Friday, May 2, 2008

Thoughts on Poul Anderson

Baen Books has done some fine work bringing older science fiction back into print, often for the first time in decades. This, however, is by the far coolest thing they’ve done- no, the coolest thing any human being who isn’t Poul Anderson has ever done. Baen Books will be releasing a collection of Poul Anderson’s Technic History stories this September. It’s apparently called The Van Rijn Method: The Technic Civilization Saga #1. also has a listing for David Falkayn: Star Trader: The Technic Civilization Saga #2, slated for release in January 2009. Both books are listed as around 600 pages, which is nice. Hopefully we’ll eventually get the complete Technic History stories.

Note that this post has some spoilers, if the widely known general themes of stories written decades ago count.

The dearth of Poul Anderson books in stores, and his relative obscurity compared to many other writers, is one of the greatest injustices of the science fiction genre. I was thrilled when Baen released their previous Anderson collections, Time Patrol and To Outlive Eternity, and I’m even more thrilled to see that they apparently sold well enough to bring this about. I compiled my collection of his books from my local used bookstores and various online sellers, but most people aren’t blessed with my obsessive nature and abundant spare time, and a young kid who’s curious about science fiction isn’t going to stumble on an old copy of Agent of the Terran Empire at the local Barnes and Noble. If there’s a young science fiction fan or potential science fiction fan in your life, you could do a lot worse than getting him this.

Anderson is an interesting choice for Baen, whose editors have explicitly said they want to bring adventurous, upbeat stories to the forefront of science fiction. Anderson’s Technic History stories certainly have plenty of adventure and excitement; no can say they’re boring. On the other hand, while Anderson doesn’t wallow in despair or nihilism, there’s a deep sense of melancholy that pervades much of his work, and the Technic History is a prime example of that- most obviously in the Dominic Flandry and Long Night-era stories, but in some of the van Rijn-era stories too, though the latter are usually cheerier since most of them take place in Technic Civilization’s vigorous youth, before the rot takes hold. There’s action and adventure and excitement, but there’s also the deep sorrow of a universe where human civilizations rise, fall, and shatter to pieces in a cruel cycle that Anderson’s heroes, for all their courage and ingenuity, cannot stop. You can fight as hard as you can- indeed, you should fight as hard as you can- but human civilization will continue to fall towards Ragnarok, and whatever hope you can have is not for yourself but for whatever manages to grow from the ashes.

Now, this is one of the many things I like about Anderson. If you had to describe my personality, “gloomy Germanic fatalism” is a pretty good start. It is by no means necessary to have that sort of temperament to enjoy Poul Anderson, but it doesn’t hurt. However, I am a bit surprised by Baen’s choice of material here, in light of Baen’s stated goal of bringing more optimism back to science fiction. Then again, they publish David Drake, not the jolliest of authors, so perhaps it’s not so odd. It should be said that while life in Anderson’s universe is often sad and tragic, it is not pointless.

I should stress that if I’ve made Anderson sound relentlessly dreary, that wasn’t my intent. He’s not- he’ a huge amount of fun as well. If you like science fiction and you haven’t read Anderson, do yourself a favor and check him out. You’ll probably want to use or the like, because he’s terribly underrepresented in stores. And if there’s a budding young geek you know who would benefit from exposure to the classics, get him one of the collections when it comes out. He’ll thank you for it. Or possibly just laugh at you behind your back for being an out-of-it old weirdo. Either way, the kid will be entertained.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

No comments: