Science Fiction

Poul Anderson and the Men Who Count


A science fiction writer paints, if not a complete, at least an internally coherent universe for his stories. Sometimes this process of "reality building" is subconscious, starting with a single story to which one continually adds fresh sequels, as witness James H. Schmitz's myriad worlds of the Hub; other times the process is performed consciously, as part of a definite plan, as by E.E. Smith and his "Lensmen" series [and Robert Heinlein's "Future History" series —Editor].

Poul Anderson has created several such realities, the most interesting of which will be the subject of this article; it stretches some 6,000 years in the history of the human species, from the transforming of the moon ("To Build a World"[1]) to the era of man's interstellar renaissance.


Chronologically, Anderson's series pictures the expansion of the human race throughout and beyond the solar system after a series of brutal socio-religious wars. Worlds settled by libertarians flourish, ushering in the Polesotechnic League of merchant capitalism. The League declines and, after the "troubles," comes the birth of the Terran Empire. As the Empire grows increasingly more statist, it brings on its own doom and the Long Night sends many of the human-settled worlds of the galaxy back into savagery. Anderson's final stage (as of this writing) depicts the Commonality, a tremendous, purely voluntary, profit-oriented free trade organization.

Anderson appears to have developed the essential ideas for this series in 1955. "A World Called Mannerek"[2] depicted the occasional torturous rebirth of interstellar civilization after the decline of the Empire. Stories dealing with the Empire and its decline appeared before stories dealing with the Polesotechnic League; one might almost say he wrote this series "backwards."

The Empire is introduced in the early 50s with Captain Sir Dominic Flandry, a swashbuckler à la Errol Flynn and sharing many characteristics with the then-unborn James Bond. Flandry starts his published life by comparing the Empire to a rotten banana—the infection goes deep, but as yet no spots have appeared on the smoothly textured skin. The latest stories dealing with young, eager, and intensely idealistic Ensign Flandry[3] show him to be determined to save the remnants of Technic civilization from the encroachments of the green-skinned, "gator"-tailed Merseians and the bungling of the appeasement-oriented imperial bureaucrats.


In 1956 Anderson's most interesting (and, from my standpoint, most real) character appeared in ASTOUNDING (now ANALOG). Nicholas Van Rijn, owner of Solar Spice and Liquors, Inc., a mixture of Shakespeare's Falstaff and Edmond Hamilton's Giles Habibula, is shown seeking his "Margin of Profit"[4] while outwitting slavers and would-be imperialists.

Van Rijn is THE MAN WHO COUNTS, a double pun played for all it is worth in a novel mis-renamed WAR OF THE WING MEN[5]. Marooned with two companions on a world where men cannot eat the native food, Van Rijn stops a local war and brings both warring factions together to save himself. The plot theme is the entrepreneurial function, although Anderson skillfully diverts the reader's attention until the last three pages.


In "Margin of Profit" Anderson states the cardinal principles of the society he has devised:

Selfishness is a potent force. Governments, officially dedicated to altruism, remained divided; the Polesotechnic League became a super-government, sprawling from Canopus to Polaris, drawing its membership from a thousand species. It was a horizontal society, cutting across all political and cultural boundaries. It set its own policies, made its own treaties, established its own bases, fought its own minor wars, and, in the course of milking the Milky Way, did more to spread a truly universal civilization and enforce a lasting pax than all the diplomats in the galaxy.

But it had its troubles.

Anderson's stories describe these troubles and the ways in which they are solved by Van Rijn and his TROUBLE TWISTERS[6]: David Falkayn, tall, cool-headed, blond, and human in all essential attributes; Chee Lan, given to pejorative remarks, short, furry, feline, and anything but "cute"; Adzel, huge, scaly, centauroid, saurian, and warm-blooded, very much the Buddhist dinosaur.

They save the Merseians from a close supernova in "Day of Burning"[7], establish contact with numerous non-human intelligent species, and discover SATAN'S WORLD[8] in time to defeat the seemingly inconsistent Shenna, all the while raking in profits for Van Rijn and Company.


Even with the heroic efforts of Flandry of Terra, the Long Night cannot be postponed forever. Because of the breakdown of interstellar trade, the isolated colonies develop on their own, those that survive. Some forget their heritage, others mutate due to a small initial gene pool and other factors. In LET THE SPACE MAN BEWARE[9] the settlers on Gwydion are found to possess inherited temporary insanity; on another world the act of cannibalism is a must for human survival ("The Sharing of the Flesh"[10]), while on Kirkasant, the world of "Starfog"[11], the colonists have gone native in an environment where plutonium can be mined and have altered from the human "norm" until they find food a bit bland unless it is salted with arsenic trioxide.

Anderson depicts his future worlds with brilliant colors and suspenseful action, with a blend of anthropology, sociology, economics ("Birthright"[12]), and hard science. Outwardly his stories are tremendously optimistic (man does, after all, survive). His own philosophy, while explicitly libertarian (he was, to my knowledge, the first professional writer to use the word), is a form of Byronic existentialism. In the 6 January 1964 SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW he wrote, "Beneath all the fun and games—life is tragic and man's highest destiny is to accept this and not yet lose heart. One way of losing heart is to get too deadly solemn."

Anderson is one of the best science fiction writers of the last three decades, and his dour philosophy can certainly be forgiven him, for he has, above all, depicted Man the Doer, Man the Achiever, the men who count.

In "The Critique of Impure Reason"[13] he characterized the stories he did not like and did not write: "Piddling little experiments in the technique of describing more and more complicated ways to feel sorry for yourself—what kind of entertainment is that for a man?"


[1] "To Build a World," GALAXY, June 1964.
[2] "Memory" (originally, "A World Called Mannerek"), in BEYOND THE BEYOND (New York: New American Library, Signet paperback, 1969).
[3] ENSIGN FLANDRY (New York: Lancer Books, 1966).
[4] "Margin of Profit," ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, September 1956, also in UN-MAN AND OTHER NOVELLAS (New York: Ace Books, F-139, 1962).
[5] WAR OF THE WING MEN, (New York: Ace Books, G-634, 1958).
[6] THE TROUBLE TWISTERS, (New York: Doubleday, 1966).
[7] "Day of Burning" (originally "Supernova"), in BEYOND THE BEYOND, op. cit.
[8] SATAN'S WORLD (New York: Doubleday, 1968).
[9] LET THE SPACEMAN BEWARE (originally A TWELVEMONTH AND A DAY), (New York: Ace Books, F-209, 1965).
[10] "The Sharing of the Flesh," GALAXY, December 1969.
[11] "Starfog," in BEYOND THE BEYOND, op. cit.
[12] "Birthright," ANALOG, February 1970.
[13] "The Critique of Impure Reason," in TIME AND STARS (New York: Doubleday, 1964).

For additional stories about Van Rijn see TRADER TO THE STARS, (New York: Doubleday, 1964); for more on Flandry see A CIRCUS OF HELLS (New York, New American Library, Signet paperback, 1970).

An earlier version of the present article appeared in ERGO (16 Sept. 1970) a libertarian newspaper published on the MIT campus.