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The Byworlder by Poul Anderson1.5 stars

Anderson opens The Byworlder — one of his rare duds — with an innovative take on the theme of first contact. An alien vessel with, it seems, only one occupant, has arrived from Sigma Draconis and has parked itself in Earth’s orbit, where it has been for three years when the story begins. No one on Earth has yet figured out a way to communicate with the bizarre, pinecone-shaped Sigman, who in turn has bewildered scientists worldwide by remaining for the most part passive and aloof. When Dr. Yvonne Canter seems to make the first real breakthrough, she finds herself the target of assassins. But whom they could possibly represent remains a mystery, since there are plenty of governments out there — particularly the Red Chinese — who are sufficiently paranoid about the Sigman’s advanced technology.

While travelling incognito, Yvonne meets Skip Wayburn, a “byworlder” (kind of a bohemian who has opted out of life in mainstream society) who has managed to track her down with the help of some well-connected friends. But Skip is on her side. He believes he knows the reason for the Sigman’s visit. And Yvonne is sufficiently impressed with his idea that, when the time comes, she arranges for Skip to join her on her next voyage into orbit in the hopes that, once and for all, the floodgates of communication will burst open.

A nifty premise, to be sure, but the stilted execution rings false more often than true. Anderson’s near-future milieu here reads like the sort of thing only the calcified Golden Age tastes of someone like Forrest J. Ackerman could love. Skip and Yvonne rarely convince you they’re real people. They seem like what they are, characters in an atrociously dated “sci-fi” story. Dialogue is so laughably phony at times you wonder where Anderson’s been living to hear people talk this way. Has anyone in the history of the world ever expressed excitement by exclaiming “Zonk! Wowsers!”? If it is an attempt at creating a futuristic-sounding patois, it backfires by sounding more archaic than anything else. 

And then there are scenes of, to put it mildly, dubious credibility. The first assassin to menace Yvonne near the beginning of the novel is evidently professional enough to slip through the heavy police guard set up around her home, but conveniently dumb enough to be distracted when Yvonne, who’s just stepped out of the shower, drops her towel. Later on, when Yvonne is kidnapped by baddies, Skip decides to use an old underworld connection to help track her down, and the characters he deals with are comically absurd in the extreme.

But the ultimate disappointment in this tale is that the big dramatic payoff — Skip’s brilliant deduction as to why the Sigman has come, around which Anderson tries to build suspense by keeping it secret until well into the book’s second half — lands with a dull, wet thud when it’s finally revealed. Big, big anticlimax. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow turns out, predictably, to be full of tin. If one were to be polite, one would say The Byworlder is Anderson out of form. Honesty would call it a disaster. Anderson’s most devoted fans might find enough touches of his customary brilliance here and there to make this one a worthwhile read, but for the average SF fan looking for something at the used book store to while away a lazy afternoon, Anderson has many, many better stories than this to discover.