The Star Fox
by Poul Anderson
One of the things I like about science fiction is that aside from all the laser beams and spaceships, the stories are all about contemporary society. When Captain Kirk meets an alien with half white/half-black skin, that story isn’t going to be about aliens, it’s going to be about race relations in the United States during the 1960s. So it is with The Star Fox by Poul Anderson, which on the surface concerns a wealthy industrialist turned privateer who wages war against an alien empire in defense of a single colony.
The central conflict of the novel surrounds a French colony called New Europe on an Earth-like world covered in forests. The world lies within the “interest sphere” of aliens called the Alerion, and after they bomb it due to a misunderstanding, supposedly wiping out the inhabitants, the Earth Federation (made up of the diverse nation-states of Earth, a bit more like the United Nations than Star Trek’s Federation) does everything it can to maintain peace in an entirely Neville Chamberlain kind of way. The prevailing public opinion on Earth is controlled by a militant peace organization, while all the youths around the world become fascinated with the Alerion and stage protests and demonstrations in support of the aliens. The Star Fox was published in 1964, before the Vietnam War really ramped up and became the conflagration that we all understand it to have been today, but it’s very difficult not to see this book as Cold War parable, and one specifically about Vietnam.
The hero of the novel is Gunnar Heim, Norwegian by ethnicity (Anderson does love his Scandinavians), born on a planet called Gea, but calling Earth his home at the start. He is wealthy, a former space Navy man who spent some time on New Europe when he was in the service. He is middle-aged (46), and thus immune to the temptations of the beautiful but alien Alerion. He also comes into possession of evidence that the colonists still live, but the Federation doesn’t want to believe him. Heim hatches a scheme to put a privateer spacecraft into New Europe space to help the colonists and show the Alerion that Earth isn’t soft and will fight if pressed. Heim believes that the aliens do not plan to stop with New Europe and will spread their interest sphere as far as they can unless checked. Space is vast, yes, but planets inhabitable by humans are a limited resource that Heim believes is worth fighting for.
The novel is broken into three sections. The first lays out the basic plot, introduces the characters and stakes, and focuses on Heim’s actions on Earth as he figures out the scope of the danger and finagles a way to deal with it. The lousy peaceniks kidnap Heim’s daughter to get him to back down, but he launches a desperate gambit to rescue her which naturally pays off. And, in what is perhaps the most fantastical notion in a novel that features faster than light travel, multiple intelligent aliens and fierce ship to ship space combat, Heim’s local political representative is a member of the Libertarian party.
In part two, Heim arms his ship on an alien world that possesses an environment inimical to human life, but he and several crew members get stranded in the wilderness due to a Federation plot. They then have to survive long enough to be rescued, in a place where the atmosphere can’t be breathed and even the gravity is greater than Earth normal, never mind the dangers posed by local flora and fauna. By the third part of the novel, there is some actual privateering, and Heim and his crew make it to New Europe itself, where in a surprise twist the survival of the colony rests not on military action or a last ditch assault on a vulnerable enemy position, but on whether the colonists can get enough vitamin C or not. Although, this being a space opera, there is some military action to wrap everything up.
Poul Anderson is one of my favorite authors, but I’ve only really read his fantasy and historical fiction before, aside from a short story here or there. He’s just as adept with the action and world-building here as he is with fantasy novels. There are quite a few interesting aliens and alien worlds with different colored suns, amount of background radiation, and other environmental factors. Aside from Earth, there’s not a single pure “Class M” planet to be found. Even New Europe has the wrinkle that the colonists can’t get a simple vitamin from native flora, though they are able to hide from the alien invaders in the world’s vast unexplored forests. The alien pictured on the cover is meant to be descended from a dolphin-like ancestor (something I think the artist glossed over, focusing instead on the three eyes, blowhole, and mouth tentacles), while the Alerion have beautiful elfin faces and long flowing blond locks, but furry monkey-like bodies with tails and three digits on hands and feet. The Alerion evolved under a red sun on a dry planet (being a good swimmer saves Heim at one point when captured by the aliens), a million years before the ascension of humanity, and see humans as an upstart species causing trouble in the galaxy. They’re a bit like elves in a fantasy story, or maybe I’m making that connection based solely on past experience with the author.
The Star Fox is solid space opera, a quick and compelling speculative fiction read with a dash of conservative politics at the start. I suppose I shall have to try more of Anderson’s sci-fi, even if his somewhat quaint libertarian streak is far from my own leanings. Anderson can still spin a good yarn.