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Book Review: The Van Rijn Method by Poul Anderson (compiled by Hank Davis)

* Genre: Hard SF, Science Fiction
* ISBN: 1416555692
* ISBN-13: 9781416555698
* Format: Hardcover, 464pp
* Publisher: Baen Books
* Pub. Date: September 2008
* Series: Technic Civilization Series, #1
* Author Wikipedia Page

“Imagination is cheap.” Or so the narrator of the “The Man Who Counts” would have you believe. But though ideas do not necessarily have physical manifestation, their effect can be far-reaching. Marxism, Neitschze’s dark existentialism, even Marin Luther’s 95 theses have change the course of human history in ways no one could have foreseen. But who would have thought that a corpulent, self-serving, and capitalist head of an economic empire would be an apologist for this very notion?

Poul Anderson, SF Grand Master, winner of multiple fantasy, SF, and other writing awards, and chief storyteller of the Technic Civilization Saga, created just such a character in Nicholas Van Rijn.

The Van Rijn Method is not only one story but many. It is, in fact, the first in a chronological, four volume republishing of all the stories Anderson wrote concerning the Technic Civilization, an empire that spanned centuries and countless worlds. This first book is a collection of 9 stories, 1 novella and 1 novel that begin with near space exploration and end four hundred years later. Obviously, such a broad spectrum of time cannot all contain the character Van Rijn, and in truth only 3 of the narratives have him as a protagonist, with two others allowing him a secondary role. Two others are early stories of his protégé David Falkayn, whose true character is revealed in the second collection of Technic Civilization stories David Falkayn: Star Trader. Yet, in truth, Van Rijn can be found in all of these stories, or at least the archetypal idea he represents. Imagination truly is anything but cheap, is in fact a rare commodity, as readers fortunate enough to encounter Van Rijn and the Technic Civilization will find.

As a character, Van Rijn is someone who you will either like or hate. He is selfish, and self-serving. His only goals are his own pleasures, and though he has an intellect to rival Sherlock Holmes, he has that other fictitious narcissist’s faults as well. Van Rijn is not anyone’s idea of a hero. He thinks nothing of setting peoples to war upon one anther to further his ends, of using people for their skills without explaining why, of being dictatorial and treating women like chattel. Yet for all that, he is endearing and his successes against what seem impossible odds are highly entertaining. His malapropisms also make him a more likable character, a stroke of character creation genius on Anderson’s part. Anderson uses the warp and weft of words to create a character whose mind we never enter (all stories are told from perspectives other than Van Rijn’s, or he is not in them at all) but who we would like to have as a leader.

The entire collection of the Technic Civilization Saga stories took Anderson 34 years to write, beginning in 1951. Some readers will notice some dated technology – such as the lack of anything digital – something Anderson lived to see (he died in 2001) but had not yet even been imagined by him when he began writing. So some allowances must be made by the reader. But at the same time, new readers of Anderson will find a treat in the way SF used to be written, full of pulp magazine high adventure and strange alien races.

In one thing Anderson still remains unsurpassed. He is a world-builder whose planets and peoples follow scientific rules. When creating a flight capable, intelligent species Anderson doesn’t simply assume, but uses the laws of physics and astronomy to make his world not only possible, but even probable. He then takes that hard work, and writes high adventure tales that every young boy must have read voraciously in the initial publications, stuffing the magazines under his mattress to pull out for reading again and again late at night. Likely you will do the same with this first collection and its successors – well, at least give it a place on your bookshelf, soon to be read again. Such high adventure married to exciting science is found so rarely, and never in such quantities as Anderson was able to produce.

This review could look at each story in this collection separately, but there is really no point. Anderson rarely wrote poorly, and all of the tales in The Van Rijn Method are great reading. I highly recommend this collection and its successors to any fan of SF. You will not be, cannot be, disappointed.

Read some of the material contained in this collection HERE, including Hank Davis’ introduction, and the stories “The Saturn Game” and “Wings of Victory”.

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