My girlfriend is surprised I finished this book, based on all the times I interrupted her own reading to complain about some passage Iâ€™d just read. Iâ€™m somewhat surprised, too. But Iâ€™ve developed an unhealthy fascination for Poul Andersonâ€™s older works, and I think itâ€™s because I read his novel THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS a long time ago (high school?) and liked it, and kept it on my shelf for years. I donâ€™t remember that book being rife with sexism or racism or colonial/imperial biases and I donâ€™t know if thatâ€™s because I was younger and more obtuse at the time, or because it wasnâ€™t there.
Based on his books Iâ€™ve read recently, Iâ€™m guessing young/obtuse wins.
Blond, big-eyed, and thoroughly three-dimensional, Jeri Kofoed curled on a couch within easy reach of him where he sprawled on his lounger.
TRADERS TO THE STARS takes place in his frontier-verse which follows members of the Polesotechnic Leagueâ€”basically an East India Company of the future, prioritizing trade and profit above all else. The stories here and in the other books in this same universe are often re-skinned Westerns or Explorer tales, with alien races standing in for the â€œuncivilizedâ€ natives who deserve to be both bamboozled and enslaved, forcefully brought into a galactic society because thatâ€™s clearly whatâ€™s good for them, whether they realize it or not. (The aliens are armed with arrows and tomahawks, for godâ€™s sake.)
The women are objects and ineffective, willing (like Kofoed above) to use their sexuality to get what they want, and hitching themselves to the strongest male around, either for protection or for future monetary rewards. Kofoed is attached to Nicholas Van Rijn, Andersonâ€™s â€œheroicâ€ Dutch Trader/Exploiter, and though she flirts with the captain of Van Rijnâ€™s ship in the opening story of the book, she returns to Van Rijn because he promises her a comfortable life in her own apartment back on Earth.
She sprang to her feet, mutinous. Without rising, he slapped her on the appropriate spot.
Thatâ€™s how embedded sexism is in this book. The â€œappropriate spotâ€ doesnâ€™t have to be defined. You donâ€™t have to be convinced that physical abuse to get someone to do what you want is appropriate, because youâ€™re a white male and of course it is.
Jeri came back with two stiff Scotch-and-sodas. His gaze followed her. In a tight blouse and half knee-length skirt, she was worth following.
Itâ€™s easy to say that Poul Anderson was just a product of his times. He was born in 1926, and the world changed greatly over his lifetime. Why not just see the dominant POV of his stories as echoing the world in the 50s and 60s? Why blame him?
Because there are other writers who created stories that didnâ€™t have these basic assumptions, that didnâ€™t put women and non-white races (or aliens) in the realm of second-class citizens, who need to be protected and guided by a white male savior.
Van Rijn is also Toxic Masculinity. He constantly sexually harasses any woman heâ€™s around (and in Andersonâ€™s stories, that women usually is â€œseducedâ€ by this harassment). When the captain of his ship fights him for Kofoedâ€™s affections, Van Rijn knocks him out, then gives him a promotion, explaining how he likes the people who work for him to have fire or some such bullshit. The world is designed for Van Rijnâ€™s pleasure and exploitation, and if you have to kill a few aliens or destroy a culture in order to get them to buy your beads while you take their land, then so be it.
Hereâ€™s the plot of the opening story: Van Rijn was investigating a hostile sector of the galaxy for new trade routes and his ship is on the run from enemy ships. They canâ€™t outrun them because the engines were damaged. They end up finding another innocent, neutral ship that fails to respond to their distress calls, so they violently board the ship, enslave the alien crew, and force them to take Van Rijnâ€™s crew back to a safe planet.
â€œThey will cooperate under threats, as prisoners, at first. But on the voyage, we [â€¦] get the idea across [â€¦] we want to be friends and sell them things.â€
In the second story, the main character is a woman scientist from a pacifist planet trying to rebuild a planetâ€™s atmosphere. Sheâ€™s clearly intelligent and qualified and competent, otherwise she wouldnâ€™t be on the planet. However, Van Rijn, in the middle of a conversation, tells her to make him a sandwich (which she does). He tells her to shut up when heâ€™s thinking.
â€œWell, hokay, you is a pretty girl with a nice figure and stuff even if you should not cut your hair so short. Waste not, want not. I rescue you, ha?â€
(Not to mention that we are far in the future, Van Rijn is a master trader, and he has a thick Dutch accent and speaks broken, malapropistic English. Andersonâ€™s world-building isâ€¦lacking.)
â€œYou just leave the philosophizings to me, little girl,â€ he said smugly. â€œYou only got to cook and look beautiful.â€
He pats her knee. He invades her personal space. He belittles her ideas and experience. This is our hero, folks. This is who we should be admiring.
The scientistâ€™s planet was going to build plants to recreate the planetâ€™s dying atmosphere/ecology for free. Van Rijn will take over the building of the plants and sell the materials to the aliens because, primitive as they are, they donâ€™t understand charity, just profit.
Alien planets are unexplored (who cares about the intelligent life forms already living there). They are the darkest continents, the Western frontier, places meant to be invaded and exploited by the more powerful and, therefore, more civilized human galactic empire. The aliens are tribal, live in huts, fight with archaic weapons. And Van Rijn and his group, what are they trading for? What are the invading for?
Furs and spices.
â€œItâ€™s just waiting for the right man. A whole world, Dad!â€
Just waiting for the right â€œmanâ€ because aliens canâ€™t be men, in the general sense of a person. And if someone (or something) isnâ€™t a person, then it isnâ€™t deserving of respect. The final story in the book treats us to aliens that have slaves, and a horrifying and clueless description of them by one of the main characters.
â€œBut Lugals are completely trustworthy,â€ Per said. â€œLike dogs. They do the hard, monotonous work. The Yildivansâ€”male and femaleâ€”are the hunters, artists, magicians, everything that matters. That is, what culture exists is Yildivan.â€ He scowled into his drink. â€œThough Iâ€™m not sure how meaningful â€˜cultureâ€™ is in this connection.â€
This racism is echoed in the humans themselves. The assumption is that the group presented (they are at a dinner party, telling a story of some of their exploits) is entirely white, except for one Nuevo Mexican who is described this way: â€œI was unarmedâ€”everybody was except Manuel, you know what Nuevo Mexicans are.â€
That â€œwhatâ€ is key. Because eventually Van Rijn solves the problem of this exploitation expedition that goes awry by pointing out that the Lugals arenâ€™t slaves, but domesticated animals. Even though they are an intelligent race, clearly used as mass labor by the Yildivans, sold, actually, and in themselves a form of currency. Itâ€™s eugenics, plain and simple. And then he says that, opposed to the Lugals, the Yildivans are wild animals. Both animals. Both ruled by instinct and genetics rather than thought and logic.
So, you know, itâ€™s okay to kill them or trick them or exploit them.
I hate this book.