Oct 5 2012 10:00am

Oops, Wrong Spacedrive! Poul Anderson’s The Long Way Home

Jo Walton rereads The Long Way Home by Poul AndersonPoul Anderson's The Long Way Home was originally published in 1955 in Astounding, under the title No World of Their Own. It was reprinted in 1978 withour revision but with some cuts Campbell has made restored by the author. I read it from the library in 1978 – I'm not sure in which version. I've had good luck recently picking up Anderson I hadn't read since I was twelve, so when I saw this one at Chicon I grabbed it.

It has an absolutely brilliant premise, but unfortunately the execution doesn't live up to it. When you write more than fifty novels over more than fifty years, the quality is bound to vary. I don't remember what I thought of it when I was twelve. What I remembered about it was the set-up and that there was an alien point of view. It was one of the first alien points of view I came across. (Anderson comes right at the beginning of the alphabet.)

Somebody invents what they think is a hyperspace drive, and naturally the U.S. builds a ship and sends off four men on a year long exploration mission. They find lots of habitable planets and make friends with some aliens, even bringing one home with them. Except when they get home, they discover their spacedrive didn't work the way they thought, they've been going at lightspeed, time dilation can't be avoided and actually they are 5000 years in the future, with no way of reaching their homes and families ever again. Things have changed in 5000 years, as you might expect, and about a hundred light years of space have been colonized, but nobody has ever been as far as they have been or met the aliens they have met.

The future Earth is decadent, nothing new has been invented for a thousand years, women are enslaved, and everyone is under the control of “The Technon” a computer. Earth is in a state of cold war with the colonial Centauri league, who are under the control of malevolent telepathic aliens. There's also a set of supposedly independent traders, but they're also sercetly under control. Everyone is obeying orders that don't make sense to them in the belief it makes sense to someone. Into all this comes a new possibility – the alien who has the natural ability to nullify electronics.

They don't write them like this any more. Anderson wraps it all up in this one book, 245 pages, and originally shorter, then rushed off to have hundreds of other worlds and ideas. Anyone who thought of that now would milk it for at least a trilogy, and I could easily see a series of nine fat books based on this premise. Indeed, I have seen variants of this premise all over the place. You could take the first two chapters of The Long Way Home and give them out as a writing exercise of “where do you go from here” because it really would be possible to do almost anything with it.

I kept thinking about this because the premise was really so very promising and yet I wasn't having any fun. I kept seeing shadow versions of the story, ones with three dimensional characters, some of them female. For once I was wishing for people to steal the idea and write a nine book series. No, really! Call it a variation on a theme by Poul Anderson.

The problem here is that I didn't care about the characters. Langley, the captain, is absolutely featureless. Saris, the alien is more interesting, but we don't spend enough time in his head. The other crewmembers are indistinguishable. Chanthaver the human commisar is cardboard and Brannoch, the Centaurian ambassador is only slightly better, and only because it's easier to characterise a villain. The only woman is the slave Marin, and really she's barely even a piece of cardboard. Usually, Poul Anderson gives me enough characters with enough character. Here he just falls flat on that, which means that all I have is this awesome setup and an action plot. Oh well.

The treatment of women is noticeable and awful. There's a defensive note in the introduction saying that this future is supposed to be a dystopia and the female slavery is one of the things that's wrong with it. I'm not inherently opposed to that, but I've read feminist dystopias with female slavery (The Handmaid's Tale, Native Tongue) and this isn't one of them. No women in the crew, a wife left home waiting, and a slave who has been conditioned... ick. Anderson had written good female characters before this (The Broken Sword) and he would later, but he was going with bad defaults here.

Well, it was 1955 when men were cardboard, women were prizes, and aliens were the best you could hope for.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Doug M.
1. Doug M.
Oddly enough, I just finished rereading Jack Vance's _City of the Chasch_, because I wanted to see if it was suitable for my boys (age 9 and 10, have finished blasting through Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and are avid for good new SF).

Alas: much as I love Vance -- and I really love Vance a lot -- the Suck Fairy had been at this one, and for exactly the reasons you describe. The characters are so much fun that you mostly forget they're cardboard, so that's OK, but the female characters are OMG awful. There's a faux-Oriental princess whose sole function is to get threatened with rape (repeatedly) and rescued by the hero (repeatedly). There are a group of Priestesses of the Female Mystery, who are ugly and who hate men. And there's a girl who gets killed for kissing the hero. And... that's it.

It's a damn shame, because this is the first of the Planet of Adventure books, and the PoA books are awesome in so many ways: wild ideas, bizarre aliens, action, color, and Jack Vance's unique language and gorgeous descriptions over it all. I wish I could hand them to my boys, but I just can't.

To bring it back to Poul Anderson: he was perfectly capable of writing female characters with agency, but if you look closely you'll notice that he did it a lot more in his historical / historical fantasy works than in his SF. Not sure why, but there it is. Two of his most memorable female characters are female Danes from those books -- Skuld from _Hrolf Kraki's Saga_ (who is a villain, but a very self-aware villain) and Gunnhild from _Mother of Kings_. The women in his SF tend to fall much more into the prize/motivation/villainess slots, and to have a lot less agency.

