Jul 24 2012 12:00pm
Myths of the Spaceways: Poul Anderson’s World Without Stars

World Without Stars Ace edition by Poul AndersonSince 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.

James Davis Nicoll
1. James Davis Nicoll
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.

As far I recall (and I only have seventy or eighty of his books) he never re-used this specific universe but his For Love and Glory is reminiscent of it in many ways.

I thought the FTL was pretty fast. After all an infragalactic mission is not out of the question and even if the humans are immortal, their consumables would be finite. I thought the issue was the scale of the Milky Way, far too vast for any single person to master.

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?

It might seem Astounding if it did but in fact when I was listening to X Minus One, an old radio show many of whose episodes were drawn from Astounding, a number of the stories appeared to be thinly veiled critiques of what was done to the New World natives.

Anderson wrote good female characters elsewhere, but nothing at all here.

At this stage of the game, he was more into female characters as rewards for the male protagonist (although the women in After Doomsday would be an exception).
James Davis Nicoll
2. James Davis Nicoll
Yeah, this is going to be another one of those Tor entries with six posts in a row by me, isn't it? POST FASTER, PEOPLE.

Anderson had a bunch of settings that he used once and tossed, setting that could be inspirational for other authors but so far have not been. The asteroid belt of his The Makeshift Rocket, balkanized and populated by amusing wackaloons (1), comes to mind.

1: Although I wonder if he read Williamson's Seetee books and wondered what it would be like if he used elements of it in a comedy.
Beth Friedman
3. carbonel
IIRC, he uses the same term -- anti-agathics -- in this book that he does in the Spindizzy books. Which might mean they're in the same universe, though if so, separated both in space and time.

Or it just might be that, having found a word he likes, he keeps using it. Like "ansible," which is in dictionaries by now, even though the technology doesn't exist.
James Davis Nicoll
4. James Davis Nicoll
Um. I think if you check you will find the Spindizzy books were written by James Blish.

(although if it wasn't for the facts that Blish's self-admitted fascism, which I use in the technical sense, shows up in his fiction and that much of Blish's output was far worse than Anderson's worst (Yes, Carlos, even worse than the Pugilist) I would be amused to discover Blish was just another pen name for Anderson)
Mike Scott
5. drplokta
@carbonel: The spindizzy books are by James Blish, not Poul Anderson.
Pamela Adams
6. Pam Adams
James- Sorry- I had to answer my email.

I'm vaguely recalling this one- that golden age of 12 is becoming dimmer and dimmer for some reason. You reviewed Corridors and I found a copy of Midsummer Tempest while moving. Clearly time for an early Anderson re-read.
Pamela Adams
7. Pam Adams
a number of the stories appeared to be thinly veiled critiques of what was done to the New World natives.

Wasn't there a Randall Garrett story like that- the alien conquest turned out to be Pisarro?
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Blish uses "antiagathics" in the Cities in Flight books, but Anderson uses the correct "antithanatics" here. ("Thanatos" is Greek for death. "Agathon" is Greek for "Good".)
James Davis Nicoll
9. James Davis Nicoll
"Despoilers of the Golden Empire", published under the pen name David Gordon.


That was more of a joke. The ones I am thinking of, like "Martian Death March", took a more critical view of the Indian Wars (although "Martian Death March" is from Galaxy).
James Davis Nicoll
10. NelC
I remember this from my teens, though I didn't recall the title. Somehow I didn't get that Valland had edited out Mary's death. I thought he'd just kept all his memories of her, including her death, for three thousand years when others would have blunted the trauma by trimming their memory and eventually would have edited her completely away. But that might be my own memory deteriorating.
James Davis Nicoll
11. CarlosSkullsplitter
James, Blish loved the modernists, especially Ezra Pound. Anderson couldn't stand them. Robinson Jeffers and a glass of lithium was more his speed.
James Davis Nicoll
12. James Davis Nicoll
That would only make Anderson's ruse that much more cunning!
Pamela Adams
13. Pam Adams
Joanna Russ, in one of her reviews, complained about the books Anderson could have written, but didn't.
James Davis Nicoll
14. CarlosSkullsplitter
Not to derail the discussion of Valland's pining for the late Mary O'Meara --perhaps it would be more entertaining to modern tastes if he carried around her remains in a cryogenic box, asking new alien civilizations if they could revive her: "NO. WE GO BACK FOR HER." -- but Blish in that article discusses fascism at some length:

"Fascism as an economic philosophy is viewed with more and more fatherly indulgence every year, and it has hardly more status than Technocracy now. Nobody, it would seem, can work up much passion about the work-certificate, corporatism, velocity money, and the passage of a national dividend each year; literary men, despite a great deal of quick condemnation of Pound's specific, bookish economics, now do not even pretend that they care, and economists never did pay any attention. Fascism, like communism, is an explosively open question because it has never been tried, but only pretended; but it is quite clear that we do not care, that we are no longer inclined to think this element in Pound at all disturbing."

Of course, Anderson often sounds like he's channeling Bioshock's Andrew Ryan: "Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? 'No!' says the man in Washington, 'It belongs to the parasites.' 'No!' says the man in Moscow, 'It belongs to the parasites.'"

Mid-century science fiction writers are so much fun! (Except when their zany ideas infect the body politic.) I am so looking forward to that Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
Bruce Cohen
15. SpeakerToManagers

It's been some years since I last re-read this book (it's one of my favorites of Anderson's work, so I've read it 4 or 5 times over the years), but IIRC he never says explicitly whether Valland has edited his memories of Mary or not, leaving it to the reader to decide.

