War, appeasement, and what might be the first gay alien in sf: Poul Anderson’s The Star Fox, the 1995 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To celebrate the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as a pro-freedom work, the Libertarian Futurist Society is publishing an Appreciation series of all past award-winners.
Here’s an appreciation for Poul Anderson’s The Star Fox, the 1995 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner:

By Michael Grossberg
War and appeasement are central subjects in Poul Anderson’s The Star Fox, a space adventure that includes what may be the first gay alien in sf literature.

Set in an interstellar human future with the narrative laced with songs in different languages, the 1965 novel explores the challenges of surviving and fighting an alien occupation of one of Earth’s first extra-solar space colonies.

The inventive narrative centers on Gunnar Heim, a patriotic human man and ex-Navy space captain striving as a pioneer to build a civilized society on an unusual new planet full of walking forests and haunted by surreal citizens.

A heroic if old-fashioned adventurer, Helm risks his life and interplanetary peace to become a privateer, raising arms and preparing for war for the sake of freedom.

Heim, whose allies including a traveling musician and a dolphin-like alien engineer, is faced with the daunting task of trying to preserve the freedom and independence of his outer-space outpost against threats from seemingly friendly but strange cat-like alien beings, who have slyly undermined and crowded out human colonists.

Written as a heroic and independent-minded but flawed central character, Helm often acts immaturely, gets drunk and behaves in a sexist way but is portrayed as a romantic and heroic rogue or space pirate.

Helm is suspicious of the aliens’ claims about an act of aggression that apparently wiped out the human colony on New Europe, and struggles to raise alarms and overcome the oblivious and pacifistic attitude of the human World Federation.

Anderson deserves some credit for a more realistic and nuanced portrait of his aliens and their more multi-dimensional relationships with humans (although the humans themselves reflect mid-20th-century gender and nuclear-family norms). To be blunt, the portrayal of some aliens subtly highlights their murky sexuality and how humans respond to it – not always positively.

Anderson’s sexualized alien characters certainly transcend the hoary old 1950s-pulp stereotypes of leering Martians who lust after Earth women. In The Star Fox,the aliens have a custom of moving around naked, which disturbs earth men because of the visible bodies of the alien visitors. Their obvious male organs provoke visceral distaste and discomfort among some humans. Here Anderson is subtle and allows for some ambiguity – perhaps allowing his novel to be widely read when published, even among the young, without provoking protests – and, in hindsight, seems to suggest a homophobia among human heterosexual males, decades before that concept and word would enter the language.

Most intriguing is Anderson’s description of the disconcerting male beauty of an alien ambassador stationed on Earth, and how that alien’s ambiguously seductive overture to touch Heim – an overture he abruptly rejects, sparking the end of his visit and abrupt departure – ambiguously hints at the strangeness of alien sex and evokes the possibility that this member of the Aleriona race might be gay (that is, assuming that alien sexuality can even be adequately framed within understandable human behavior.)

One plot detail may be of special interest to LFS members: The novel may be one of the earliest sf works that explicitly imagines a future with Libertarians elected to office in the Senate and world government on Earth. Ironically and very soberingly, in Anderson’s future history, the Libertarians largely assume the role of antagonists to the story’s hero, since they become de facto allies of the Earth’s appeasers who fail to see the central threat that Helm intuits.

Despite such an explicit reference to Libertarian possibilities, Anderson largely was not a novelist willing to undercut or weigh down his narrative for the sake of ideology. As one of the superior sf writers of his era, Anderson was more skillful and subtle than that.

For example, Heim makes a revealing comment amid the tensions of diplomacy, trade, interstellar human politics and the threat of recurrent human-alien war: “Planet against planet – that would be the real Ragnarok. What we have to do is show them right now that we aren’t going to be pushed. Then we and they can talk business. Because space is truly big enough for everybody, as long as they respect each other’s right to exist.”

Such dialogue, reflecting the civilized ideals and universal-rights rhetoric of mid-20th-century America, unobtrusively makes clear the rough links between commerce and peace, reminding us that it’s much riskier to “do business” amid violence and the extreme institutionalized coercion of governments waging war.

 

 

Although arguably now dated in some ways, Anderson’s fast-paced novel reflects the styles and optimistic/heroic themes of Golden Age space adventures and hard-science fiction.

Note: Poul Anderson’s novel The Star Fox was nominated for a Nebula Award, but lost to Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Anderson (1926-2001) also was recognized with a Prometheus Award for Best Novel in 1995 (for The Stars are Also Fire).

Anderson also won Prometheus Awards for Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) in 1985 (for Traders to the Stars) and in 2010 (for his novella “No Truce with Kings.”

Poul Anderson. Photo by Karen Anderson

Anderson was honored in 2001 with the first Prometheus Special Award for Lifetime Achievement, an award accepted by his wife Karen Anderson (when Anderson was ailing) at LFScon I, the first LFS mini-convention and a central program track with several Prometheus-winning authors (including F. Paul Wilson, L. Neil Smith, J. Neil Schulman and Brad Linaweaver) at Marcon, a regional sf/fantasy convention in Columbus, Ohio.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation by Anders Monsen of Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet, the 1996 Prometheus Hall of Fame winnerfor Best Classic Fiction.

* See related  introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary 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.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, jointhe Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as (or more) vital as political change in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

 

Published by

Michael 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. Michael has won 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 and How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

2 thoughts on “War, appeasement, and what might be the first gay alien in sf: Poul Anderson’s The Star Fox, the 1995 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner”

  1. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve added several paragraphs about Anderson’s portrait of alien character and alien sexuality, including one tantalizingly ambiguous and sexual alien who certainly might be gay. Check it out.

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