Note that there are two or three female character types that seemed to be strong attractors for Anderson -- the dark woman, the Goddess, the daffadowndilly girl with a spray of freckles across her tip-turned nose. (The latter pretty much always appearing as a love interest for a male protagonist.) I don't recall if any of them appeared in this book, but if you're reading through his stuff you're going to encounter them again and again.

As to the plot of the book: Anderson would revisit the "men thrown far into the future" theme several other times, including the novellas "Epilogue" and "Genesis" and the novel _Starfarers_. Thematically, it tied in with his fascination with history; if the past and the deep past are meaningful and relevant for us today, then logically we could have some relevance even to a distant future.

Doug M.
Doug M.
2. slybrarian
How could you build a starship and send it off to other stars without noticing it wasn't actually faster than light? Sure, it's still vastly superior to travellling the slow way, but that's a pretty big thing to miss. Did they not even try a couple test hops around the solar system, or even to Alpha Centauri, before they began a 5000-light-year round-trip tour of the local stars? Or did their budget not stretch far enough to include a test flight?
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Skybrarian: This is handwaved, but yes, the test flight to Alpha Centauri would seem to me to be a really obvious idea -- that way they'd have lost eight years, which would be bad enough but nothing like as bad as this.
Pamela Adams
4. PamAdams
I've been thinking about re-reading more classic Anderson, but perhaps will make a start with Eric Frank Russell instead- to get some humor as well as awesome setup and an action plot.
Doug M.
5. Raskos
@slybrarian (great name by the way)
As I recall (years since I read this), the tests, using unmanned craft, were conducted in such a way that temporal displacement was lost in location error - they were shot across the Solar System, and nobody realized that there was a relationship between how far they went and how long it took because the control over displacement wasn't good at first and it took a while to find the test ships. The first manned ship was the first one to go any significant distance, and that was the one featured in the novel.

Is it possible that you are seeing the characters in this novel through the lens of later, similar Anderson characters? The interstellar trader, for instance, reminded me of Nicholas van Rijn, but I'd read lots of Anderson fiction featuring van Rijn before reading The Long Way Home, and so the independent trader character seemed like a pale, derivative shadow of van Rijn, despite (I think) being from an earlier stage of Anderson's career. Same with Brannoch - how many half-civilized, technologically adept human characters do we see in later Anderson fiction, that we're likely to have read first?
Doug M.
6. peachy
Something vaguely similar happens in Asimov's Nemesis.

SPOILERS (sorta)

There's a quirk in superluminal navigation that doesn't appear until the first long-range voyage - the test runs just didn't go far enough for it to be a noticeable factor.
john mullen
8. johntheirishmongol
I vaguely remember reading this some 40 years ago or more. I don't have it in my library, but from what I remember this wasn't one of my favorites of his. I was, however, doing a reread of some Flandry stories and they hold up very nicely. The thing about a lot of the early writer's was that they left the science vague, so that it was all taken for granted and you don't have to worry about the science being superseded by new science.
Doug M.
9. Mrissa
Patrick M., in 1955 my great-grandmother had been running the family business for more than twenty years, and my grandfather was taking his turns at diapering my mom while he and my grandmother both worked because they had to, so don't blather about "the then cultural norms," because they weren't what you apparently wanted them to be. We had capable, intelligent women doing interesting jobs at the time Poul Anderson wrote this book, and Mr. Anderson chose not to write them in his future. Noticing that that was a choice and that it sucks doesn't make anybody a "victimhood feminist."
Doug M.
10. S. M. Stirling
Doug M. I wish I could hand them to my boys, but I just can't.

– – Doug, don't you think that this anxious care to protect the vulnerable minds of the young from "impure thoughts" is sort of…ah… Victorian?

I mean, what you going to do when it comes time for them to read "The Merchant of Venice", for God's sake?

Are you going to keep them home from school? Follow in the footsteps of the late unlamented Dr. Bowlder and go through the text with a black marker to expunge anything that might "give a blush to the cheek of youth"?
Doug M.
11. James Davis Nicoll
There's a defensive note in the introduction saying that this future is supposed to be a dystopia and the female slavery is one of the things that's wrong with it.

This is the mid-1970s Ace edition? The 1970s were a golden era of defensive introductions by Anderson. In this case, I suspect it had to do with women becoming a lot more common in SF fandom than they had been and perhaps some of them commented to Anderson that his female characters were not all they could be.

This edition and the intro it contains predates The Avatar by seven or eight months so critical reaction to that novel and its hilariously middle-aged-male-wish-fulfillment female character is not playing a role in Anderson's defensiveness. And at least in The Avatar there was another female character in it who got to do stuff other than be a hilariously middle-aged-male-wish-fulfillment female character.
Doug M.
12. James Davis Nicoll
Clearly Anderson had no idea how common embedded clocks were to become.

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