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Bookends: Taking the Profit Motive to the Stars December 29, 2013

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Bookends: Taking the Profit Motive to the Stars

By Dan Davidson

April 3, 2013

Van Rijn Method– 808 words –

 

The Van Rijn Method: The Technic Civilization Saga #1

By Poul Anderson

Baen

656 pages

$9.99

 

Poul Anderson was one of the great writers of what I sometimes like to think of as the magazine age of science-fiction. His first published story appeared in 1947, and he continued writing until his death in 2001, collecting seven Hugo Awards and three Nebulas during his career. Several completed works were published posthumously. He is best known for his SF work, but he was also active in the fantasy genre and wrote mysteries, historical novels and non-fiction.

He held a degree in physics and his stories are noted for the amount of science-based world building that he put into them. He was a member of the Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy but was also a founding member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, so his interests were widely spread.

Like many writers of the post WW II period, Anderson dabbled in the practice of future history, creating timelines and galaxy spanning narratives about humanity’s future. The most extensive of these was the Technic Civilization saga, which covered many generations and, rather than the empire building and military action pursued by many other writers, took as its starting point the idea that trade and economics would be the driver behind humanity’s reaching for the stars.

The short stories, novellas and novels that make up this saga were produced in no particular order over a period of over 30 years, beginning about 1951. Baen Books has done us the favour of organizing the tales in chronological order according to Anderson’s timeline plan and publishing them in uniform editions that are available in either physical or digital formats.

Nickolas Van Rijn is perhaps that most outstanding creation of the entire Polesotechnic universe, not only because he embodies the ethos of the mercantile league of which he is a leading member, but also because, although he is a self-centered, arrogant, manipulative  Falstafian fellow, he seems to come up with ideas and solutions that benefit more than just himself, even at times when he is apparently concerned with only his own comfort or profit.

He is not physically present in every one of the eleven stories in this collection (9 stories, 1 novella and 1 novel), but he looms large in all of them, and not just because of his size. To a certain extent the people who are connected to him can almost be seen asking themselves “what would Van Rijn do” when faced with a difficult problem.

An interesting feature of the stories in this book is that they are presented as if they have been collected by an alien species, probably the winged beings that inhabit several of the stories, as a way of studying and understanding these maddening but fascinating humans.

The longest work in the book was originally published, under Anderson’s protest, as The War of the Wingmen, but is here restored to his preferred title of The Man Who Counts. Here, and in some shorter works set on this same world, Anderson really showed the care that he put into creating the planet and determining just what the nature, social structure and motives of intelligent flying creatures might be. Indeed, he addresses questions of bigotry and prejudice by having the two clashing groups be shaped by different environmental factors. While there is a war, and this conflict is orchestrated by Van Rijn in order to save the lives of himself and his two human companions, his plan is to do the least possible damage to both sides while leaving viable societies in the wake of the conflict. There is also a mercantile motive in that one cannot establish a trading relationship with a ruined culture. Van Rijn is “the man who counts”.

Most of other stories also involve solving problems, even when there is a potential for violence, in a way that involves the least possible fighting. There may be a trick or a bluff involved. At least one of the stories features a fairly involved theological debate. This is all unusual stuff in a genre probably better known for running battles and big explosions. Mind you, the public image of SF these days tends to be shaped by movies and television, which rely on this eye candy to capture audiences.

While I read quite a lot of Anderson’s work some years back, and still have 15 volumes in my library, I had not read most of this material before and enjoyed it greatly. The next volume in the collected saga is called David Falkayn: Star Trader, and focuses on the career of one of Van Rijn’s protégés, two of whose adventures are in the present volume as well.

 

-30-

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