Reviewed date: 2020 Jun 14
Despite the breathless puffery on the cover--His Big One! The Long-Awaited Masterpiece by one of SF's All-Time Greats!--this book showcases some of the worst traits of Poul Anderson's writing and few of his best. It has its moments, but not enough of them.
Earth has found a stargate--called a T machine--built by an unknown and absent civilization called the Others. The T machine can take a spaceship to any number of destinations, but the way back is not obvious. The Others have left round-trip instructions for one destination only: the Phoebus star system, with a single habitable planet, Demeter, for Earth to colonize.
One planet is not enough. When an alien ship is spotted transiting the Demeter T machine, Earth sends a ship after it to make first contact. The ship, Emissary, follows the aliens through the T machine to an unknown destination and hopes that the aliens understand the T machine network enough that they'll be able to send Emissary back.
Emissary returns early. This upsets a number of rather powerful people on Earth, notably Ira Quick. As a Minister in the World Council, Ira Quick and his cabal have enough pull to get Emissary's return hushed up. Quick shuffles the crew of Emissary away into isolation, and then tries to figure out what to do with them.
"You say we beat the Russians to the moon, but I say you starved your children to do it." - song by Larry Norman
Poul Anderson is at his best when he's showing us the point of view of the bad guys. Anderson works hard to make his villain's motivations seem reasonable, even noble. These are not cartoonishly evil villains, these are men whose experiences have shaped their worldview, and they believe they are doing what is best for mankind. Ira Quick, in particular, has been shaped by his war experiences during the Troubles. He knows intellectually that the time and resources spent on space exploration and colonization will pay dividends in the future. But in the meantime, he knows that so many people must suffer because money spent on exploration is not spent on helping those on Earth.
So Ira Quick, for deeply felt emotional reasons, believes humanity should not colonize other planets. Mankind should not explore the T machine network. The reappearance of Emissary and her news of successful first contact with an alien race, threatens to open up a new era of expansion of colonization. Ira Quick believes in human rights and democracy, but he also believes the future of mankind depends on preventing further space exploration. How far will he go? Will he go so far as to murder the entire crew of Emissary to cover up the success of their mission? And if he will not, what will his friends and allies do?
Daniel Broderson is the hero. He's ridiculous. Anderson has him as a polyamorous man who is irresistible to woman. His first wife died. His second wife Lis adores him and is totally willing to allow him his lovers and affairs--she's not jealous. His long-term lover Caitlin adores him, but in an oh-so-modern way, wouldn't interfere with his marriage, nor even expect that she's his only lover. And Joelle, the same thing.
Basically, Broderson is a god, and every woman who meets him is deeply and fully satisfied with just a piece of him, just being a part of his life in some small way. That mere scrap of attention fulfills their needs and gives their life purpose.
The hubris. The narcissism. The worship of self. It's too much to take.
The Avatar showcases another one of Anderson's well-worn tropes. For Anderson, sex is something modern women use to comfort men and thereby manage their psychological health. Without women showing up and providing comfort sex, men would become psychologically unbalanced, and that would be bad, especially on a spaceship, in space, where interpersonal relationships are particularly fraught. The women on board Chinook spent a lot of time pairing up with various men at various times in order to keep them happy and well-adjusted. I recall a similar sort of idea in Poul Anderson's excellent book Tau Zero, but here it is much more front-and-center.
When I was younger, I might have found this an interesting (if unlikely) development of interpersonal relationships in the far future. Now, I find it a childish and contemptible wish-fulfillment fantasy. Poul Anderson should be ashamed.
Two different stories
The oddest thing about The Avatar is that it is two very different stories. It starts out as a political intrigue--the struggle between Ira Quick and his Action political party to suppress the news of the alien Betans, and Daniel Broderson to spread the news. But about halfway through the book, Ira Quick's forces manage to corner Broderson on his ship Chinook, and to escape, he takes Chinook through the T machine to a random destination. Then, unable to return to Earth or to Demeter, Broderson and the crew of Chinook begin a tour of the galaxy, repeatedly using the T machine networks to travel to random destinations. They see incredible stellar phenomena, encounter strange planets and bizarre alien life. It's a travelogue and a very different sort of story. Eventually they reach the edge of the T machine network and find the Others, the builders of the T machines. The Others send them back to Earth, whereupon Ira Quick and his cronies give up. Broderson wins.
Overall not a satisfactory effort from Poul Anderson. I'm a fan, I am. But this one is below average for the Science Fiction Grand Master.
Caitlín Mulryan (don't forget the i acute)
Joelle Ky, holothete on Emissary
Ira Quick, Minister for the Midwest in the Assembly of the North American Federation, Minister of Research and Development on the Council of the World Union. (Action Party member, part of the cabal within the World Union.)
Aurelia Hancock, Governor General of Demeter
Fidelio, an alien Betan who returned with Emissary
Others (build the T machines)