Visions of Paradise

Saturday, January 12, 2008

To Outlive Eternity, part 1

The collection To Outlive Eternity contains a handful of novellas and novelettes by one of science fiction’s finest storytellers, Poul Anderson. I started reading the book with the title novella “To Outlive Eternity,” which was a two-part serial in Galaxy in the late 1960s. I have not read the story since then, but I recall it as being my favorite Poul Anderson story. Its novel expansion Tau Zero was my favorite Anderson novel as well, so I was anxious to reread the original novella after a gap of 40 years.

The story is a scientific puzzle combined with a psychological thriller, the story of a colonizing spaceship which unavoidably passes through an area of galactic dust which damages it in such a way that it cannot decelerate. Ultimately, instead of reaching its destination world in two subjective years (which are hundreds of objective years since the ship is traveling at close to the speed of light so that its onboard time frame stretches relative to the outside universe) it must seek a location outside the local family of galaxies where the ship’s acceleration could be turned off and repairs made. This leads to the ship traveling so close to the speed of light that millennia pass in the length of an eyeblink.

The ship contains 50 crewmembers and scientists and deals primarily with the psychological trauma of first not knowing if they will ever be able to leave the ship, and secondly watching the entire history of the universe speeding by them. The story is told from the point of view of Reymond, the ship’s constable in charge of maintaining order. As others around him suffer the strains of the stress and possibly futile future, he undertakes the task of not only keeping order onboard, but also keeping everybody else as sane as possible.

Some of the scientific theory in the story eluded my non-scientific grasp, but that was my only complaint with this gripping character study. The story was fairly compressed, as several years pass onboard in 80 pages, which almost cries out for novel expansion. Perhaps I’ll go back and reread Tau Zero as well. This novella was that good.

I’ll discuss the rest of To Outlive Eternity as soon as I finish reading it.


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