Poul Anderson was born on this day in 1926. Anderson’s career spanned over sixty years, from the 1940s to the early 2000s. He wrote fiction and non-fiction. He published in many genres: fantasy, science fiction, historicals, and mysteries. He wrote dozens of novels and hundreds of shorter pieces, all of a level of quality that was never less than competent—and sometimes better. The often acerbic Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls Anderson “his generation’s most prolific sf writer of any consistent quality[…].” (He was the anti-Lionel Fanthorpe.)
Two aspects of his work drew me to Anderson’s work as a teenager. One was his commitment to verisimilitude, which went beyond the usual hard-SF author’s focus on straightforward physics. Anderson’s interests were broad; as a result we got whimsy like “Uncleftish Beholding,” written in an alternate form of English lacking many common loan words, and essays like “On Thud and Blunder,” an attempt to facilitate greater realism in sword and sorcery.
The other element that guaranteed that teen me would be reading a lot of Anderson was that, as with Andre Norton, there were a lot of Anderson works to read (if Anderson’s books were the sort of thing you like to read). I’ve never seen an exact figure for the number of short works and novels Anderson wrote that I entirely trusted, but I do know two things: That number is not small and I’ve read a large fraction of it.
Here are five of my favourites, selected according to pure whim and also a desire not to recapitulate Anderson-related essays previously published on Tor.com. So, no World Without Stars, The High Crusade, The Broken Sword, or Trader to the Stars, because other essayists have already written about them. No Tau Zero or The Enemy Stars because I wrote about them. Happily, the pool of potential candidates is not small. In fact, it is large enough if I had to do this again in another year, I could come up with an entirely different list of five favourites.
Many SF novels start with One Big Change. Brain Wave‘s OBC is very big indeed: The Earth emerges from an intelligence-suppressing field. Every creature that can think suddenly finds itself five times smarter. All humans of normal intelligence wake to find themselves geniuses. Animals discover that they can now think around the barriers used to control them. Human institutions crumble because humans are too bright to believe in them, while the agricultural systems on which we depend are themselves threatened by animals no longer willing to be stock or prey.
This could very easily have been an apocalyptic tale (superhuman humans shrug and carry on eating creatures that now fully understand what’s going on)—but that’s not the direction in which a comparatively young Anderson took his novel. Instead, the various viewpoint characters do their best to find new, better ways to live.
In After Doomsday, the USS Benjamin Franklin returns from the galactic core to find Earth murdered. The means are clear, technological gifts of the sort employed by the same aliens who traded us for Faster Than Light drives. The culprit, on the other hand, is unknown. It is up to the crew of the Benjamin Franklin to find a new homeworld and save the species! Or at least it would be if the U.S., hesitant to expose women to the dangers of space, had not staffed the Franklin with three hundred men.
There is one note of hope: The U.S. is not the only starfaring nation whose long-range mission survived the disaster. Pan-Europe’s Europa, for example, has women crew members. All that is needed to save the species is for the two ships to find each other in a very large, very alien Milky Way.
Anderson created an interesting setting any other author could have used in a dozen further novels, but discarded it once he was through telling the story he wanted to tell. Creating new and interesting settings was never an issue for him. Two aspects of this novel strike me:
- This is a perfectly acceptable old-school-style mystery; it’s possible to work out the identity of the killer before the humans do.
- While I often castigate Anderson’s unthinking sexism, one cannot help but notice that Benjamin Franklin’s cunning schemes got a lot of the crew killed, whereas the Europa’s plans generally didn’t.
There Will Be Time’s Jack Havig has a very personal interest in history. This is because he has the ability to travel from one moment to any other, at will. As any number of fables inform us, foreknowledge is not comforting: Jack is painfully aware that modern civilization is slated to annihilate itself in the near future, ushering in a dark age that will last centuries.
Caleb Wallis’ organization, the Eyrie, recruits Jack. Other timewalkers such as Krasiki, Mendoza, Coenraad, and Boris, the other members of the Eyrie, value Jack’s abilities. It does not take Jack too long to spot the fly in the ointment, however: Caleb is a product of 19th-century America, and is as racist as they come. Caleb’s plans to shape history to suit himself reflect this.
Yeah, this is the novel with the tedious hippy scenes and yes, Jack’s first love’s main purpose is to fill otherwise wasted refrigerator space. But that’s only a fraction of the narrative. This slender novel is a nice example of how much plot can fit into a single short work, and what can be done within the self-imposed confines of fixed, known history. This was also my introduction to the Byzantine Empire (unless Silverberg’s Up the Line was).
The Day of Their Return is a sidebar to the Dominic Flandry stories. Chafing at the Terran Empire’s martial rule of the planet Aeneas, Ivar Fredriksen launches a plan to free his world that is as bold as it is doomed. Fleeing its aftermath, he eludes Imperial pursuit. At the same time, devout believer Jaan is convinced that the beings who ruled Aeneas six million years prior are returning to Aeneas to free its people. Jaan is half right: The entity he is dealing with may be of the same race that once ruled Aeneas, but Mersian agent Aycharaych cares very little about the freedom of one backwater planet.
Speaking of Anderson characters I don’t like any more, Dominic Flandry does not appear in this book, although the events in it follow closely on the Flandry novel The Rebel Worlds. Providentially, Flandry’s sparring partner, Aycharaych, does appear. I favour Aycharaych over self-justifying Flandry, and this is as close to an Aycharaych novel as I am going to get. Moreover, Anderson manages to convey a lot about Aeneas in the course of a short novel. More of his competent worldbuilding.
The Best of Poul Anderson. Novels are fine but Anderson was known for his vast body of short work. Thus my final selection is The Best of Poul Anderson, a selection of his short pieces published by Pocket Books. The Best of Poul Anderson has nine pieces, from novellas to short stories, written for a wide variety of markets, with introductory pieces for each story by Anderson himself. Of particular note is 1958’s “The Last of the Deliverers,” a whimsical tale about the last capitalist and last communist in a post-scarcity world that has rendered both of them utterly irrelevant.
All of these works should be available in one edition or another, save perhaps for the collection. Happily, the New England Science Fiction Association has your back: Simply purchase all seven volumes of The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson and read the subset that corresponds to The Best of Poul Anderson.
A version of this post was originally published in July 2019.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.