Unpulped #13: The Trouble Twisters by Poul Anderson

When I started writing this Unpulped series, I knew I’d be reading bad books. However, even though Poul Anderson’s The Trouble Twisters is bad, I didn’t think any book I was reading would bother me as much as this one did.

I think it’s because I’ve read Anderson before, and liked him. Liked the books I read enough to keep them around for a while instead of insta-giving them away, which means that I saw something worthwhile there. He has a wealth of historical knowledge which made for a good fantasy (Three Hearts and Three Lions was the book, if I recall correctly) but maybe I just overlooked all the sexism when I read it before? High School and College me wasn’t as aware of things as I am now.

And then there’s the fact that his strength in fantasy—historical knowledge of armor and weapons and cultures—is detrimental to his science-fiction because he has aliens in space with halberds, wearing armor like you’d find on Earth but twisted slightly to fit alien bodies (though, actually, he never discusses those changes, you just have to assume). Anderson comes from the belief (at least in this book) that all intelligent species would go through the same stages of civilization as humanity, and in all aspects. Religion? The same, ending towards the most advanced monotheistic version. Economy? The same, which is why the “hero” of The Trouble Twisters can make his living tricking less-advanced cultures out of all their tradeable goods for little more than space beads.

To be clear, this is a book where the hero not only ignores the Prime Directive, but is willing to destroy a planet’s original culture in order to get one that’s more amenable to interstellar trade. The book is a paean to misogynistic, paternalistic colonialism, and rampant capitalism.

The book is clearly three stories mashed together rather than a novel. That is less an excuse than just the way things were done back in the old pulp fiction days—you publish stories in magazines and expand them into a novel in order to make more money off of your work. And while I’m all for maximizing profit from writing (I’m a writer, so I’m biased), in this case that simply means repetition of theme rather than growth or an arc. The novel keeps slapping you in the face with misogyny and cultural prejudice (i.e., aliens are dumb, humans are the bomb).

Oh, who am I kidding, it’s not the novel: it’s Anderson. There have been lots of books I’ve read before 1963 and from the same time period that don’t have these problems. It’s his choice in writing, just as it was his choice to basically make this novel Cowboys in Space. There’s a point in the first section where the hero has to shoot his alien horses in order to hide behind them for an alien shoot out with alien aggressors (read: Hollywood-style Native Americans, because they even have space bows and space arrows).

Now for some quotes:

“Yes, I daresay this culture is most vulnerable to new ideas,” Mukerji said. “There have been none for so long that the Larsans have no antibodies against them, so to speak, and can easily get feverish…”

[pg. 26, where we’re introduced to the strange Andersonian notion that cultures grow stagnant and dull with no new ideas. Imagine, a planet where no new idea happens. No new art, no new science, no new invention. This is just bad fantasy in a colonial vein, because, of course, who brings the new ideas? Our heroes.]

“Come, come. A dinner without an aperitif is like a—ahem!—a day without sunshine.” He had almost said, “A bed without a girl,” but that might be rushing things.

[pg. 70, as our hero tries to seduce the commander of an alien force simply because she’s a woman and he hasn’t seen a woman in a long time; also, of course, because she’s absolutely gorgeous]

In both the second and third sections, the only ones where love interests are at play, the woman falls for Our Hero after he shows martial superiority and triumphs over her own people and culture. She gladly gives herself to him, ignoring her past and her own agency, her own wants and needs, as long as she can fulfill his desires.

God, this novel is tripe.

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