I agree that Anderson was at his best when he tried to, evoke a sense of myth and of poetry in his stories. That's what makes parts of "The Avatar", which I find otherwise mostly long and obnoxiously Objectivist, worth reading. And it was very common in his early-middle period in the mid 1950's through the 1960's, with stories like "The Chapter Ends", and "The Horn of Time the Hunter", and "Tau Zero".
James Davis Nicoll
16. James Davis Nicoll
"The Avatar", which I find otherwise mostly long and obnoxiously Objectivist

Although I am grateful to learn thanks to a hostile review of The Avatar that apparently there's a word out there that means "a prostitute passing themselves off as a musician", The Avatar is my pick for Anderson's worst novel/
James Davis Nicoll
17. BruceM
Am I peculiar in that I find the idea of an actual loving relationship that lasts three thousand years far more inspiring than a guy pining for a dead woman for three thousand years? Enough with the drama, bro.
Andrew Love
18. Andy Love
It's been some years since I last re-read this book (it's one of my favorites of Anderson's work, so I've read it 4 or 5 times over the years), but IIRC he never says explicitly whether Valland has edited his memories of Mary or not, leaving it to the reader to decide.
Early in the novel, Hugh mentions that the last time he used the memory-editing process, something had gone seriously wrong, resulting in a uncontrolled loss of many memories. My interpretation of the end of the novel was that this accident had deleted Hugh's memory of Mary's death against Hugh's wishes - so after decades of effort to return home to her (effort that had also rescued a crew that would have never come home without Hugh's drive), Hugh only then learned that Mary had been dead for centuries.
James Davis Nicoll
19. King-Walters
@Pam: Do you have a link to that review, as a matter of interest?
James Davis Nicoll
20. King-Walters
@BruceM: If you're peculiar, then so am I.
Alan Brown
21. AlanBrown
I didn't think I had read this book but the review evoked some memories. Now I will have to dig up a copy and see. Thanks for another good retro-SF review, Jo!
James Davis Nicoll
22. Doug M.
1966 was before Anderson got infected with libertarianism, though only just. IMS you can start seeing the tropes in his writing starting 1970 or thereabouts.

The whole Mary O´Meara trope is annoyingly Celt-y in a way that´s very specific to fantasy and SF. I´m not sure where the whole Celts Are Awesome thing first crept into the genre, but Anderson, rest his soul, was definitely an enthusiastic vector for its transmission for a while there.

Anyway. The thing I remember from this book is the dying young guy complaining that he´d had so little time, and Valland snapping at him -- Be Silent! or something equally harsh. I remember thinking, what? Dude, the kid has a point.

The idea of the One Competent Man Who Can Rescue Us is one that Anderson revisited several times -- see, e.g., _The Man Who Counts_.

Doug M.
James Davis Nicoll
23. wiredog
The idea of the One Competent Man Who Can Rescue Us

I think that is a product of John Campbell. Because that guy is all through Heinlein and Piper's work as well, and they wrote for Campbell.
James Davis Nicoll
24. Nickp
This is somewhat off topic, but Poul Anderson-related, I think: I'm hoping someone can help me track a book that I read in the school library in the early 80s. It could be as old as the 1960s, and may have been a novel or collection of related stories. What I can remember of it rings Poul Anderson bells, but nothing jumps out at me when I scan his bibliography on wikipedia.

What I remember: The earth is covered with water and has floating cities. I think that in the back story, mysterious aliens converted a large part of the atmosphere to water (!). Main character is a city boy who joins a ship of pseudo-vikings. Adventures are had, including the capture of a merman (genetically engineered?) The sea may have been referred to as panthalassa.

Does that sound like something by Anderson, or have I conflated multiple stories?
James Davis Nicoll
25. James Davis Nicoll
That sounds a lot like Robert Silverberg's Conquerers From the Darkness.

James Davis Nicoll
26. James Davis Nicoll
That said, Anderson has at least one story with SFnal merfolk, "The Horn of Time the Hunter". It's one of the Kith stories and it's set on another world.
James Davis Nicoll
27. Nickp
Thank you! I think it must have been the Silverberg. I didn't remember the aliens returning, but everything else fits.
Pamela Adams
28. Pam Adams
19. King-Walters,

Sorry- it was a review collected in The Country You Have Never Seen, which I just returned to the library. My recollection is that it was regarding one of the David Falkayn books and was an F & SF review from the late '70's/early '80's.
James Davis Nicoll
29. James Davis Nicoll
Threading would be so useful on tor.com.

(huh. Greek letters in the recaptcha)
James Davis Nicoll
30. S.M. Stirling
Note that Valland is regarded as archaic by the other characters; he's the oldest person they have ever met.

One aspect of that is his physical type, which is regarded as sort of unusual, if not bizzare.

Most people seem to be moderately dark, which is what you'd expect of many, many thousands of years of mix-'n-match.
Ruthanna Emrys
31. R.Emrys
Oh my god, that's what it's about. Here's Michael Longcor singing "Mary O'Meara.

(Also "Bob's Dog Obedience School and Taxidermy Shop"; feel free to ignore the second half of the video.)

There's a particular warm feeling one gets from finally fitting something into a story. Thank you!
James Davis Nicoll
32. filkferengi
It's actually Murray Porath covering some Michael Longcor songs. Thanks for posting the link!
James Davis Nicoll
33. David Keith
This book looks great!
As a habitual browser of used bookstores, I totally love that you spotlight old paperbacks.
Best feature on Tor.com!

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