Orbit Unlimited

by Poul Anderson
Series: History of Rustum
Reviewed date: 2013 Apr 1
Rating: 3
160 pages
cover art

Here's some good old Golden Age science fiction. It's a series of related novelettes that recount key events in the establishment of the first human colony on the planet Rustum.

The adventure begins on Earth, where severe overpopulation and critical shortages of key raw materials make life barely tolerable for the masses. Commissioner Svoboda manipulates political events to create a powerful Constitutionalist minority, represented by his estranged son Jan Svoboda. The Constitutionalists raise enough ruckus to get themselves deported to e Eridani, where they will attempt to establish the first human colony on the planet Rustum.

Act two is en route to Rustum. Captain Joshua Coffin receives a message from Earth, promising the Constitutionalists an end to their persecution, if they will please turn around and come home. Coffin distrusts the message, but others wish to return. Coffin doesn't understand why, so he pays a visit to a special female friend, who explains (in a rather dated, sexist way) that of course he doesn't understand. The reaction to this message is emotional, not logical. A strong, male leader like Coffin can't be expected to understand or recognize the role of emotion in human decisions.

Coffin fakes a follow-up message from Earth, striking just the right tone to manipulate the emotions of the colonists, who vote to continue on to Rustum.

The third section occurs during the establishment of the colony, where an accident in space results in the loss of some crucial equipment. The equipment is left adrift, orbiting Rustum within a poisonous radiation zone. If it is not recovered, the colony will surely perish before they become self-sufficient.

Finally, once on Rustum, the settlers gradually realize that although in theory they have an entire planet at their disposal, in fact, the thick atmosphere limits them to inhabiting only a small highland plateau. In a few dozen generations they may adapt and be able to spread out, but for now, they are limited. The real action begins when Joshua Coffin's son Danny gets lost, presumably somewhere in the lowlands. Coffin and Jan Svoboda search for him, but the carbon dioxide concentration in the low elevations clouds their minds and saps their strength. But yes, they do find him--and he's in perfect health. Apparently he's a genetic outlier--not a mutation, but merely at the limits of normal human variation--exceedingly well adapted to the atmospheric conditions at sea level on Rustum. With his genes, perhaps mankind will adapt to Rustum relatively quickly.

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