Nicholas van Rijn is the trader of the title in this book, which is actually comprised of three longish short stories: “Hiding Place”, “Territory” and “The Master Key” in which van Rijn is the only constant character. He is either a dude or an arsehole, depending on how you look at things, but either way he’s a big one. Large of stature and of girth, van Rijn makes me think of nothing so much as an older Henry VIII, but with a better sense of humour and a bigger nose.
All three stories first appeared in Astounding/ Analog Science Fiction magazine in the early sixties. Each one presents a puzzling situation involving both humans and various alien species (to give lots of room for cultural misunderstandings and the like) that leaves the humans stumped until van Rijn steps in and explains it all. The conundrums themselves are Agatha-Christie-worthy and really quite interesting – the blurb on the back of the book sets the scene for the first story “Hiding Place” and was the reason I decided to read this in the first place – and Anderson is great at bringing a world to life and keeping his readers gripped. He doesn’t get swept up in his own cleverness or so absorbed in the science of his worlds that he forgets to be entertaining.
Also, there are a lot of scientists and soldiers in science fiction, so it’s pretty refreshing to see the galaxy from a mercantile point of view. And Anderson suggests in these stories that trade is a universal language when cultures meet and mingle. I’m not sure how I feel about this – because, hello? Haven’t you heard of the Prime Directive?! These are primitive cultures you’re exploiting for your character’s own greedy ends in an entirely fictional scenario, Mr Anderson – but history does back him up: we human beings are all about the pretty shiny things that someone else has got. Although we are also very keen on attacking and subjugating those who have the pretty shiny things if we think they’re weaker than we are. (Weird thing that just happened: In one of those glorious moments of alignment as I was typing the words Prime Directive the theme tune for Star Trek: Next Generation just started playing through the wall we share with our deaf next-door neighbour – timing or what?).
In “Hiding Place” Captain Bahadur Torrance and van Rijn are aboard the Hebe G.B. (love the name!) and trying to stay ahead of space pirates about whom they have some important information. With the Hebe G.B. damaged, they pull up alongside an alien vessel planning to ask for help, but when they board they can find no crew, only cages and containers full of various alien species.
I liked the set up best here, but found two of the story’s developments kind of irritating. First, I didn’t like that the token female character was van Rijn’s bit of stuff. I just would have liked her to be anything other than that. And I didn’t like that she was the cause of brief tension between the Captain and van Rijn. Again, anything else would have been great. I know I’m incredibly privileged to be a white Western woman who has been exposed, during her adult life, to the narrative that a woman can do and be anything. A result of this privilege is that I want the science fiction I read to imagine a future in which women are more. And so I was disappointed to see the only female character in a very typical role, albeit not through coercion or obligation – she’s chosen to be there – but still I’d rather there had been no women in the story.
Second, I was annoyed by van Rijn’s quite quickly solving the puzzle of which of the species were actually the crew of the alien ship, but this was more because I hadn’t yet realised the book was three separate stories and had been expecting to get to work it out for myself. (Although I’m quite smug that I’d already worked out one part of the puzzle before van Rijn mansplained it to Captain Torrance). I can’t deny that his tone had a lot to do with my annoyance too, however. Smart arse.
In “Territory” biologist Joyce Davisson and van Rijn are rudely awoken when the human area of t’Kela is attacked. Marooned on the planet by their escaping fellow humans, they flee to a place of temporary safety along with one remaining friendly t’Kelan called Uulobu, and try to work out why the t’Kelans went so suddenly from friend to enemy.
I really enjoyed the cultural misunderstanding at the heart of this story and (further mansplaining aside) I also liked van Rijn’s solution to the problem. I was less keen on his stinky attitude towards Joyce: “you only got to cook and look beautiful”, and was livid that she softened up to him towards the end, but I guess she’s as free to be an idiot as she is to be a scientist.
And finally, in “The Master Key” a group of friends and associates meet at van Rijn’s apartment to talk about their youngest member’s recent adventures on the planet Cain. This last story is told from the point of view of one of the party members, who is addressed as Captain, but whose name we never discover. The group is comprised of van Rijn, the Captain, his friend Harry, Harry’s son Per (who is recuperating after being badly injured on his adventure) and Manuel, Per’s ensign.
This one was the best of the bunch for me. I liked how the story was told, with the Captain opening up, then Per and Manuel relating what had happened to them, and van Rijn only getting to chip in at the end, with his inevitable explanation. I enjoyed everything about the planet Cain and its two sentient species the Yildivans and the Lugals. The story is similar to “Territory” in that there is a sudden turnaround in human-alien relations, but the reasons for it were more interesting this time round, I thought.
So yeah. All in all a pretty good threesome. Despite minor annoyances I really like the way Anderson writes and I love his aliens. I can’t say I’m a big fan of van Rijn, he’s too much a caricature and his habit of explaining to everyone where they’ve gone wrong isn’t a particularly prepossessing trait. That said, he has an amusing manner of speech that goes a long way to making him more palatable. I can imagine him being voiced by Brian Blessed, booming: “Pox and pestilence, but the first beer of the day is good!” and “What is this poppies with cocking? When I say frog, by billy damn, you jump!” and “Thunder and thighbones, what is this farce?” There’s a lot to be said for creative expletives.
“Beelzebub and botulism!”