Thursday, March 16, 2023

Poul Anderson’s Virgin Planet

Poul Anderson’s science fiction novel Virgin Planet was published in 1959.

Poul Anderson (1926- 2001) was an incredibly prolific writer. He is of course best remembered for his science fiction but he wrote some superb fantasy (such as The Broken Sword) and in the early 50s produced some rather wonderful sword-and-sorcery/sword-and-planet stories.

Virgin Planet is set on a planet inhabited entirely by women. They are obviously human women. It appears that the original colonists were supposed to arrive in two spaceships, one carrying the men and one carrying the women. Only the ship carrying the women arrived. This happened a long time ago and the colonisation has become encrusted with legend. The women still believe that one day the Men will arrive. They look forward to that day is a kind of religious way, but with some uneasiness. They have only the vaguest idea of what a man is.

When a spacecraft is seen to land the women think that it might be the Men at last, but it could be Monsters. They also have fairly vague ideas about the Monsters but they know that the Monsters come from the stars and have dealings, sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile, with Men.

Corporal Maiden Barbara Whitley is the one who finds the spaceship. There’s only one crew member. She figures he’s a Monster, but a friendly one. He can’t be a Man. Everyone knows that Men are wise and noble and dazzlingly beautiful. This creature just seems weird and misshapen.

The women of Freetoon are not quite sure what to do with this creature. His arrival turns out to be a disaster - it sets off a war with a neighbouring town. The creature from space and three of the surviving women from Freetoon make their escape. They’re not sure where to head for. Maybe they should head for the Ship of the Father. The Doctors may have an answer. The Doctors know everything, they even know how to work the parthenogenesis machine which allows the women of Atlantis to have children.

The creature is of course no monster. He’s very much a human and a man. He’s David Bertram and he’s on a kind of freelance survey mission.

Davis slowly pieces together what is going on. He’s on a planet named Atlantis. Technically it’s not a planet. It’s the size of Earth and it’s fairly Earth-like but it’s a satellite of a gas giant called Minos.

By this time humans have colonised countless planets but Atlantis was previously unknown, being inaccessible due to the presence of a vortex in space-time. Human civilisation is highly advanced, with faster-than-light travel and other advanced technologies. The inhabitants of Atlantis are all women, on the way to join their men when their spaceship was swept hundreds of light-years off course by the vortex. There were originally five hundred women. There are now possibly a quarter of a million, but all are clones of those original five hundred colonists. A caste system has developed, with each caste being made up of a single genotype.

Society on Atlantis has regressed quite a bit. That original spacecraft was not carrying the necessary equipment to support an advanced technological society. There’s no nuclear power, no automobiles, no electricity. It’s now a rather primitive agrarian society.

There are in fact a number of subtly different cultures on Atlantis and Anderson has fun speculating on the way in which such societies could evolve. Societies made up of clones, with no men.

Naturally once the women discover that Davis Bertram is a Man they’re fascinated. All the animals on Atlantis are birds. The women of Atlantis are not only unfamiliar with the idea of human sex, they’re unfamiliar with mammalian sex. But they’re eager to learn. The complication for Davis is that some of these women are also starting to discover the concept of love. Both Barbara and her clone sister/twin Valeria have fallen in love with him.

This sounds like a recipe for a sleaze novel but that’s not how Anderson plays it. This is a serious science fiction novel although there’s also some humour and quite a bit of adventure. And there’s no sex at all.

Davis Bertram is an engaging hero because he isn’t a square-jawed action hero. He’s by no means helpless but he’s no warrior. He’s not a coward but he’s only moderately brave. He’s not stupid but he’s not a genius. He’s a spoilt rich man’s son and his solo survey mission is just an adventure to him. He’s always been rather irresponsible. On the other hand he’s good-natured and kind-hearted.

Barbara and Valeria are of course mirror images of each other. They’re warriors who believe in shooting first (with their repeating crossbows) and asking questions afterwards. But they’re gorgeous and they’re smart and underneath a slightly intimidating exterior they’re likeable.

The paperback edition includes an afterword from the author in which he explains that the only respect in which he’s played fast and loose with science is the faster-than-light travel. Other than that everything is based on solid science. This is very much hard science fiction, but it’s hard SF combined with a rollicking adventure plot and some clever speculations about the ways in which societies evolve.

Most of all Virgin Planet is extremely entertaining. Highly recommended.

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