Friday, December 22, 2006

Orbit Unlimited by Poul Anderson

Orbit Unlimited is a book by Poul Anderson, published in 1961; I'm not sure whether to call it a connected short story collection or a fix-up novel. In either case, it is a hard science fiction story that tells the tale of the colonization of the distant Earthlike world of Rustum by a band of exiles.

The futuristic Earth portrayed is grim, with an authoritarian hereditary ruling class of “Guardians”, a small middle class of “Citizens”, and a vast underclass living in ignorance and squalor. Twenty years before the story begins, the last armed resistance to the world government ended when a revolt in the former United States was brutally put down. Humanity's ambitions in space have all but died, and the government's fleet of interstellar spacecraft sits unused, awaiting the scrap heap.

The government is plagued by a small group called the Constitutionalists, political and philosophical dissidents opposed to the Guardians. When the government decides to stamp out the Constitutionalist menace by shutting down their private schools and instituting compulsory public education in order to indoctrinate their children, the Constitutionalists threaten revolt. Though few in number, their overrepresentation in technical fields makes them a serious problem. With a showdown inevitable, a compromise is reached: the leading Constitutionalists will leave, using Earth's space fleet to colonize Rustum, a newly discovered habitable world orbiting e Eridani. With no hope for freedom remaining on Earth, a few daring souls accept and flee to the stars. The main characters of the story are:

Joshua Coffin- A member of Earth's interstellar explorer corps and co-discoverer of Rustum, he has newly returned to Earth after 87 years of relativistic travel to discover that the society he knew is gone forever. With nothing worth staying for on Earth, he departs again to command the fleet to Rustum.

Jan Svoboda-Son of a high-ranking Commissioner among the Guardians but a leader among the Constitutionalists, driven to radicalism when he sees the state trying to take his children from him. He helps lead the colonization of Rustum.

The bulk of the book tells the story of the journey to and colonization of Rustum itself, focusing on Coffin and Svoboda. As is sometimes the case with Poul Anderson's protagonists, the main characters are interesting, even sympathetic, without being very likable.

Rustum is an interesting environment, an Earthlike world with considerably higher gravity and atmospheric pressure. Falls are deadlier, and the air at sea level is too dense to breathe; all the human settlements have to be on mountains and plateaus.

There are some interesting glimpses at the development of early Rustum society: tensions between farmers and manufacturers, the role of mutual aide, and the challenge of maintaining a culture of liberty while struggling to survive. Anderson also has an interesting solution to the question of how to create a large and diverse gene pool when you can only physically transport three thousand people to your new settlement, and any new immigrants are a forty-year trip away.

Orbit Unlimitedis well worth reading for the Poul Anderson fan, for those who like fiction with libertarian themes, or anyone interested in a hard science fiction exploration/colonization story. I also recommend the follow-up, the story collection New America.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wish either Tor or Baen would re-issue Poul Anderson's books as two-fers at least.. like the Andre Norton re-issues in recent years.. i'd definately add a book that collects the Rustum stories to my shelf.