Visions of Paradise

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Three novellas

I have been reading some Poul Anderson novellas lately, enjoying his particular brand of historical development and storytelling. The first story “The Big Rain,” was in an old anthology Farewell Fantastic Venus, edited by Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison, a tribute to the pre-Mariner spacecraft which forever destroyed the traditional, romantic vision of the planet. It is also in a recent Anderson collection To Outlive Eternity, which also contains two excellent short novels “The Day After Doomsday” and “To Outlive Eternity,” the original version of Anderson’s best novel Tau Zero.

“The Big Rain” is the story of the colonization of Venus. Anderson views the planet as a desert world, devoid of water and the ability to sustain agriculture. The planetary government is totalitarian, with most colonists having few, if any, civil rights. The title refers to a long-range plan to terraform Venus, a plan which will take several hundred years, and for which the current colonists are struggling to achieve for the sake of their grandchildren.

The Venusian colonists are in a struggle with Earth to maintain their independence from the homeworld, a struggle which they seem destined to win since Earth is not willing to expend the money necessary to send a fleet to distant Venus to retain control over it. So why is the Venusian government so totalitarian? The main character of “The Big Rain” is an Earth spy, studying the government and determined to overthrow it somehow. This story was written in the mid-1950s, so neither the characters nor the milieu are as well-developed as they might have been in later Anderson. There was a bit too much emphasis on the plot rather than on the world and its people, but overall it was interesting reading.

Jumping ahead to very late Anderson is “The Bog Sword,” which appeared in Harry Turtledove & Noreen Shaw’s anthology First Heroes, stories devoted to adventures in the Bronze Age (a period which varied worldwide, but was generally set between 2,000-500 B.C.). This story was published after Anderson’s death, so it was written nearly five decades after “The Big Rain” and represents a lifetime of writing growth. Two of science fiction’s core foundations are historical development and societal change, and “The Bog Sword” represents both of them well, since it is set in a Bronze Age Scandinavian society which is having its first encounter with Celtic invaders wielding iron swords. The protagonists are relatively peaceful people, while the Celts are relatively hostile, a true historical reflection as the iron-wielding Celts ravaged much of Europe before being stopped by the Germans and, ultimately, the Romans.

“The Bog Sword” is a tale of conflict between the old and the new. Its characterization is far beyond that of “The Big Rain,” and its historical setting is much more fully-developed. It has enticed me to read more latter-day Anderson as well as more of First Heroes.

I also read “The Funeral March of the Marionettes,” by Adam-Troy Castro, an acclaimed novella in July 1997 F&SF which reminded me of Michael Bishop’s classic story “Death and Designation Among the Asadi.” It is anthropological sf about a bizarre race of aliens who resemble giant bowling balls with dozens of flexible tentacles who gather in the thousands each year to commence a long, graceful group dance which only ends when each participant dies from exhaustion. Watching the annual spectacle are dozens of anthropologists and linguists, and one year as they are watching they see a human girl has joined the dance.

The story is concerned with the protagonist’s attempt to save the girl from death in the funeral dance, as well as his attempts to understand both why she should would willingly die for the dance as well as why the Vlhan do their deathly dance at all. The story successfully combines anthropological exploration with an exciting plot, and overall was a great novella which should be a classic for many years to come.


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