Friday, 25 August 2017

The Enemy Stars by Poul Anderson

Goodness knows, I don't expect enlightened gender politics out of my old science fiction. I often mention how women are treated, because I think it bears mentioning, but I am also able to enjoy these old pulpy stories where women are absent, virgins, or sexpots. I don't need every book to reflect my ideas of gender - although if I go too long without a woman I can relate to, I get understandably twitchy.

So when I picked up this book by Poul Anderson, I thought I knew what to expect. I mean, this was written in the 1950s, and I wasn't expecting much. It wasn't a problem that it didn't offer much, except for one thing....

I read the back cover and got a little excited when the last paragraph of the blurb read: "Here is an absorbingly exciting tale of the far future and of the men and women who take part in one of mankind's most thrilling adventures."  Now look, I know authors probably didn't write the blurbs, but this got my hopes up, and then the book pretty much crushed them by being exactly what I would have expected it to be if the blurb writer hadn't added those two fateful words: "and women."

So I'd like to give a little fuck you to the blurb writer, for making it sound like women will get to take part in "one of mankind's most thrilling adventures" when the only goddamn thing the woman involved gets to do is get married, stay on earth while her new husband goes out to explore the stars, sit around under the thumb of her patriarchal father-in-law, have a baby, and get fed up and go live somewhere else, and then heterosexually pair up with someone else (it is strongly suggested.) Seriously, marriage, patriarchy, and childbirth are far from a new frontier in adventures for women.

Once I figured out the blurb writer was talking out their ass, I mostly enjoyed the rest of the book. It didn't rock my world, but it's a solid science fiction Man vs. Nature story. I am less baffled by why it was nominated for a Hugo at the time it was posted than I was by Danger Planet. 

This particular story is set in a world where matter transporters work, but are expensive, limiting quick travel between worlds. Of course, to get anywhere in space, someone has to get there the long way to set up the matter transporter. But they get around this by having transporters on ships as well as worlds, so men (and it is all men) go out for duty on a spaceship, then matter transport back.

And while it looks like immigration out is freely done, it is almost impossible to go back to Earth for colonials, causing unrest out there, while Earth itself is highly competitive, and under the thumb of the Protectorate, which, in addition to being more restrictive for women in almost every way, also oversees a hierarchical class system masquerading as a meritocracy.

That's all background, but I think fairly necessary background, because the story itself is fairly slight. A rich man on Earth discovers that one of those starships with a transporter is about to pass very near a super-dense star - not quite a black hole, I don't think, but close? He manages to get the ship diverted to do some scientific investigation, taking along a crew of three other men (all men! No women! I'm bitter, blurber!)

When they get there, their initial investigations nearly wreck the ship, and destroy the "web" needed for the matter transporter and any communication with the rest of the settled human worlds. It's now a race against time, dwindling supplies, and human psychology to get all or some of them out alive. They're entirely cut off, so this is not an Apollo 13 tale. It's a tale of survival against all odds, by men pitting their intellects and bodies against an uncaring and hostile universe.

It's also just a little bit about the stagnation of the human race if we curb the efforts to intelligent multi-tasking men - there's a team of four, but there's still that feel that it is rugged individualism that saves the day, now and always.

While the women get to stay at home, told to make the tea, and have babies. Bah.

(To be fair, the book doesn't show this as a good thing, but it's not much examined beyond that.)


  1. You could try "The Game of Empire" (1985), which at least has a female protag, and is above average Poul A.