Visions of Paradise

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Earth Book of Stormgate

The biggest names in science fiction are not necessarily the most talented writers overall. Some writers are able to master a particular type of fiction so that their fans know what to expect from each of their books, so their popularity grows higher and higher with each publication. Examples include Anne McCaffrey, Terry Pratchett, and Frank Herbert in his later years (whose many fine non-Dune novels are mostly forgotten now).

Other writers tend to master so many different types of fiction that to some extent each book has a different audience than others, so their audience becomes splintered among fans of the various types. Often these are the most acclaimed writers inside science fiction, but they never achieve similar mass popularity to their peers or even to some slightly-lesser writers.

Poul Anderson is one of the quintessential examples of the latter type of writer. He has won numerous awards for his writing, but his books are scattered across the entire spectrum of f&sf: high fantasy, historical fantasy, hard science, and, my favorite type of his fiction, worldbuilding.

While I truly enjoyed some of Anderson’s other science fiction, such as Tau Zero and the Time Patrol series, my favorite of his stories tend to be his Polesotechnic League stories. Those stories combine his outstanding storytelling ability with his knack of creating truly alien races, both in physical characteristics and their cultures. Think of a faster-paced C.J. Cherryh and you have some idea what I mean.

The Earth Book of Stormgate was a large 1978 collection containing much of the Polesotechnic League short fiction, as well as perhaps its finest novel The Man Who Counts. The best stories, as well as the novel, feature Nicholas van Rijn, perhaps the most unlikely hero in sf, an aging, brash, insulting, overweight master trader in the Polesotechnic League who even when he is rallying his underlings to victory manages to alienate many of them.

On the surface, The Man Who Counts is a problem-solving novel as a group of traders, including van Rijn, are stranded on a world in the midst of a civil war. Since they cannot eat the native food, it is urgent that they be rescued before their own food runs out, but the natives are too pre-occupied with their war to bother seeking help for the humans.

But as is typical in many Poul Anderson stories, the plot itself is only the foundation for a multi-faceted story. The Man Who Counts is also a study of evolutionary diversity, a look at the causes of war as well as the difficulties of overcoming them, an examination of leadership roles (between van Rijn and his underling Wace), as well as true leadership versus fake leadership (in the persons of two aliens, one who is the hereditary ruler and the other who is the respected leader).

Perhaps the most impressive part of the novel though is the development of the alien race and its twin cultures. The novel’s original paperback title was War of the Wing-Men, which was a terrible title in the way it simplified and almost demeaned the splendid creation of the winged aliens and their well-thought out cultures.

The Man Who Counts is an award-worthy novel, and would have been worth the entire book if there were not several other equally-superb stories in it. My other favorite was “Day of Burning” (which was originally published in Analog as “Supernova”). This is another problem-solving story–how the heck can you get a bunch of independent rulers to work together to save their world from the effects of a supernova which has already burst?–but, as usual, the development of the alien culture is the true star of the story.

If you can find a copy of The Earth Book of Stormgate, you owe it to yourself to buy and read it. And if not, why the heck is somebody as good as Poul Anderson not in print anymore? (I know the economic reasons why, but that does not satisfy my sense of fair play).


  • Great review. Poul Anderson is a terribly underappreciated writer.

    By Blogger John Markley, At 5:45 PM  

  • My own favorite Anderson works tend to come from later in his career - the truly epic saga of immortal human beings through time and space, The Boat Of A Million Years, and Harvest Of Stars. The Avatar is a book that still gives me that sense of shifting to a larger, almost revelatory frame of reference that I used to get a lot easier when I was newer to SF.

    I haven't really dipped into his Polesotechnic League books yet, however, and going by your review it looks like that copy of The Earth Book Of Stormgate on my shelves might be just what I need to read next!

    By Blogger JP, At 9:39 PM  

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