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The Longg Way Home by Poul Anderson2.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from PowellsThe Long Way Home (also published as No World of Their Own), puerile and hackneyed as it is by modern standards, has some entertainment value if you catch it in the right frame of mind, just as an old black-and-white SF film from the same period can be fun to watch, rubber monsters and all. The story relates the startling plight of three astronauts, returning to Earth from the very first deep space voyage, bringing back an alien. Only in 1950s SF would you get a bunch of guys zipping off into the unknown aboard a spacecraft whose hyperspace drive is not fully understood. But Poul Anderson had no problem spoofing the SF tropes of the day even while he was obliged to employ them, and could be relied upon to get his science right. Imagine our heroes’ horror when they discover that a whopping five millennia have passed since they left home!

Edward Langley and his two crewmates end up back on a far future Earth governed by the Technon, a benevolent computer. Nowadays I would like to think (though this may yet be very naive of me) we’re far too sophisticated to accept the premise of a society run by a computer, because of course computers can be perfectly objective and fair! But then, in one of the smart twists towards this story’s end, Anderson demonstrates exactly why that idea is preposterous in the first place. 

There is, predictably, a rigidly classist society with the haves living way up high and the have-nots struggling deep in the lower levels of sprawling cities. Upon the unexpected arrival of Langley’s ship, their alien companion, Saris from the planet Holat, flees in fear, prompting a massive alien-hunt. It appears that Holatans possess a unique sorta-psychic talent to interfere with laser-weapons and other electronics, and this is regarded by numerous factions as having a potentially excellent military application. For though the human race hasn’t known war for many many years (uh-huh), it looks as if one is brewing between the Earth and the fiercely independent colonies on Centaurus over mineral-rich worlds orbiting Sirius. Everyone wants to know where Saris is, and the pressure is on Langley and crew.

Langley, of course, finds himself a pawn in a political chess match between the Technon, the Centaurans, and an enormously powerful guild of interstellar traders called the Company, because it couldn’t possibly be called anything else. Everyone is playing everyone else, and the story compensates for its familiary by offering the sheer fun of reading Looney Tunes dialogue like “There are, of course, ways to make a man talk,” and, “You realize, of course, that this means war.” (Neat how simply inserting “of course” into whatever you say can automatically make anyone sound dastardly.) Silliness abounds, like a slave girl whom Langley manumits to show what a great guy he is, who then naturally falls in love with him anyway. That sort of thing. Granted, not everyone will find the charm in such anachronistic cheese, but those who do might get a smile out of all this.