Free trade, entrepreneurship and a swashbuckling merchant-hero: Poul Anderson’s Trader to the Stars, a 1985 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history, the Libertarian Futurist Society is publishing an Appreciation series of all past award-winners that makes clear why each winner deserves recognition as notable pro-freedom and/or anti-authoritarian in theme. Here is an Appreciation of Poul Anderson’s Trader to the Stars, a 1985 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By Michael Grossberg
    Trader to the Stars, part of Anderson’s interstellar and libertarian-themed Future History series written over four decades, offers three loosely interconnected and longer stories about the free-trade-oriented Polesotechnic League operating during a Terran Empire.

Blending adventure, mystery and sf with some swashbuckling heroism and vivid descriptions often evoking Norse sagas, this 1964 book centers on Nicholas van Rijn, a resourceful and clever Danish merchant-hero (Anderson was Danish-American).

Anderson, always a realist about humanity with a sensibility of a melancholy romantic, portrays both humans and aliens as self-interested, striving to make a buck and satisfy their various needs amid an imperfect world of struggling and flawed peoples – in short, a future just like today.

This admirable libertarian-capitalist hero faces challenges as he encounters a variety of intriguing and truly alien aliens on several different worlds in a future galaxy full of intelligent life and interstellar travel.

Head of Solar Spice & Liquors and part of a generations-old family of merchants, van Rijn must use his wits to survive and make a living while often managing to find ways to simultaneously profit and help others.

An often-reluctant spaceman with an eye for the ladies and a fat body reflecting his other Falstaffian appetites, Van Rijn speaks a stylized dialogue reflecting the future evolution of English (but also giving Anderson another change to express his own creativity, imagination and lyrical-to-brooding Scandinavian spirit of romanticism.)

Two stories focus on Van Rijn’s trade missions to planets where he faces difficult problems dealing with the native population. In the other story, set on an icebound planet, involves people struggling to save the civilization from extinction foreseeable a millennium later. Van Rijn strives to figure out and solve the source of the problem.

While the first story is more of an sf adventure, the other two stories weave in mysteries that require Van Rijn to act as a sort of amateur detective, and apply his rationality in the spirit of Sherlock Holmes.

What makes Van Rijn especially enjoyable and admirable, to LFS members, is Anderson’s welcome positive portrait – relatively rare during his lifetime – of capitalist entrepreneurs who seek to prosper and profit by satisfying people’s needs in a free market and without seeking special government privileges, subsidies or corrupt regulations entrenching themselves at the expense of rival businesses.

This novel, which can be enjoyed and read on its own, is part of seven books Anderson wrote about the Polesotechnic League, all of which libertarian futurists enjoy because of Anderson’s sf imagination,  sense of humor, and melancholy romanticism imbued with realism about flawed humanity and the perennial struggle of Liberty vs. Power.

Note: Anderson (1926-2001) also wrote The Stars Are Also Fire (the 1995 Prometheus winner for Best Novel), “No Truce with Kings” (a story inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 2010) and “Sam Hall” (a story inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2020).

Paul Anderson, right, with his wife Karen at an sf con (Creative Commons license)

Anderson received the first Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2001, an award accepted for the ailing author by his wife, Karen, at the 2001 LFScon (the first LFS mini-con) at Marcon, Ohio’s oldest and largest sf/fantasy convention.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: Appreciations of Cyril Kornbluth’s The Syndic and Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus!, the 1986 co-winners of the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

* Read the introductory essay  about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

  • Other Prometheus winners:  For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website. (This page contains convenient direct clickable links to each Appreciation for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction, as they are published on the Prometheus blog.)* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans, and help nominate, judge and vote for the annual Prometheus Award winners.
    Libertarian futurists believe upholding and advancing culture is as vital as politics (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive in the longer run) in spreading positive visions of the future, achieving a flourishing society based on cooperation instead of coercion and a better, free-er world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

 

Published by

Mike Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been a writer, arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Most recently, Michael won the 2019 Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio (for theater reviews) and Best Arts Reporting (which he’s won seven times). He's written for Reason and Libertarian Review magazines, was a regional columnist for years for Backstage weekly, helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword/essay for the first paperback edition of J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among the books he recommends to inform a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

One thought on “Free trade, entrepreneurship and a swashbuckling merchant-hero: Poul Anderson’s Trader to the Stars, a 1985 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner”

  1. From the spelling, I believe that Nicholas van Rijn must be Dutch; the “ij” combination is frequent in Dutch and I don’t know if it even occurs in Danish. And he’s described in some passages as favoring the dress and cuisine of Indonesia, which was just coming out from being a Dutch colony, the Dutch East Indies, when these stories were written.

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