Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #27: Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson's been writing for over four decades, and as books such as his recent "The Boat of a Million Years" indicate, he's still producing significant work. His best books, however, appeared between the mid-fifties and the mid-seventies (IMO, of course, but so's everything I write here), and there is a good chance that many newer readers will be unaware of them.

It's difficult for me to characterize Anderson's work, largely because there's so much of it, of so many types. Anderson's no stylist; his prose is...competent. What his best books seem to have in common is a combination of imagination and integrity. He typically takes a couple of interesting ideas -- however improbable -- and then uses them as a foundation for honest story-telling. (Too many authors are content with a stream of clever ideas -- or one idea, tested to destruction -- and don't bother with the honest story-telling. Others -- and this is also true of Anderson, in his more pedestrian adventure fiction -- try to do without that special leap of imagination.) Sometimes the story doesn't work, or the imaginative foundation is simply not strong enough, but when it does work, we get books like:

"The High Crusade" (***+). Earth should have easy to terrorize and conquer, but the Wersgorix ship that landed in England in 1345 got sloppy -- and unlucky. It was captured by the local baron who loaded his army aboard (loaded his entire village aboard) with the intention of using the ship to retake Jerusalem. He thought he was thinking big. When the ship's navigator locked in a course for the Wersgorix empire instead, Sir Roger was left with no alternatives but to surrender or to take on an interstellar empire. But then, Sir Roger had more swords at his command than they did.

"Operation Chaos" (****-) is a fixup novel -- four stories with connective tissue added to make a coherent novel -- set in a world much like ours, but based on magic instead of science -- a less-than-common premise in the fifties. The heroes are Virginia Graylock -- a first-tier witch -- and Steve Matuchek -- one of the best werewolves in the army. (Lycanthropy became far more convenient once Polaroid produced an appropriately polarized flash, and it was no longer necessary to depend on the moon.) The first three stories take them from their first meeting, during WWII -- as special operatives sent to take out the enemy's Afreet -- to eventual marriage, and constitute less than half the book. In the fourth and longest section, their baby daughter is kidnapped by a demon from Hell and, with the help of a possessed cat, they go there to retrieve her.

"Tau Zero" (***+) takes its title from a measure of relativistic contraction. The Leonora Christina's interstellar mission demands that its Bussard ramscoop accelerate it close enough to the speed of light for the contraction to be noticeable. A freak accident, however, prevents the ship from decelerating as planned. Instead, its only hope of survival lies in accelerating closer and closer to the speed of light, while more and more years go by back home -- until so much time has gone by that the universe itself begins to age visibly. This is one of Anderson's rare hard-sf novels. Characteristically, the author devotes most of his effort to the characters who have to deal with the physical reality -- and not to the novel-length physics lecture to which so much hard sf falls prey.

"Earthman's Burden" (***+), coauthored with Gordon Dickson, is a series of stories featuring the Hokas -- aliens who look like teddy bears, and have a tendency to get caught up in a good story. *Really* caught up. Especially once humans discover them, and they discover human fiction. Imagine being ambassador to a planet where one of the locals is liable to take on the role of Sherlock Holmes and insist that you're Watson or, far worse, take on the role of Elizabeth I and insist that you're Mary of Scots! Somehow, the natives are able to live their fictional roles and still keep a civilization running -- but it can be hard on the nerves of the poor ambassador! "Hoka!" (**) collects the stories -- mostly weaker -- that didn't make it into "Earthman's Burden".

"Brain Wave" (***+) is one of Anderson's earliest novels. Its premise is one that is echoed in Vinge's recent "A Fire Upon the Deep": There are zones in the galaxy within which intelligence doesn't work very well. "Brain Wave" begins when, after millions of years, the galaxy's rotation takes the Earth *out* of such a zone. At first the effects are subtle. People are more insightful, animals are harder to control. As intelligence continues to ramp up, the world experiences growing pains, as a society and economy designed for people of 'normal' intelligence has to be made to work for a population that is, literally, too smart for it. Once the technical questions are settled, the hard ones still remain: What does a world of IQ-400 people do with itself? And what becomes of the now-intelligent animals that share that world?

That this review isn't much longer is due mainly to my preference for pointing people to a manageably short reading list. Certainly there are other books that could stand with the ones I've named. "The Star Fox"(***+) doesn't hang on a gimmick. This space adventure -- of a man who turns privateer to aid an occupied world abandoned by politicians -- is an instance of an Anderson novel that stands up purely on the strength of good story-telling. Another such instance is "The Corridors of Time" (***+), about a man recruited into a war being fought through time. Nor did I review "A Midsummer's Tempest" (***), which takes place in a world where all of Shakespeare's plays are historical truth, rather than fiction. (I mention it here just for the record: I didn't forget it, and I know that many people think it deserves five stars. I'm just not one of them.)

Perhaps the most noticeable gap is my omission of the future history which takes up the largest portion of Anderson's work. This history has three particularly identifiable periods. There is the post-WWIII period, in which the world pulls itself back together in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to build a rational society and leave its suicidal hatreds behind. "Un-Man" (***), a powerful but dated novella about a special corps of UNsuper-agents, belongs to this period. (More correctly, the stories set in this period represent a different future history than those set in the later periods, and one which Anderson abandoned.)

There is the period of unrestricted interstellar expansion, of merchant adventurers, and of merchant princes like the colorful Nicholas van Rijn. The early stories set in this period glorify it somewhat, but the tone of the story "Lodestar" (***) (still later expanded to the novel "Mirkheim"), which closes this period out, is one of disillusionment. And there is the time of galactic empire. The numerous Dominic Flandry novels come at the end of this period, when the empire is corrupt, tired, and on the verge of collapse. Flandry himself is a cynical agent working to postpone that collapse just a few more years. "The Rebel Worlds" (***) is one of the better Flandry books -- not least for its tri-species composite aliens. It's a large history and a large vision, but the novels and stories that compose it are often unimpressive.

As I said, Poul Anderson's writing doesn't lend itself easily to characterization. There is no 'typical' Anderson story or novel, just honest writing that is often good and occasionally very good.

%A Anderson, Poul
%T The High Crusade
%T Operation Chaos
%T Tau Zero
%T Earthman's Burden
%O coauthored with Gordon R. Dickson
%T Brain Wave


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Dani Zweig