The Star Fox, by Poul Anderson: A Review

The Star Fox, by Poul Anderson (Berkley, 1981)

The Star Fox, by Poul Anderson (Berkley, 1981)

Authors and their works are a bit like cheeses. Some authors one warms to almost instantly. Other novels improve on acquaintance. You might finally find the right biscuit to have with your new cheese, or the best wine. But some cheeses, try as one might, never quite make it beyond being the sample that you try in the market only to decide that it’s just not quite to your taste.

That’s a laboured and somewhat over-constructed comparison, but The Star Fox is a laboured and forced book, so I will hopefully be forgiven for feeling that the comparison is just. Anderson, who apparently took an honors degree in physics but settled in to writing as a career even before he completed his studies, was already a well-established writer when The Star Fox was published in 1965. In tone, he is perhaps most like Heinlein, but without some of the cleverness and charm that made Heinlein readable (when he was readable, which wasn’t always).

The story opens in San Francisco, which ordinarily would have been a plus for me. But the central character, Gunnar Heim, ex-space Navy man and rocket motor mogul, quickly meets one of the most irritating characters in all of fiction, the Hungarian guitar-torturing minstrel Endre Vasdazq, who can’t go four pages without bursting into song, and drove me bonkers. Endre has escaped from a world called New France, which has been invaded by the alien Aleriona, and half a million colonists are being left there to their fate, because the Earth’s Federation government does not want to intervene and – potentially – trigger a war. Endre has been sent to convince the Federation that the humans are still alive, although the Aleriona have told them that all died when the planet was taken.

From this premise, a confusing mess devolves into a twisted lump of weak story-telling, poor pacing, and tedious politics. The book is divided roughly into thirds. In the first, Heim, who was once in love with a girl from New France, eventually finds that his best bet for helping the colonists is to become a privateer, a pirate who is legally authorised to wage war for profit, in this case, under the French flag. Heim purchases and equips a ship, the eponymous Star Fox II, with his own money, only briefly tangling with an Earth-based peace movement who kidnap his daughter. Flying off to a distant world of arms dealers in the second third, there is a further lengthy and tedious discursion where the peace activists attempt to waylay Heim and his crew, using an old flame named Jocelyn. This results in a days-long (it honestly felt much longer reading it) space-suited march across the airless surface of a planet, during which several minor characters are killed off, and Endre continues to sing, in italics. Finally, in the third part, the fully-armed Star Fox II has been waging its guerrilla effort against the Aleriona around New France, before finally landing and indulging in still more pointless songs, some feebly-plotted meeting of old friends, and the capture and escape of Heim from the clutches of the Aleriona. There are several final battles, the main one of which is not actually discussed. Finally, there is a coda, where Heim meets an old Navy friend on New France, which apparently serves to wrap everything up.

Here are the primary irritations I found with this book:

1) the languages: the remarks dropped in French, German, Danish, Hungarian, and whatever else really just served to annoy. To me, they didn’t seem to move the plot forward, so much as to reflect Anderson’s sophistication and make the reader out to be some sad berk if they had to consult a dictionary (or just gloss over them, as I’m sure the majority of readers did). It came off to me as pretentious, and didn’t advance the story.

If the minstrel had remained in the gallery, that would have been one problem less.

If the minstrel had remained in the gallery, that would have been one problem less.

2) the songs: folk-songs, old standards, marching songs, whatever. I’m a fan of less singing in fiction. Tolkien did it well, once, but I don’t see that as license for every sophomoric writer standing to toss in their own four pennyworth of lyric without melody.

3) the plot: maybe Anderson was a better short-story writer, maybe not. It seems like I’ve read him before, but I can’t find anything in my lists. Either way, he must have done something else narratively to have warranted being a big name in Golden Age sci-fi, because The Star Fox can’t be the reason. There are too many holes, and too many pieces of the narrative simply missing, as though he just couldn’t be asked to write things like battles, or connective narration, or even to follow an antagonist to his justly-deserved end.

4) the jargon: some pseudo-military, some pseudo-scientific, all impenetrable. I find myself increasingly unable to be bothered to care when an author invokes some unknown technology to get round a plot hole. Which is odd, as in this case, one of the things that stood out was the invocation of LaGrange points (a sort of gravitational still point around a planet or moon) as a hiding place for a ship at one step in the narrative, which clearly harkened back to Anderson’s physics days.

I don’t particularly enjoy writing reviews that have to deconstruct the failings of a writer. Writing is a hard intellectual slog – brain work, if you will – and I know that that is true. But if I’ve invested the time in reading something, and it is as poor as The Star Fox, it’s difficult not to feel cheated. If there’s something that I was supposed to “get” here, that would have made it all better, then clearly, it wasn’t obvious enough for me. Still, I might try Anderson again, someday, but, to return to the cheesy notions with which I began, I suspect that he is, for me, less of a Cheshire or Wensleydale, and more of a Limberger.

Or, indeed, a Limeswold.

One and a half grudging stars.

Originally reviewed 12 June 2012.

Find your copy of The Star Fox from booksellers around the world at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).

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About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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