At long last, someone has begun the monumental task of issuing the late Poul Anderson’s classic stories of the Polesotechnic League in internal chronological order. Hank Davis, who compiled this volume (there are three volumes in total), has expanded the timeline to include some League prehistory and the series is being called The Technic Civilization Saga. Anderson was one of the luminaries of the Golden Age of science fiction, and his stories of the League rank with Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy series and Heinlein’s Future History as landmarks in the field.
Although the title of this volume is The Van Rijn Method, Nicholas Van Rijn doesn’t appear until well into the collection, in “Margin of Profit.” The first stories deal with that “prehistory” I mentioned, as humanity begins to push out from Earth, first into the solar system and then into the wider galaxy. This is history as a series of episodes (although the short novel The Man Who Counts is included) that start with events in the exploration of the solar system and bring us through the inception and growth of the Polesotechnic League, the loose alliance of interstellar traders who do much more than any government could to tie humanity and the alien races it has encountered together.
One thing that is noteworthy is Anderson’s intense focus on individuals. The broad strokes are left to the brief introductions he wrote to each tale, while the stories themselves are about the people who made all this happen. Van Rijn himself is bigger than life, a huge man of huge appetites, and about as shrewd as it gets. It’s interesting that Davis notes Anderson’s background in science, but it’s his understanding of people that comes through in these stories. Each character is an individual, even the aliens.
Anderson didn’t fall into the trap of making the aliens merely humans with scales and tentacles. His aliens really do not think like we do, as we can readily see in “The Problem of Pain” and “The Three-Cornered Wheel.” We also see in those stories Anderson’s investigations into the nature of religious belief as seen by both humans and, in the first story, the winged Yrthians and in the second, the leonine inhabitants of Ivanhoe. (In the second story we also meet the young David Falkayn, Van Rijn’s apprentice and employee, who will be the focus of the next volume in the series.) No, Anderson’s aliens most definitely do not think the way we do.
In spite of the popular misconception about science-fiction writers of the 1950s and ’60s, these are good stories. Anderson was a more-than-capable stylist, and the stories are tightly constructed and fluent.
And there’s not much more to be said: this is a major series by an important writer — and a very good writer — that is now being made available in a coherent order. (A couple of bonuses: Sandra Miesel’s “Chronology of the Technic Civilization” is also included as an appendix, and Davis’ introduction is both informative and eminently readable.) I, for one, am going to be looking forward eagerly to the rest of this series, and I think you should too.
(Baen Books, 2008)