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

Poul 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.


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