In Which There Is A History of Space and Time
Thursday, May 21, 2009 at 4:46PM
Alex in BOOKS, alex carnevale, poul anderson

Too Much Time


We are besieged with a product that is substandard, an imagination that begins and ends with the word 'Romulan.' There is no recourse from our culture, there is not even recourse from the recourse to our culture.

There is a forgetting of what went into the stew before the stew was the stew. Industrious, brilliant immigrants to this country resettled here and made the best, if not the first, American culture. Poul Anderson is one of these such enterprisers. Born to immigrant parents in the middle of Pennsylvania, he was gifted with a superior mind, and made the best of the late space fantasies. Summer won't be the same without Poul.

Tau Zero may be the finest of his high space adventures, slightly ahead of the more optimistic Harvest of the Stars. It concerns a space mission that is going so fast it literally passes all of time by; it is far more difficult to formulate into a pitch than "they fire a nuke into the sun!" Zero shows Anderson's immemorial ability to make you care about a character with more than just the sleight of hand of "his dad died saving his mom's life while giving birth."

kirk's mom's saucy ginger sideTime is a much gentler theme in Anderson, coming and going with the sensitivity required of the subject. In There Will Be Time, he bridges the two themes expertly, using a first person narration, building the entire plot around the idea of witness, crossing it all with an understanding of American history that is entirely lacking from most fiction. Like Dick's The Man In The High Castle, Anderson isn't interested in exploding what exists — he seeks to make ourselves recognizable amidst the roundly alien.

Like any good writer, Anderson kept exploring. In Three Hearts and Three Lions he brought his futurist visions to traditional fantasy and ended up creating an amalgam of both, with humor thrown into the pot. Anderson's Operation: Chaos! fantasies are adult literature dressed up as genre trash, and like all of his work, it creates a rich reservoir of texture surrounding the action.

In Nicholas Van Rijm, a so-called "flamboyant capitalist adventurer", Anderson might have found his most compelling protagonist, a man who explores worlds shaped by fantasy forerunners like Jack Vance and Tolkien. These books are thrilling and genuine, even if they may not be intended for the casual reader. Most of Anderson's work is wildly accessible, concerning itself with darker desires and putting them into the light.

Anderson never ignored the 'science' aspect of science fiction. His scenarios are more than plausible, they're nearly inevitable. While Terminator: Salvation presents an apocalypse that's about as uncomfortable as a strained back, Anderson watches us make our mistakes and do the impossibly probable to work around them.

Like many of his peers, Anderson was a lefty in his younger days, even spending a period advocating the United Nations are a prelude to world government. He later pretty much laughed in the face of these views, and found more inspiration in the model of primitive civilizations, who often get a sneaky kind of triumph in Anderson's tellings. This view led him to his finest achievement, The High Crusade, in which a medieval British population sets out to conquer all of space's civilizations, and pretty much does.

Overarching government control is still palatable to many of Earth's less serious Democrats, and Anderson undercut these views brilliantly, watching the centers of power put at the mercy of the power of the individual. In The Corridors of Time, Earth through history is presented as a battleground between two prevailing forces, with neither completely sure who is in the right or who is in the wrong. You can step into one place, and be changed completely, or the world can be changed completely from what you thought it was. The Corridors of Time shows man as the same in every repetition, makes the identical mistake in trying to dominate all that is around him.

Seen this way history is less a timeline than a bitter moat: difficult to cross and a fucking mess to fall into. There is no greater ideal to head towards, Anderson told us before his death, like so many others, from cancer in 2001. We can know almost nothing of the world we come into, and what we do learn might prove to be meaningless over time. We can only gird ourselves against the future, and hope that we lack the will to change it for the worse.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls to your mother here.

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