit, I am not sure why. The man never seems to have escaped the Dutch East India company mentality that made the Dutch rich at the expense of Indonesia in particular. Pretty much all he does is complain he is too old and fat for a job and moan that the whole universe is against him, a simple poor trader. Obnoxious to say the least. Van Rijn does have his talents though. Mostly for thinking his way out of difficult situations and, preferably, have someone else do the hard work.
Anderson cleverly creates a lot of uncertainty about van Rijn’s motives by mostly portraying him through the eyes of other characters. We are never quite sure about why he does things or whether his ignorance, blunt language or anger are real or a mask. His opponents invariably end up underestimating him. This technique is very prominent in the full length novel contained in this collection, the author’s preferred text of The Man Who Counts, first published in serialized form in Astounding Science Fiction in 1956.
One of Anderson’s other recurring characters is David Falkayn, van Rijn’s most promising employee. Falkayn is a rather cocky young man. In the 1966 story “A Sun Invisible,” he tries to charm a young woman out of information about her home planet which she is not supposed to reveal to him. Another story, “The Three-Cornered Wheel” (1963), sees him reinvent the wheel to get around the religious restrictions in a society whose help Falkayn and his companions need to get their broken down ship off the planet. By the end of this volume he is still in his twenties so maybe he’ll overcome that much too high opinion of himself in later stories. The second volume in this series, David Falkayn: Star Trader, will feature a number of Falkayn stories. On the whole Anderson’s stories are rather light on character development, so whether Falkayn will become more likeable remains to be seen.
Poul Anderson’s stories contain a lot of interesting scientific concepts and studies of various religions and social structures. It makes for interesting reading even if the quality of the stories is a bit uneven. The choice to present these stories in chronological rather than publication order means the reader frequently moves between various stages in Anderson’s development as a writer. Just the setting does not quite provide enough continuity to make this collection a coherent whole in my opinion. Still, there’s some pretty interesting short fiction here, if you can overcome an unsympathetic main character in some of them. Anderson’s rigorous scientific underpinning combined with a more literary style compared to his contemporaries sets his work apart. Like much of the golden age science fiction, it is a bit dated, but I think this collection is definitely worth reading. I will be reading the second part in this series to see where Anderson’s future history takes us.
This looks like so much fun. I am totally going to read this. Thanks, Rob!
It’s an interesting project but I did feel this first volume as stronger than most of the others. Perhaps because it opens with the best story Anderson ever wrote in this universe.