Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Poul Anderson

So over the last 2-1/2 years or so, I've been consciously working my way back through my literary history -- the formative material that helped make me who I am today, if that's not laying too much blame on a bunch of innocent writers. (Heh. He said "innocent writers.") This isn't just the list of writers I think are brilliant today -- it's also the writers I read when I was a kid -- a real kid, 6, 7 -- Gertrude Crampton, author of Scuffy the Tugboat, got a read. (The only stuffed animals I ever had were a realistic german shepherd, and a little fuzzy red dog with button eyes and a round cloth nose -- the little red dog was "Scuffy" and the german shepherd was "Tugboat.")

I'm pretty near done. The last thing I really felt a need to revisit was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which is as brilliant as I remember.

Starting with Poul Anderson -- just because I finished A Stone in Heaven quite recently. I'm not going to do this in alphabetic order.

I re-read the Technic series (van Rijn, Falkayn, and Flandry) -- the core of Anderson's work. I also re-read Tau Zero, Brain Wave, and Guardians of Time.

Anderson won seven Nebulas, three Hugos, and was a SFWA Grand Master -- it's hard to say he was underrated, but I think he was. People talking of the Golden Age pop off with Asimov, Clark, Heinlein -- the "Big Three" Asimov was so fond of mentioning -- and if they get by that, you get talk of Ellison, or Niven, or Bradbury, or Herbert ...

You can't find his books in bookstores any longer. I've looked. At most there's one volume, maybe 2 ... usually not any. Whereas pretty consistently you will find works by the other authors I've just mentioned.

I read Anderson's wikipedia entry before writing this. It's a wierd entry -- accurate so far as it goes (so far as I can tell), but almost completely ignoring Anderson's core work, the Polesotechnic/Terran Empire series. The series begins with a set of stories about Nicholas van Rijn, an adventuring robber baron -- a fat, lying, cheating, drunken womanizer -- but a tough guy at the core, and one of Anderson's two genuinely great characters. (Character is all fiction is. People demonstrating who they are, by how they respond to their troubles. The storytelling part is figuring out interesting troubles.) This follows up with a series of works about David Falkayn, nobleman and younger brother of the House of Falkayn -- I admit, he never did much for me. The series reaches its high point (and it's a hell of a high point) and its conclusion with Dominic Flandry, agent of the Terran Empire.

The novels follow a generally Roman cycle -- the growth of the young, vigorous Technic civilization, its retrenchment as the powerful Terran Empire .. and the Empire's slow decline and eventual fall, resulting in "The Long Night." Flandry of Terra is a spy, a womanizer, a liar, a murderer -- he resembles James Bond a great deal -- and precedes Bond. Anderson was there first -- and any producers out there looking for a great series, tv or theatrical, you're missing a bet on Flandry, let me tell you.

Flandry is superior to Bond -- not in the writing, so much; Fleming was a first-rate writer -- but in conception. Flandry is born into the later ages of the Terran Empire, when he and all sensible people can see the Empire is on the verge of falling: and Flandry spends his entire life, fighting inch by inch to hold off the Fall of Night. He justifies his crimes by his results -- another decade, two decades, four decades, another billion man-years of life for the inhabitants of his little corner of the galaxy, before the barbarians come howling in from the outer darkness and end it all. He's fun, he's funny, he's tragic, and he never quits. Most writers spend their whole careers and never come up with a character one tenth as memorable.

I'd sure love to see a republication of the entire Technic series, in internal chronological order. (The tone would be a bit jarring -- the stories weren't written in anything like chronological order, and Anderson varied from merely good to great over the course of the series -- I don't care, I'd pay for it.) It'd sell, I'm sure -- someone out there is missing a bet on this one, too.

Outside the Technic series I re-read Tau Zero and Brain Wave and the Guardians of Time. The first two are what publishers like to call tours de force -- stories that grab you by the short and curlies and haul you straight through. Tau Zero follows a ship that's lost the ability to turn the engines off, as it accelerates closer and closer to the speed of light -- and the universe begins to age around them. Brain Wave takes the entire population of the Earth and multiplies everyone's intelligence (including that of the animals) by a factor of 3 or 4 ... and follows the story to its inevitable conclusion. No one who's ever read Brain Wave has ever forgotten it, I assure you.

And finally, Guardians of Time will have to stand in for all the time travel stories Poul Anderson wrote. He did it as well as anyone ever has, and better than almost anyone -- "Delenda Est," the last story in Guardians of Time, is a classic time travel story from the master: a man charged with protecting the course of human history, finds himself in a new timeline -- a timeline with good, decent people, every bit as worthy as those in the timeline that produced him: and, to fulfill his duty, has to destroy them to restore his original timeline. It's wrenching and a core example of Anderson's ability to couch huge themes in starkly personal terms.

