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From Monday, 4 November to Friday, 15 November, I read Poul Anderson's The People of the Wind (NY: Signet Books [The New American Library, Inc.], May 1973 [tenth printing; undated, but cover price is U.S. $0.95]; 176 pps.); originally published in the Feb. through Apr. 1973 issues of Analog: Science Fiction and Fact. The unsigned cover is by Fernando Fernandez, per the Internet Speculative Fiction Database; the complete version of the painting may be viewed here.

cover to Poul Anderson's The People of the Wind_0002(1)


The People of the Wind is the last book in Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League series; however, as I've noted previously, since it is set generations after the deaths of said series' two main characters, Nicholas van Rijn (whose name I've only just learned was very likely taken from the homophonic name of a main character in Anya Seton's 1944 novel Dragonwyck) and David Falkayn, and generations before Anderson's follow-up series, the Terran Empire or Dominic Flandry series, it is more properly considered as a bridge novel connecting the two series. Though the references to characters and events of the preceding five or six books are oblique (David Falkayn is the only character directly mentioned, and it's in roughly the same context that a present-day American might refer to Daniel Boone or Lewis and Clark), it would be helpful if one has first read the Ythri stories (and novel, The Man Who Counts, previously published in a truncated form as War of the Wing-Men; this novel is, properly speaking, the first installment in the Polesotechnic League series) collected in The Earth Book of Stormgate before reading The People of the Wind.

The People of the Wind is a densely-packed, swift-moving story of imperial and colonial ambitions playing out in a series of interstellar skirmishes collectively dignified with the title of war: the relatively newly-formed Terran Empire (dominated by humans) wishes to hedge off the expansion of the even more recently-formed Ythrian Domain (dominated by ornithoid "bird-men" called the Ythri; humans and Ythri are similar enough so that they can eat most of each others' native foods, although the Ythri are more vulnerable to radiation than humans are, while humans are more susceptible to heavy metal poisoning than the Ythri are [p. 93]; the two species cannot interbreed, although there are hints of occasional sexual encounters between them), while the human and Ythri colonists of the world named Avalon (which gets a prominent mention in the stories collected in The Earth Book of Stormgate) would rather be independent. Anderson has an absurdly large cast of characters for such a brief novel: while his mission statement for this novel may be inferred by the book's dedication ("To Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett with thanks for many years of adventure"), Anderson usually wasn't satisfied with writing "mere" adventure tales, and his intent here is obviously greater than producing a "mere" space opera or swords & planets romp; unfortunately, his high-minded intentions are undermined by a lack of believable character development and by a, at best, tin-eared disregard for the horror and seriousness of rape.

For all the sober reflections on the ethicality of an interstellar empire versus a colony breaking away from its parent state (or states, in the case of Avalon, as its society is a blend of human and Ythrian), or the morality of war and what the moral distinctions are, if any, between standard warfare (up to and including particle beam weaponry, and implicitly including chemical warfare) and nuclear warfare, The People of the Wind suffers from one of its characters, Chris Holm (Ythrian name: Arinnian), being an exceptional prig, and from Anderson's cack-handed treatment of another character's rape.

The character in question, Eyath, is an Ythrian; Anderson stacks the deck by saying that the Ythri, while humanoid in all important respects, are enough like their bird-like ancestors that they don't share humans' sexuality: to wit, Ythrian females are not theoretically receptive to sex at all times, but rather go into estrus, during which period they emit pheromones that Ythrian males are able to detect and track from many miles away. More to the point, the sexual functionality of Ythrian males is wholly dependent upon the receptivity of Ythrian females -- which doesn't preclude Ythrian males shipping off to war from finding a few abnormal, "always ready" Ythrian females, usually functioning as de facto prostitutes, to "party" with before boarding their spaceships. (Given that this is a work of a member of the last generation of classic science fiction authors, it should come as no surprise that Anderson doesn't posit the existence of homosexuality in the Ythri, considering that he scarcely acknowledged its existence in humans.)

Early in the book, the wannabe Ythrian, the human Chris Holm (Ythrian name: Arinnian), is discomfited by what his galemate (roughly akin to the human concept of "blood brother," "galemate" denotes an unusually close friendship between two Ythri and, in mixed choths or tribal groups, between a human and an Ythrian; the choth that Arinnian and Eyath belong to is Stormgate, which is a rather conservative one, though not, one feels, as conservative as Arinnian comes off as; one suspects that he's trying to be "more Catholic than the pope" in a vain attempt to "go bird") Eyath tells him about her attraction to a stand-up Ythrian named Vodan:

"She shouldn't tell him such things. It wasn't decent. An unmarried female Ythrian, or one whose husband was absent, was supposed to stay isolated from males when the heat came upon her; but she was also supposed to spend the energy it raised in work, or study, or meditation, or --"

