Unpulped #15: Trader to the Stars by Poul Anderson

My girlfriend is surprised I finished this book, based on all the times I interrupted her own reading to complain about some passage I’d just read. I’m somewhat surprised, too. But I’ve developed an unhealthy fascination for Poul Anderson’s older works, and I think it’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 don’t remember that book being rife with sexism or racism or colonial/imperial biases and I don’t know if that’s because I was younger and more obtuse at the time, or because it wasn’t there.

Based on his books I’ve read recently, I’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 League—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 “uncivilized” natives who deserve to be both bamboozled and enslaved, forcefully brought into a galactic society because that’s clearly what’s good for them, whether they realize it or not. (The aliens are armed with arrows and tomahawks, for god’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, Anderson’s “heroic” Dutch Trader/Exploiter, and though she flirts with the captain of Van Rijn’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.

That’s how embedded sexism is in this book. The “appropriate spot” doesn’t have to be defined. You don’t have to be convinced that physical abuse to get someone to do what you want is appropriate, because you’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.

It’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 didn’t have these basic assumptions, that didn’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 he’s around (and in Anderson’s stories, that women usually is “seduced” by this harassment). When the captain of his ship fights him for Kofoed’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 Rijn’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.

Here’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 can’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 Rijn’s crew back to a safe planet.

“They will cooperate under threats, as prisoners, at first. But on the voyage, we […] get the idea across […] we want to be friends and sell them things.”

In the second story, the main character is a woman scientist from a pacifist planet trying to rebuild a planet’s atmosphere. She’s clearly intelligent and qualified and competent, otherwise she wouldn’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 he’s thinking.

“Well, 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?”

(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. Anderson’s world-building is…lacking.)

“You just leave the philosophizings to me, little girl,” he said smugly. “You only got to cook and look beautiful.”

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 scientist’s planet was going to build plants to recreate the planet’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 don’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.

“It’s just waiting for the right man. A whole world, Dad!”

Just waiting for the right “man” because aliens can’t be men, in the general sense of a person. And if someone (or something) isn’t a person, then it isn’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.

“But Lugals are completely trustworthy,” Per said. “Like dogs. They do the hard, monotonous work. The Yildivans—male and female—are the hunters, artists, magicians, everything that matters. That is, what culture exists is Yildivan.” He scowled into his drink. “Though I’m not sure how meaningful ‘culture’ is in this connection.”

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: “I was unarmed—everybody was except Manuel, you know what Nuevo Mexicans are.”

That “what” is key. Because eventually Van Rijn solves the problem of this exploitation expedition that goes awry by pointing out that the Lugals aren’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. It’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, it’s okay to kill them or trick them or exploit them.

I hate this book.

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