With every writer I'm going to pick the 4 (or fewer) core novels you should read if you read nothing else by that writer. (It's a random number, just some attempt to impose rigor on the recommendations.) For Anderson it's Brain Wave, Ensign Flandry, A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows, and A Stone in Heaven.


Maureen said...

I think everybody acknowledges that Anderson's great -- if they've ever been able to get ahold of the bloody books. Also, you do have to be in the right mood for the book in question. I've bounced off stuff one day that seemed like the best stuff ever on the next.

For my money, though, Van Rijn is head and shoulders better than Flandry. I get tired of Flandry. He lives in a cool universe and wastes the reader's time complaining about it. (Yes, I get the Byzantine parallels, but honestly, _they_ didn't mope about like that.)

The really nice thing was that Anderson became a vastly better writer in his last ten years. This is a very happy and encouraging thing.

Also, he wrote Noh plays.

james-nicoll said...

Three of your four are from one series. I'd keep Knight and Brainwave but substitute Three Hearts and Three Lions (To represent his fantasy) and Homeward and Beyond (to represent his many, many short stories.

Sean Fagan said...

I wonder if NESFA is planning on doing anything with Anderson. I don't know anyone from there -- James, you're reading here (which I didn't know), do you? I could also, I suppose, ask Dorothy if she could ping the family about reprints.

sraun said...

I think Baen is doing at least some reprinting - lists Van Rijn Method as coming in September, and issued To Outlive Eternity last year and Time Patrol the year before.

Dan Moran said...

Maureen, fair enough -- different tastes. I wanted to be Flandry when I was young; I never wanted to be van Rijn. (Don't now, for that matter.) And his occasional downbeat moments never struck me as moping, but YMMV.

I haven't read much of his later work, I admit. I remember reading "The Avatar," but don't recall much about it -- and that was published in 1978. I read Genesis, one of his last novels, pub 2000 -- and remember literally nothing about it. Entirely possible I missed some great stuff in there.

James-Nicoll -- I won't argue lists. All I'm trying to do is give someone an entry point to Anderson's work that I'm personally willing to vouch for.

Joshua Kronengold said...

I won't argue lists, but I, personally, would have to force A Midsummer Night's Tempest in there somewhere...because it's brilliant, in a way completely unlike most of the rest of his work.

Which, I suppose, is also a reason to leave it out...but I couldn't do that. I love that book too much.

Anonymous said...

Eric Flint is of the opinion (in his notes in the collection "The World Turned Upside Down") that Anderson's recognition isn't as great as it should be because he did everything well, but never did "any one thing better than anyone else". Where Heinlein (for example) had high-impact novels like "Starship Troopers" or "Stranger in a Strange Land", Anderson did not.

james-nicoll said...

I know people at NESFa but not much about who is planning to produce what book.

I know I got paid to read some Flandry novels in 2002 or thereabout but I believe the SFBC republications that resulted sold through and are now out of print.

The problem -- the problems with producting an Intro Poul list are that he wrote so much stuff of so many kinds that it's hard to pick a small representative sample and I think Flint (and also John Clute, which probably the only time those two will appear in the same sentence is right that Anderson never had his great novel.

Steve Perry said...

When people used to give me grief about writing a fw Conan novels, I pointed out that Poul Anderson had written one, after which they'd shut up.

Man was a good wordslinger.

And one of the funniest ever stories in SF came from his daughter, Astrid. She was taking a science fiction class and there was a quiz question: Why did Robert A. Heinlein write Stranger in a Strange Land?

She answered "For the money."

Teacher marked it wrong, she went up to see him.
"Why did you mark this wrong?"

Teacher laughed. "Why did you answer it that way?"

She said, "Because he was at my house talking to my dad and I asked him why he wrote it and that's what he said ..."

james-nicoll said...

I stopped reflexively buying Anderson after The Avatar but even so, I have about seventy of his books upstairs. I suspect he's the single most prolific author whose books I own.

For Love and Glory wasn't a bad book to go out on, as I recall. It wasn't as bitter and disappointed as his (I'm picking this out of the air) post-There Will Be Time books.

SF said...

My impression from the latest Locus is that Van Rijn Method is the first volume of a reprinting of the entire Van Rijn stories.

I set out to read both the Van Rijn and Flandry books about five years back, got sidetracked, and only this month realized I still have the next four or five setting around on my shelves waiting to be read...

james-nicoll said...

[...] Van Rijn Method is the first volume of a reprinting of the entire Van Rijn stories.

Do you know which versions of those stories? As I recall, at least one of them (War of the Wingmen/The Man Who Counts) was heavily cut in the first edition.

james-nicoll said...

I finally thought to look at the NESFA website and they do have a Poul Anderson planned: