Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Van Rijn Method, p. 162

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to discover how much discussion can be generated by a single page of a text by Poul Anderson. Our example is The Van Rijn Method, p. 162, which begins in mid-sentence:

"When [van Rijn's] fingers tickled (p. 161)

(turn the page)

the console, giving computers and efferent circuits their orders, he felt the sensitive response of that entire organism which was the ship." (p. 162)

"...he felt..." confirms that this passage is narrated from van Rijn's pov.

A spaceship is a mechanism, not an organism, but can legitimately be compared to an organism. We understand that controlling this ship is like riding a horse or driving a car. Van Rijn feels the ship's response.

At this point, Anderson's Technic History most resembles Star Trek. Two faster than light interstellar spacecraft are about to enter combat, the merchant Mercury captained by human van Rijn and the frigate Gantok, captained by the hostile humanoid Rentharik. What does the latter look like?

"...the screen came to life.
"A Borthudian officer looked out. His garments clung dead black to a cat-lithe frame." (ibid.)

Note that the Borthudian is "cat-lithe," not "cat-like." Anderson has cleverly put the idea of a cat-like head into our heads without in fact stating that the Borthudian looks like a cat. The entire description of the alien is in the single remaining sentence:

"The face was semihuman, though hairless and tinged with blue; yellow eyes smoldered under a narrow forehead." (ibid.)

There is a face with eyes under a forehead. We are not told how many eyes but we assume two. We also assume a mouth under the eyes because the Borthudian speaks in accented but fluent Anglic. Indeed, after he has spoken, the text confirms the existence of both a larynx and a mouth. Terrestrial mouths and larynges are involved in breathing, sound production and eating, three activities that alien organisms might organize separately? Ears and nose may be present on the Borthudian's head although aliens can be imagined without them. The Borthudian face is blue-tinged but what color is it? The presence of discernible eyes and a mouth is enough to identify a "face." However:

Should an alien have eyes? Probably.
Should eyes be at the front and near the top? Again, probably.
Should there be two and only two?
Should they be close together?
Should they be above a mouth?
Should they be recognizable as such by us?

There is parallel evolution between the eye of an octopus and the eye of a dog (see "Eye of an Octopus" by Larry Niven) but how many other kinds of eyes are there - here or elsewhere? There might be stalks, skin patches or other bodily features whose function is not clear to us.

With a slightly different physiognomy, the Borthudian could be replaced by a Klingon. Thus, again, there is a clear parallel with Star Trek.

Van Rijn fulfills our expectations for colorful language:

"'Why, you out-from-under-wet-logs-crawling cocky-pop!'" (ibid.)

This might strain his antagonist's understanding of Anglic. We might expect to read that someone who speaks like that is red with anger but:

"Van Rijn made himself flush turkey red." (ibid.)

He made himself... Observation: Remarkable acting ability. Question: Is everything that van Rijn does an act? Is there a real guy behind the carefully constructed performances?

Behind Rentharik, there is:

"...the usual six-armed basalt idol." (ibid.)

Six-armed? How many arms have the Borthudians? I have been assuming two but all such assumptions are unwarranted. Maybe we are told somewhere else in the text? We remember that the Gorzunians who raided the Solar System and enslaved human beings carried idols in their spaceships - or did they make offerings to atomic converters and hyperdrives? I could consult the relevant story but this is partly an exercise in our collective memory.

I have not exhausted p. 162 but have reached the end of this post.


  1. Kaor, Paul!

    I think Nicholas van Rijn was GENUINELY flamboyant, individualistic, and idiosyncratic--AND capable of exaggerating these traits for his own purposes. But he was more than that as well: indisputably able, extremely intelligent, and far more well read and appreciative of fine culture than some of us might think.

    Merely because the idols of Borthudian gods had six arms did not mean they themselves had more than two arms. Recall how some of the Hindu gods also had more than two arms.


  2. Paul and Sean:
    Sean said it about arms before I could. Also, I think that the description of the face as "semihuman, though hairless and touched with blue" indicates that in this early story Anderson wasn't yet portraying truly ALIEN aliens -- in other words, this is one of those "played by a human with skin dye and odd-shaped fake ears" aliens we saw so much of in the early *Star Trek*. Thus, eyes, nose, and mouth would probably be in the same places and approximately the same shapes as those of Earthpeople. Of course, he COULD have thrown us a curve ball by mounting a human-looking head on a very unhuman body....

    1. Kaor, DAVID!

      Good point. In a story as early as "Margin of Profit," Poul Anderson was still working out how to plausibly describe aliens who did not look too human. Bit even the Borthudians seem more likely than the all too FAKE "aliens" we see in STAR TREK and most TV/cinematic SF.