Astronauts face peril on a remote planet in Poul Anderson’s 1966 novel ‘World Without Stars’

January 31, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 31, 2019

I continue this month’s (inadvertent, I swear!) tour of early novels by science fiction and fantasy grand masters with World Without Stars, a 1966 tale by Danish-American author Poul Anderson.

The book revolves around an ill-starred voyage by the merchant vessel Captain Felipe Argens and his crew of eight. The Meteor is bound for a remote star located outside our galaxy, a place where sentient technology users have developed despite the relative paucity of heavy metals (due to the vagaries of the formation of isolated heavenly bodies).

Humanity is but one of many species that use space jump to zip from one point to another in Anderson’s far future. What’s more, galactic inhabitants are blessed with virtual immortality courtesy of the “antithanatic,” an internal system that instantly rejects “any hostile nucleic acids.” People don’t live forever, for as our narrator, Argens, relates, “sooner or later some chance combination of circumstances is bound to kill you.” And without selective memory editing every so often over the decades or centuries, brains become overwhelmed with information and eventually succumb to madness.

Still, the travelers are engineered to survive all but the most extreme exigencies, which means that for Anderson to imperil his characters, he must meet a high barrier. Naturally, the author realizes this, and he’s up to the challenge: In chapter five, out of 17 in the book, Meteor crash-lands on a distant planet. Two of the astronauts die instantly; one lasts only a few hours longer.

The disaster puts Argens, gunner Hugh Valland and the other survivors in quite a pickle. They’re stranded, and while they can breathe the air on the extragalactic body where they’ve landed, none of the raw local proteins are compatible with their bodies. They have limited packaged foodstuffs, and fortunately, the Meteor’s salvaged food tanks are able to use nearby materials to grow plankton and other edibles. That means that the crew may be able to last until rescue comes — that is, if they can survive their encounters with the planet’s life forms.

‘World Without Stars’ by Poul Anderson (1966)

As it turns out, the destination for the ill-fated jump wasn’t the world of the space-faring “Yonderfolk” who initially contacted a representative of the Meteor’s trading conglomerate; instead, it’s a nearby planet inhabited by less advanced races that have sharply conflicting religions and philosophies.

The cave-dwelling Pack, who believe God to be the bright galaxy that they see in the otherwise largely barren sky at night, are suspicious of the Meteor crew but are tentatively willing to work with them. However, the urbanized Herd, an alliance of different species and carefully bred genetic types, fear the galaxy, and in its place worship a race of telepathic walrus-like beings. The Ai Chun, as they’re called, are less interested in aiding the humans than in taking over their technology and using it to extend their domination over the planet — and they don’t particularly who gets hurt in the process.

In this passage, the captain and gunner share an introspective moment not long after they’ve established a base camp following the crash:

The sky was clear, except for a few thin clouds reflecting the galaxy’s glow. It sheened on the lake, too; but shoreward, night drank down its light and I was blind. 

Vast and beautiful, it had barely cleared the horizon, which made it seem yet more huge. I could just trace out the arms, curling from a lambent nucleus… yes, there was the coil whence man had come, though if I could see man by these photons he would still be a naked half-ape running the forests of Earth… Otherwise I was only able to see three glitters which we now knew were planets. 

“What was that tune you were playing?” I asked. 

“Somethin’ by Carl Nielsen. Doubt if you’ve heard of him. He was a composer on Earth, before my time but popular yet when I was young.” 

“After three millennia, you still remember such details?” I wondered. 

“Well, I keep goin’ back there, you know, on account of Mary,” Valland said. “And Earth doesn’t change much any more. So I get reminded. My later memories are the ones I can dispense with.” 

I realized that this must the [sic] reason he, with his abilities, was not commanding a ship. That would have had him star-hopping at somebody else’s orders. I didn’t know when I’d see Lute and Wenli again, for instance, if I got back into space. The company rotated personnel among home stations, so fifty years was an entirely possible gap. Valland must return home a good deal often. 

“She seems to be quite a girl, yours,” I said. 

“Oh, yes,” he whispered into the wind. 

World Without Stars has many of the elements that make a great planetary survival story: A desperate situation, strange aliens, clashing factions, and a fascinating universe. However, I couldn’t help but compare the book to Vernor Vinge’s 1992 volume A Fire Upon the Deep, which is one of my favorite novels of all time, and which spends much of its complex narrative tracking two human children who are stranded on a planet inhabited by “Tines,” non-spacefaring natives engaged in a massive intraspecies conflict. In that book, the Olsndot children’s plight was heightened by the approaching Blight, a menacing artificial intelligence that threatened the entire galaxy. World Without Stars lacks that kind of external threat, and therefore I didn’t get as wrapped up in the story.

Another reason that I merely enjoyed World Without Stars, as opposed to truly loved the book, is that the characters are relatively pedestrian. Argens is a bit bland; Valland is a more inspiring figure, but the air of mystery and apartness that Anderson endeavors to set up is neither particularly convincing nor engrossing. (It wasn’t hard to guess one of the big surprises about Valland’s past, for example.)

World Without Stars isn’t a must-read science fiction book, but it is a pleasant diversion for fans who are looking to expand their knowledge of mid-20th-century genre work.

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