Visions of Paradise

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Poul Anderson

Ever since life evolved on Earth our planet has been within range of a vast galactic cloud which has inhibited the development of intelligence. Recently Earth has begun moving out of the cloud's influence. The effect on life has been startling and immediate. Animals are developing rudimentary intelligence. Retarded people are becoming normal, while normal people are becoming geniuses.

This was the plot of Poul Anderson's 1953 novel Brain Wave. Following the initial premise, the novel examined in great detail what effects such increased intelligence would have on culture, religion, and society as a whole. In one of the best scenes a ten-year old schoolboy playing with algebraic equations begins developing differential calculus in much the same way it was originally developed by such mathematical giants as Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz.

If there was a prototypical science fiction writer of the post-Golden Age era it was Poul Anderson. He was a student at the University of Minnesota, majoring in physics, when he published his first story "Tomorrow's Children." After graduating he published a few more stories each year until 1953. That was the breakthrough year for Anderson. Besides the classic Brain Wave, he published 19 pieces of short fiction and two other novels. Demonstrating his mastery of all aspects of the science fiction genre, one of the novels was a highly-regarded alternate world fantasy Three Hearts and Three Lions.

During the next forty+ years, Anderson published hundreds of science fiction stories and dozens of novels. Refusing to be typed, he tackled virtually everything the genre had to offer: action/adventure, "hard" science, space opera, problem-solving stories, farce, sociological and political science fiction, heroic fantasy, high fantasy, and undoubtedly a few I've left out.

Among science fiction writers and afficionados Anderson was regarded as one of the most highly-regarded authors in the field. He won seven Hugo Awards and three Nebula Awards. In keeping with his overall output his award-winning stories ran the gamut of science fiction: "The Longest Voyage" is a melding of medieval saga and science fiction; "Goat Song" is a retelling of the Orpheus legend; "Saturn Game" is pure science fiction form used to study the basis of mythology; "The Sharing of Flesh" has a shocking beginning which then evolves into a classic problem-solving story.

Influenced by such writers as Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, as well as by his interest in history and Scandinavian culture, Anderson developed his own "future history" which was the setting for many of his novels. His future fell into several distinct eras. First comes the Polesotechnic League, a loose alliance of merchants based on the Renaissance-era Hanseatic League. After its collapse comes the Terran Empire, a future version of the Roman Empire. As representatives of these eras, Anderson created two memorable characters: Nicholas van Rijn, a colorful Renaissance merchant, and Dominick Flandry, an aloof military man.

Perhaps Anderson's best novel was Tau Zero, the story of a long distance spaceship which experiences mechanical difficulties and is unable to stop its acceleration. As the ship's speed approaches the speed of light external time passes faster and faster. This has the effect of sending the ship far into the future.

The main focus of the novel is the attempts to slow the ship, but that problem generates others. The passengers witness the universe rapidly deteriorating around them. How can they deal with the realization that their entire civilization is lost to them? Can they cope with the fear and trauma of knowing they can never return home? And can the captain possibly prevent a total breakdown of his small ship society?

Tau Zero is typical Anderson in that the "hard" science fiction is the basis for sociological and humanistic concerns. It is a novel that combines scientific creativity, sense of wonder, human interest and philosophical speculation. It is plotted very carefully, the tension building steadily until reaching a logical, although not predictable ending.

Anderson's immense popularity in the science fiction community did not translate into a corresponding popularity with the reading public. There are two possible reasons for this. One is that his stories fall into so many different series (of which the Polesotechnic League and Terran Empire are but two of nearly half a dozen) that it is hard for the casual reader to keep track of all the cross-references in his novels.

A more likely explanation is that Anderson's breadth of vision was as much a commercial weakness as it was a critical strength. Casual readers like to know what they are buying. All Isaac Asimov novels are of the same general type. So are all Robert A. Heinlein novels, all Arthur C. Clarke novels, and the novels of most popular novelists, science fiction and otherwise. Poul Anderson novels were so varied that a reader of "hard" science fiction might dislike The High Crusade while a fan of Nordic fantasy might reject The Byworlder. Anderson would probably have been better off commercially if he stuck to one of his many different voices. Of course, those who enjoy breadth and scope would then have been denied a full appreciation of the wide talents of Poul Anderson. And the general reading public's loss was our pleasant gain.


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