Paul Di Filippo reviews Poul Anderson

Question and Answer: The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson: Volume 7, by Poul Anderson (NESFA 978-1-61037-313-5, 550pp, hardcover, $32), February 2017

The meticulous, creative and hardworking editors at NESFA who assembled this seventh installment of Anderson’s stories, Rick Katze and Mike Kerpan, have selected tales that saw print from 1951 through 1967. Obviously, this series has not been merely reprinting Anderson’s work in chronological order, or we would have been well towards the latter part of his career by volume seven. Instead, these books have mixed up work from all periods of his career in each outing. I appreciate the straightforward chronological reprinting from a scholarly standpoint–see The Collected Stories of Theodore Sturgeon–since it allows one to chart the development of a writer better. But this scattershot criterion is definitely more appealing to the average reader, who appreciates variety and a deep tranche through the author’s canon.

In any case, the date range is almost identical to that of the selections in The Best of Gordon R. Dickson: Volume 1 that I reviewed earlier this month. This coincidence facilitates my stated goal of trying to recall and honor the collaborative efforts of Dickson and Anderson on the basis of their solo work, as a kind of ghostly subtext to thinking about each man individually.

And right up front, I believe we can make an important distinction along these lines. Poul Anderson was simply the better and more influential and consequential writer of the pair: sentence by sentence and story by story–a consensus reflected in Anderson’s Grand Master award, an honor Dickson was never to receive. It’s interesting to speculate, on a purely human level, how this fact might have contoured the relationship between the friends. At worst, such an inequality often results in a bitter competitive scenario like that in Ellison’s “All the Lies That Are My Life.” Luckily, there was never any evidence of that in the Dickson-Anderson ménage.

We enter the volume via a short, somewhat elegiac introduction from editor Katze, in which he reveals that this collection is the concluding one in the series, having amassed in toto some 1.75 million words. Bravo, indeed! Also, he reveals that only one story, “In the Shadow,” is an unallied singleton, with the others fitting into Anderson’s various future histories. Following this comes a tender and wistful mini-memoir by artist Vincent Di Fate about his long professional relationship with Anderson.

From here we dive into “Question and Answer.” Immediately the deep backstory and multiplex set of themes and tropes reveals that Anderson was seldom content with a simplistic tale. The human-occupied Solar System–a whole “seven billion people!”–is stymied from using their new warp drive to populate the galaxy because of a lack of habitable planets. “The starward wish was dying.” When one good world, Troas, is discovered, hopes flare. But the disappearance of the first expedition casts a cloud over the second voyage. Our man Lorenzen finds he has to contend not only with the rigors of the cosmos and some native sophonts, but also treachery on the ship and back on Earth. Anderson offers a rousingly physical adventure while probing into the tenets of psychosocial governance as well. And all the characters pop off the page.

Next up is “Tiger by the Tail,” a segment from the life of the famous Dominic Flandry, secret agent for a decadent Empire that is staving off the Long Night of barbarism by any means possible. Flandry’s exploits are always presented as cosmopolitan, pseudo-Bondian romps with a razor-edge subtext of imminent chaos and destruction. In this venture, Flandry himself is kidnapped by barbarian Star Vandals. Enlisted to turn traitor, he instead manages to so thoroughly discombobulate the shoddy systems of the Star Goths that they defeat themselves.

In “The Big Rain,” Hollister is an “un-man,” a kind of low-key van Vogtian ubermensch. Infiltrated into the hellworld of Venus to learn what that planet’s dictatorial rulers intend, he is forced to engineer a revolt that is complicated by a factor even an un-man could not anticipate: falling in love with a local woman. Anderson’s portrait of life on a world where the atmosphere is equivalent to embalming fluid has all the sensory depth he was famous for.

Flandry returns for a brief visit in “Warriors from Nowhere,” which finds him tasked with rescuing a kidnapped Princess Megan, with the help of his green manservant named Chives. Well, no one said Anderson was always subtle or restrained.

A classic narrative move to engender conflict and introspection is to have one’s protagonist abruptly exiled from his cushy social berth and introduced into a lower class, where he learns the truth of society. Call it the “Sullivan’s Travels” maneuver, after the Sturges film. Anderson dives right into this trope from page one of “The Troublemakers,” as we witness our idealistic hero, Evan Friday, officer-grade member of the generation-starship Pioneer, booted to crewman’s rank. He quickly and bruisingly learns all about the dystopic nature of the ship, and lives through a mutiny–only to discover that the secret pattern behind events is not what he deduced.

“To Outlive Eternity” is the 1967 novella from Galaxy magazine which was later expanded into one of Anderson’s best and most well-regarded novels, Tau Zero. The story of a spaceship that cannot slow down and thus experiences cosmological wonders works just as well at this length. Anderson’s tightrope walk between Ship of Fools-style human drama and relativistic info-dumps and Stapledonian perspectives is something to marvel at.

