Since enjoying re-reading The Corridors of Time so much I’ve decided to pick up old Poul Anderson when I see it and read it again. I’ve read it all at least once, it’s just that most of it I’ve never owned because I read it from the library when I was twelve. The only ones I own are the ones that were in print in British paperback and the ones I really love and which I made an effort to get hold of. I picked up an old Ace edition of World Without Stars (1966) at Readercon last weekend and I just read it while eating my breakfast and drinking a pot of Oolong. What could possibly be nicer?
It’s a short novel originally serialised in Analog as “The Ancient Gods,” and this edition is 125 pages. It wouldn’t be better for being longer, it’s a beautifully crafted thing at this length and the power of it would have been eroded had it been longer. The thing that Poul Anderson did better than anyone else ever was to write something that could only possibly be science fiction but which was at the same time mythic, the kind of thing that resonates on all kinds of levels. This is a very poetic novel and written when Anderson was absolutely at the top of his game.
That’s not to say there’s nothing wrong with it. The top level of World Without Stars is a clunky adventure story which is absolutely predictable. I’m sure John W. Campbell loved it — some spacemen get shipwrecked on a planet out where the galaxy is a distant celestial object and overcome aliens and escape. I can still enjoy this plot, at least for the couple of hours that’s all it takes to read it. It was published the same year as Babel 17, but it feels a generation older. This is really old fashioned SF with all the virtues and flaws of that.
Okay, spoilers, but keep reading anyway.
I remembered that I’d read this book and that it was a shipwreck adventure story. But the second I saw the name “Mary O’Meara” I remembered the entire mythic thing, which had been in the back of my head since I first read the book when I was twelve.
Anderson sets up the universe really well in very few words right at the beginning. There’s an antithanatic drug which people take at adulthood and thereafter live forever unless killed. None of the things that kill people now will kill them except massive trauma — you can drown them or shoot them with lasers or crush them under broken spaceships, but otherwise they’ll live pretty much forever. They have slow FTL, but that’s okay, you can take years on a voyage, it’s not like you’re losing anything. The only problem with this longevity is the need to edit trivia out of your memory before it gets too full for you to remember anything new.
Mankind has spread out to colonize the galaxy, or at least a fair chunk of it, meeting lots of aliens. It’s an Andersonian universe full of individualists — the galaxy is too big for governments, except locally. Women exist, but for unexamined reasons they don’t sign on for exploration voyages, they seem to live on planets and spacestations and have sex and children. Sexual customs include being married to several people at once, those people all being long distance and seldom home at the same time. Multi-partner sex, or at least two men with one woman, is normal, and normally initiated by the woman, for a man to decline is unusual verging on impolite. Monogamy and celibacy are tolerated kinks. Homosexuality is mentioned, once, but seems to be rare, though there might be lots of it offstage. Childraising is done by the women, with the men likely to be away for the entire period of a child’s childhood — what’s twenty years, after all, when you’ve lived for several hundred years and will live for several more? What it is to the mother isn’t explored, though it would be fascinating to see. There’s a whole hidden half of this universe where people could write a ton of novels I’d love to read. Anderson wrote good female characters elsewhere, but nothing at all here.
As for people of colour — look, an alien! But when he talks about the European conquest of the Americas, in the context of the nomadic aliens needing to band together to resist the farming aliens, blond heroic Valland says that by helping the nomadic aliens he can pay some of the blood guilt of that conquest. I wonder if that line got into Analog?
So there’s all this background, which is given in as few words as possible but which feels solid and well thought through. And it’s all absolutely essential to make both the adventure plot and the emotional arc of the novel work. Our narrator, Argens, and our hero, Valland, and some other guys set off to visit some aliens beyond the galaxy. One of the guys, Rorn, has had a failure with the memory deleting machine and isn’t a fully integrated man, and this makes him vulnerable to the bad aliens they find on the planet they crash into. One of the other guys is only thirty, and he gets killed in the crash and says, dying, how unfair it is that he’s had so few years when the others have had so many.
Valland is the hero, and we only see him from outside. Argens is an everyman space captain, competent enough but no more — if it had been up to him they’d all have died and he knows it. He’s the one telling us the story in first person, and it’s through him that we see Valland. Valland is a musician and a poet and a lover, he can soothe a child’s nightmare, comfort the dying, rebuild a spaceship, defeat a whole planet of telepathic aliens, organize a resistance movement among nomadic aliens, and love one woman for three thousand years. He’s a larger than life figure from an epic, and Anderson is wise to give us him at this little distance.
Argens is happily married to a pile of women in different places who he sees when he happens to be nearby. Valland, who is three thousand years old, has just one girl, Mary O’Meara, on Earth. He sings about her and talks about her, he says his travel keeps their relationship fresh, he’s always coming and going. His determination to get back to her is what drives him to save everyone. But Mary O’Meara is dead, and he has edited this memory, and he keeps doing this, when he gets to Earth he visits her grave, and when he leaves he’ll edit the death out again and keep coming back in this endless cycle. She’s always waiting for him and always ahead of him, he can never reach her.
On the one hand, Mary O’Meara is the ultimate refrigerator woman — she’s dead throughout the story and her death propels Valland. On the other hand, it’s Orpheus and Euridice and Orpheus’s refusal to admit Euridice is dead and not coming back, but in absolutely science fictional terms. (Anderson did SF Orpheus and Euridice elsewhere, memorably in the novella “Goat Song.” It must have had a lot of resonance for him.) It’s the mythic resonance that it gives this story that makes it work as an emotional arc, not just when I was twelve but even now. The end, even though I remembered it, brought tears to my eyes.
Now when I was twelve I might have been a little bit in love with Valland. But I also wanted to be tragic romantic Valland, never poor dead Mary O’Meara. And now — well, I really admire how Anderson created this whole SF universe, which I don’t think he ever revisited, to set this mythic story in it. He laid it all out and twisted it up with a ballad and an adventure story and really made it work.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning and Hugo nominated Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.