Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The van Rijn Method - Poul Anderson

I'm currently reading The Terror by Dan Simmons which is a massive book. Over 900 pages in mass market paperback. Obviously I will not be able to finish this for a midweek review so to keep you all entertained I put up an older review I meant to add a while ago already.

In my efforts to get a bit better acquainted with the classics of the science fiction genre I came across this book. 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 of that book 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 know for his work in the long running Technic civilization setting. Between 1951 and 1985 Anderson wrote countless novels and stories in this universe. Baen is now collecting these in seven books, The van Rijn Method being the first.

Although the Technic civilization stories share a 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 chronological, which differs greatly from the order they were published in. Although Anderson rarely mentions years or even references to 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 he manages to make the transitions between the game and reality so smooth as to be hardly noticeable. Like the characters the reader could easily loose itself in the game. A stronger opening of 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 world 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 it’s 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). The original story 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 is 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 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 she is not supposed to reveal to him. Another story, The Three-Cornered Wheel (1963), see him reinvent the wheel to get around the religious restrictions in a society who’s help Falkayn and his companions need to get their broken down ship of 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. Anderson 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 in a way. 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.

Book Details
Title: The van Rijn Method
Author: Poul Anderson
Publisher: Baen
Pages: 450
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-4165-5569-8
First published: 2008


  1. Got to disagree with you. I find Van Rijn a thoroughly likeable character. If you lean to the left politically, you WILL find fault with Anderson's take on Van Rijn and his associates. Old Nick is in business to make money and thinks everybody ought to be. While everybody else in the universe seems to be trying to manipulate others or get sweetheart deals with governments to make their lives easier, Van Rijn sticks to a pure capitalism that I find honorable. All he wants is for everybody to play nice so they can all make a little money and there's not a damned thing wrong with that and with a little help from St. Dismas, that's pretty much what Van Rijn makes happen and usually, even those he "swindles" wind up better off for it.

    1. I guess I am a bit more left leaning than Anderson was but I don't think even he thought the aliens who happened to be in an earlier stage of development when the traders arrived got the best end of the deal. More that the social upheaval it caused would be inevitable perhaps.