Monday, 23 July 2012

Orbit Unlimited

As works of science fiction go, the four story collection, Orbit Unlimited by Poul Anderson, is an extremely restrained account of the colonisation of an extrasolar planet:

at the end of the first story, a slower than light space fleet leaves the Solar System;

the second story describes an incident en route when the option of turning back must be considered;

the third story describes an incident when the fleet is in orbit around the new planet, Rustum;

thus, the colonists are settled on the surface and starting to reproduce there only in the concluding story.

The reader is pleased to learn that there are sequels, including a story in which Rustum must cope with a second wave of colonists from Earth and another story set on a colony in a different planetary system. As in other series, Anderson gradually broadens his narrative perspective.

The opening pages of the first story quickly establish a detailed sociopolitical background of high tech but overpopulated urban decay, with Atomic Wars in the past. Some terminology is familiar from other works but each future society envisaged by Anderson is unique. The (unelected) Guardian Commission of the Federation meets in teleconference:

Premier Selim, before a window opening on palm trees;
Svoboda, Commissioner for Psychologics, in his departmental tower surrounded by airborne filth in a city on an Atlantic coast;
Security Chief Chandra in India at sunrise;
Rathjen, Commissioner for Astronautics;
Novikov of Mines;
Larkin of Pelagiculture;
Dilolo of Agriculture.

That Astronautics is decaying, with a Venerian colony discontinued, is a sure sign that this Federation will not have the author's approval. The Commission discusses Constitutionalism, a philosophy founded by a man called Anker who advocated basing thought patterns on the constitution of (empirical) reality, not on mysticism, although, in North America, despite recent Oriental immigration, the term "Constitution" retains for the English-speaking half of the population another meaning that had even instigated an anti-Federation Rebellion twenty years previously.

Constitutionalism may inspire middle class professionals on whom the Guardians depend to seek political power for their class so Svoboda proposes to close Constitutionalist schools by reviving free compulsory education, though not for the illiterate eighty per cent of the population of course. Thus, in the nine pages of section 1, Anderson sketches an entire society and sets the scene for persecuted Constitutionalists emigrating to Rustum.

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