“The Rebel Worlds” by Poul Anderson (1969)

Poul Anderson’s The Rebel Worlds begins so promisingly:

Make oneness.

I/we: Feet belonging to Guardian of North Gate and others who can be, to Raft Farer and Woe who will no longer be, to Many Thoughts, Cave Discoverer, and Master of Songs who can no longer be…

And so on, for five hundred or so impenetrable, poetic, evocative words as Anderson takes us deep into the thoughts of the thoroughly alien race he’ll eventually (and all too briefly) introduce us to. Unfortunately, we’re cheated. The novel we’re actually given is a fairly standard, if entertaining, space opera enlivened by a chastely portrayed love triangle between doomed, heroic figures: Commander Flandry, the swashbuckling, womanising hero of a number of Anderson’s books, the rebel Admiral McCormac and his wife Kathryn, whom Anderson blesses with one of the more bizarrely rendered accents I’ve encountered in a major character. Possibly it’s meant to be Irish. It reads like the speech impediment I had as a child.

“Well, learnin’ does seem to go easier’n for our race, but ’tis not instantaneous…”

Overall, this is classicist stuff – readers of Heinlein and the ‘New SF’ of the late sixties will recognise the push and pull between reactionary libertarianism (men are men and women are…well, we’ll come to that) and counter-cultural mores (“We have the regular assortment of drink and drugs…and would you like a bite to eat?”).

The plot, hinging on the tension between rebellion for short-sighted but well-meanng motives versus long-sighted paternalistic imperialism, is well structured and pacey and the action sequences all you’d expect from the author of Broken Sword. Flandry is a surprisingly complex creation and the aforementioned aliens justify the entire book.

But seldom have I encountered a text so thoroughly (and, occasionally, comically) of its time – 1969.

“Because his object was not to enlighten but to simply to seduce her, he twirled his mustache and leered…”

Oh. My God. The lead character has a mustache. Which he twirls. The mission he’s sent on interrupts his birthday celebrations with “three gorgeous girls, ready and eager…” A page later, he meets another woman dressed in a ‘translucent wisp of rainbow.’ Fortunately, “she was constructed for it…”

Finally, however, Flannery meets his match in the formidable Kathryn. Astonishingly, she looks like his mother! And he promptly gets the hots for her like no other woman he’s ever encountered in his life. Perhaps its because she’s dressed in a “nacreous slip”?

What exactly is going on here? From ‘woman is the recreation of the warrior’ to Oedipus within a few hundred words? She is of course, a red-head. Every ‘strong woman’ in the whole history of 20th century SF has red hair, from EE ‘Doc’ Smith and his Lensmen onwards. She’s also broad-shouldered, muscular, bronzed and did I mention that she looks like his mother

Enough already. The Rebel Worlds is a product of its time and no more or less sexist than most of the rock music or art produced in the late sixties. The question one has to ask is “Shouldn’t science fiction writers of the time have known a little better?” One can make excuses for Dickens – I’m not so sure that ‘it was the times’ holds completely true by the time we were putting a man on the Moon.

Still, there are at least those aliens which provide another Freudian twist to the text. They’re tri-partite beings consisting of a lumbering manual labourer, a flittering bird of prey type thing and a vaguely chimp-like creature. Together, they form a single sentient being. It’s hard not to speculate about ids, egos and superegos, though Anderson’s id seems to take charge of his typewriter every time a woman wanders (slinks, sashays, flirts…) onto the page. 

Overall? Read with gritted teeth or (better) seek out Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness, published in the same year. After that, things would change. Slowly.

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10 responses to ““The Rebel Worlds” by Poul Anderson (1969)

  • Anne Camille

    This entire review made me laugh. I especially chortled at the thought of you having a speech impediment that made you sound Irish. When I was a kid I was teased for my speech impediment that made me sound like I was from Boston – that “Pahk yahr cah in Hahvahrd Squahr” sound brought on by an inability to say properly the letter “R”. Might give me some street cred for the next few weeks, but in typical American Midwestern fashion that would go back to complete East Coast disdain soon. I’m wondering about the universality of making fun of speech patterns by attributing them to geo regions/populations one stereotypes. In the US, at least, I think it’s more likely than based on class divisions. Probably a change from my parents’ generation.

    As for this particular book, you have done nothing to convince me to read it unless I wanted a really hearty laugh. I have suggested to my 20-something son that he should read Le Guin’s Left-hand Of Darkness. It’s probably been 30+ years since I’ve read it. I’m wondering: is it really that bad? I wonder what I would think if I were to read it again now. Pretty much I think your description of late 60s SF is right on target, which would explain why I haven’t read any of it in decades.

  • Kristi

    I dunno, the leering and mustache twirling kind of make me want to read it ;)

  • Joachim Boaz

    Ah, by ALL of Anderson’s novels are more straight forward adventures — clearly you like social science fiction (Le Guin) which Anderson is definitely not.

  • Kevin Futers

    I note here that just about EVERY major love interest in Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love is red headed – and of course there is the Oedipus thing there for real at the end.

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