-- p. 17


Later, news of Vodan's death shocks Eyath into premature estrus (recall the seldom-discussed phenomenon of "funeral sex," i.e., some people having sex immediately after a funeral, either with their partners or with a one-night stand, in order to shake the grim and sad feelings that a funeral inspires), which is supposedly at least partly what inspires an atavistic Ythrian named Draun to pursue and rape Eyath. It's hard to avoid the suspicion that Anderson is channeling his thoughts on human rape into his ornithoid extraterrestrials; he even goes so far as to have a human female character, Tabitha Falkayn (a descendant of David Falkayn, who at the time of this book has been dead for centuries; p. 18; p. 30), defend Draun by telling Chris/Arinnian, "'[T]hey couldn't help themselves. Neither could....Shock and grief brought on premature ovulation, and then he chanced by ---'" (p. 141). When Chris/Arinnian calls Draun on the videophone to confront him, Anderson puts the nastily dismissive and hoary arguments deployed by human males the world over against rape into Draun's mouth:

"'Done's done, and no harm in it. Choth law says not, in cases like this, save that a gild [financial payment; akin to the Germanic weregeld] may be asked for wounded pride and any child must be provided for. There'll hardly be a brat, from this early in her season, and as for pride, she enjoyed herself.'"

-- p. 141


Anderson has Draun muddy the waters by introducing a bit of species envy, this time by an Ythrian for human male capabilities:

"'No harm. Why, you humans can force your females, and often do, I've heard. I'm not built for that. Anyhow, what's one bit of other folk's sport to you, alongside your hundred or more each year?'

"Arinnian had kept down his vomit. It left a burning in his gullet. His words felt dull and, in his ears, remote, though every remaining sense had become preternaturally sharp. 'I saw her condition.'

"'Well, maybe I did get a bit excited. Your fault, really, you humans. We Ythrians watch your ways and begin to wonder. You grip my meaning? All right, I'll offer gild for any injuries, as certified by a medic. I'll even discuss a possible pride-payment, with her parents, that is.'"

-- pps. 141-42


In short, Eyath's rape is ultimately dismissed by a "She asked for it," a disgusting attitude perhaps most commonly reported of late in India, but by no means alien to the U.S. That Anderson attempts to justify this dismissal by a bit of made-to-order xenobiology -- It's the females who control sex! Sex just doesn't happen unless the females want it! -- makes one suspect Anderson of having similarly retrograde attitudes towards rape among humans ("Just get over it"), much as one is apt to suspect Robert A. Heinlein when he brings the subject up in his late novel Friday.

Anderson's presentation and "resolution" of this incident is the biggest flaw in The People of the Wind; but the frankly unbelievable character "growth" that he tacks on at the end also cheapens the ideas that Anderson was able to successfully present here (including a rather neat snookering of the invading Terran forces that the Avalonians were able to perpetrate), as does an absurdity that Anderson should have been too intelligent to let slip through: the Terran admiral in charge of the punitive expedition against the Ythrian Domain and Avalon tells representatives of those polities: "'The truth is, you're up against Imperial Terra, which thinks in terms of centuries and reigns over thousands of planets'" (p. 116). That a human government, any human government, is capable of planning centuries into the future isn't merely a trope of science fantasy (forget "fiction"); it's a bona fide opium pipe dream. It also flies in the face of everything that Anderson wrote in previous and subsequent installments (some of the stories that fall earlier in the series' chronology were actually published after The People of the Wind) of his Polesotechnic League series, where the human governments were scarcely capable of planning to the end of the current calendar year.

One of the highpoints of The People of the Wind comes in a dialogue between Daniel Holm, at this point the Marchwarden of the Lauren System, and his son Chris (Arinnian), a little over halfway through the book; Holm senior says:

"'I read a book once, on the history of colonization. The author made an interesting point. He said you've got to leave most of the surface under plant cover, rooted vegetation and phytoplankton and whatever else there may be. You need it to maintain the atmosphere. And these plants are part of an ecology, so you have to keep many animals too, and soil bacteria and so forth. Well, as long as you must have a biosphere, it's cheaper -- easier, more productive -- to make it supply most of your food and such, than to synthesize. That's why colonists on terrestroid worlds are nearly always farmers, ranchers, foresters, et cetera, as well as miners and manufacturers.'

"'So?' his son asked.

"'So you grow into your world, generation by generation. It's not walls and machinery, it's a live nature, it's this tree you climbed when you were little and that field your grandfather cleared and yonder hilltop where you kissed your first girl. Your poets have sung it, your artists have drawn it, your history has happened on it, your forebears returned their bones to its earth and you will too, you will too. It is you and you are it. You can no more give it away, freely, than you could cut the heart out of your breast.'"

-- p. 119


Anderson here presents a scientific basis for regarding one's homeland with the same level and type of reverence shown by, say, Amerindian tribes, which is a lot more palatable than his half-assed explication of rape. If you can forgive or forget the latter, then you might derive a few hours' worth of pleasant diversion from The People of the Wind.


*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.



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