Flandry makes his third appearance in “A Message in Secret.” On the world of Altai, which features a kind of Mongol-derived culture, Flandry has to thwart offworld rivals to the Empire’s interests. The McGuffin of the secret message is almost subsidiary to Anderson’s interest in culture-building and world-building, and Flandry’s suave and sometimes sexy heroics. “In the Shadow” finds a spaceship making a scientific expedition to an anomaly that is travelling through the Solar System. Expecting to find a moving neutron star, they instead encounter a “shadow sun,” and all its attendant mysteries. This tale of what today we would call “dark matter” seems prescient, yet eternal in the human realm that includes a lust for freedom and adventure.

Falkayn, Chee Lan and Adzel: to readers of my generation, those names were once as recognizable and revered as those of the Three Musketeers. (At this juncture, the reader is advised to admire the Frank Kelly Freas cover to the special Anderson issue of F&SF, with an alluring Chee Lan in the lower corner.) Part of the Polesotechnic League series, these three–a human, a sexy cat woman and a cultured dragon-oid–were the essence of sophisticated space opera. In “Trader Team” (aka “The Trouble Twisters”), the trio becomes embroiled in local politics and matters of social justice while still seeking to turn a profit. The young hot enthusiasm of their era is subsequently contrasted with Flandry’s fin de siècle desperation and cunning in “Honorable Enemies,” which introduces Flandry’s nemesis, Aycharaych of Merseia, and their deadly cat-and-mouse game-playing.

“Outpost of Empire” harks to its more-famous contemporary peer, Le Guin’s “The Word for World Is Forest,” with a shared examination of colonialism and the rights of the minority versus the majority. Additionally, the splitting-off of humans into almost different sub-species due to massive cultural differentiation–a prime Jack Vance riff–is also explored. Anderson’s friendship with Vance and any literary influences in either direction is a subject that has hardly been tapped.

Finally, “Hunters of the Sky Cave,” which had an earlier life as half of an Ace Double, We Claim These Stars, brings Flandry onto the stage once more, for a satisfying victory over Aycharaych, who laments: “I am beaten not by a superior brain or a higher justice, but by the brute fact that you are from a larger planet than I and thus have stronger muscles. It will not be easy to fit this into a harmonious reality.”

Emerging from this large and concentrated dose of Anderson, most readers, I think, will acknowledge that his mastery of science and its utilization as story elements was immense; his language, while at times a tad too purple, succeeded in evoking beautiful mental movies; his characters, both male and female, were equally larger than life yet utterly fallible at times; and his philosophy of existence pervaded his work. This credo is made explicit in “Outposts of Empire,” and is worth quoting at length, to illustrate Anderson’s notion that our kind, insignificant as we are, is yet capable of glory and grandeur, and must struggle against fate and an uncaring universe, even if we are ultimately doomed to go down into darkness.

Good God, he thought, if You do not exist—terrible God, if You do—here we are, Homo sapiens</>, children of Earth, creators of bonfires and flint axes and proton converters and gravity generators and faster-than-light space-ships, explorers and conquerors, dominators of an Empire which we ourselves founded, whose sphere is estimated to indude four million blazing suns… here we are, and what are we? What are four million stars, out on the fringe of one arm of the galaxy, among its hundred billion; and what is the one galaxy among so many?

Why, I shall tell you what we are and these are, John Ridenour. We are one more-or-less intelligent species in a universe that produces sophonts as casually as it produces snowflakes. We are not a hair better than our great, greenskinned, gatortailed Merseian rivals, not even considering that they have no hair; we are simply different in looks and language, similar in imperial appetites. The galaxy—what tiny part of it we can ever control—cares not one quantum whether their youthful greed and boldness overcome our wearied satiety and caution. (Which is a thought born of an aging civilization, by the way).

Our existing domain is already too big for us. We don’t comprehend it. We can’t. Never mind the estimated four million suns inside our borders. Think just of the approximately one hundred thousand whose planets we do visit, occupy, order about, accept tribute from. Can you visualize the number? A hundred thousand; no more; you could count that high in about seven hours. But can you conjure up before you, in your mind, a well with a hundred thousand bricks in it: and see all the bricks simultaneously?

Of course not. No human brain can go as high as ten.

Then consider a planet, a world, as big and diverse and old and mysterious as ever Terra was. Can you see the entire planet at once? Can you hope to understand the entire planet? Next consider a hundred thousand of them.

This challenge–comprehending the cosmos and our place in it– remains still, for us as for Anderson in his heyday. And thus his fiction continues to matter.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

3 thoughts on “Paul Di Filippo reviews Poul Anderson

  • April 26, 2017 at 4:19 pm

    It’s so great to see Anderson continue to receive the attention he deserves. Sometimes purple prose, yes; but also images so precise, so detailed, that they remain in memory for decades. The man could go for paragraphs describing the vastness and vacuum of space, and do it in a way that left you in awe, both at nature itself and the manner in which he described it.

  • November 1, 2022 at 5:22 pm

    “Outpost of Empire” is wretched. I gave up a quarter way in. When the protagonist has to note that he’s a pedant, and then observe that all around him are even more pedantic than he, in order to lampshade the endless pages of exposition, the author is phoning it in.


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