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March 03, 2005


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Doug Muir

Some of our readers might not know Poul Anderson so well...

He died last year, at the age of 70, after a 50-year writing career. Mostly science fiction, as Carlos says, but also some mysteries and other stuff.

He was a good writer who occasionally caught fire. Other hand, yes, he did have a whole set of distinctive tics and tropes.

I guess my point here is, if you've never heard of Poul Anderson, don't let this discourage you. (If you have, though, jump in and pile on.)

Carlos, which of his books did you /not/ sell?

Doug M.

James Nicoll

Here's a prediction: Most of the PA Carlos kept is from before 1970. It might even tend to predate 1965.


Carlos, which of his books did you /not/ sell?

Three short story collections:

All One Universe, a mix of non-fiction articles and highlights from his later career

Going for Infinity, a lifetime retrospective with autobiographical commentary

The Time Patrol, about time police who protect the flow of our history, for both good and bad

and some novels:

The Corridors of Time: a modern man is caught between two time-travelling future factions trying to control humanity's destiny

Three Hearts and Three Lions: a Danish resistance fighter during World War Two finds himself in the land of medieval epic

A Midsummer's Tempest: a novel of a fantastic English Civil War set in a world where all the events of Shakespeare's plays were factual

Brain Wave: all life on Earth with a nervous system circa 1950 becomes much more intelligent

[There, I always wondered what happened to predator-prey relationships in the long run.]

and Operation Chaos: mildly funny stories set in a modern world where magic substitutes for technology.

I suspect if I ever read its much-later sequel, Operation Luna, that this too will go on the block. (And Anderson just didn't understand football.)

So James is right... except that there are pieces from All One Universe that show later Anderson had that quality in his work that I liked (and that Anderson selected his own works by this quality). The Noh play. "The House of Sorrows". "In Memoriam".

James Nicoll

Not _Homeward and Beyond_? I have such fond memories of that one I never reread it.


The Noh play was spooky. The poor computer!

_A Midsummer Tempest_ has many (not all) of the characters speaking in Shakesperean verse throughout. This is done so well that I didn't even notice the first time through.

I never read _Going for Infinity_, though it sounds v. interesting. The other picks I agree, though most of _Operation Chaos_ is rather slight.

I might add a title or two... _The Broken Sword_ for sure, and maybe _Hrolf Kraki's Saga_. Oh, and _The Devil's Game_, in which Anderson basically invented 'Survivor' in 1977: Seven players, one tropical island, a cool million tax free.

Yeah, avoid avoid _Operation Luna_. Really.

Doug M.

Andrew Gray

If "The House of Sorrows" is the one I think it was - AH, mercenary in a late-mediaeval? Palestine - then I really quite liked it. Can anyone suggest anything more in a similar vein? I've read v. little Anderson; pretty much just All One Universe, I think.

Uncleftish Beholding is also rather enjoyable, in its own way, although it's decidedly not fiction as such.


No, Doug and James, those are gone too.

Here's a question. Doug, I know you enjoy the Icelandic sagas. Suppose someone asked you for a recent imaginative recreation of their world. Would you suggest Poul Anderson? Another genre writer? Or a 'mainstream' writer, like Jane Smiley or William Vollmann? (Who are about as different as you can get, incidentally.)

Andrew, that one is pretty sui generis. The Norse mercenary from Connecticut, in Mirzabad. I think there, Anderson decided to pull out all the stops to see what sort of sound it would make. It worked. I wish he had done it more often.

Mike Ralls

For what it's worth I've been know to "swear by Judas" on occasion. I blame a cool crotchity old history teacher I had in High School.


I only have 4 or 5 Anderson books, but I like The Avatar best from these. Brain Wave was interesting too, but I haven't re-read it (ok, that has to do with the fact that lately I got much more new books). Operation Chaos was... ok, but not *that* good, and Orion shall rise has an interesting (to me) theme, but I think it's too long... If I have another book of his, it wasn't memorable enough and I'm too lazy to check my bookshelf now :)

Bernard Guerrero

No comments on the Flandry stuff? "The Long Night" is one of my favorite collections.


Bernard, while I admire the craftsmanship that went into Flandry -- writing a sonofabitch James-Bond-ish hero must have gone against Anderson's grain, if his later work is any indication of his comfort index -- the sense of historical despair that pervades those books really bugs me, because it's wholly synthetic.

Similarly, Anderson often compared contemporary America to the late (western) Roman Empire, or sometimes to the late Republic. I find this simplistic, fatalistic, and annoying as all hell.

And I'm not particularly an optimist.

Balkan content alert: One of the Flandry novels, A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows, takes place on a planet where Serbs and lizard people live together in harmony. Ends like that George Lazenby movie, unfortunately.


Bernard Guerrero

Ah, well, I'm a Hornblower fan, myself, so I guess I'm just drawn to the Flandry/Van Rijn stuff.

I don't find them quite that pessimistic, to tell you the truth. Cycles come and go, but the essentials live on, etc, etc. Historically simplistic, to be sure, but so is most sci-fi.


I don't find them quite that pessimistic, to tell you the truth.

Ask yourself this: why is the Long Night so very long?

You might say it's for literary effect, but there's every indication that Anderson believed it was likely.

That, in and of itself, would be fine. I admire Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz immensely. But there, the historical despair comes out of a Catholic convert's sense of the implications of Original Sin.

In Anderson's work, on the other hand, it often feels forced. Why is the Empire in the Flandry novels doomed? Because it's decadent -- it has homosexual emperors and orgies and what not -- while on the other hand, the lizard people are stalwarts.

It's creepily like racial decadence, too. While Anderson was the polar opposite of a racist, he did believe in something like Herder's theory of the Volk (and that they were all reflections of a greater human potential).

Anyway. These 'tics and tropes' of Anderson's simply became too obtrusive for me.

C. -- back to the cold and flu season.

Doug Muir

1) What exactly do you mean by synthetic?

Keep in mind that Anderson was hugely influenced by Toynbee. Simplistic parallels aside, he thought that Western Civ was entering the Universal State phase, which would be followed by catastrophic breakdown. I'm not sure if he /believed/ in Toynbee's cycles, but they definitely influenced his thinking.

Note that in the last Falkayn book -- Mirkheim, I think? -- we're pretty explicitly given the "breakdown" point where it all starts to go wrong for the League, and by inference their whole civilization. (It's when the merchant princes divvy up the galaxy instead of letting the Free Market Rule, IMS.)

And, as you say, gloomy Dane. So he came by it honestly.

2) Compare'n'contrast the Flandry stories with the David Falkayn ones. Falkayn is so much nicer than Flandry -- a good, goodhearted /D/a/n/e blonde man of action, whereas Flandry is, as noted, an SOB.

Now, note: Falkayn gets to be good because he lives in a better period of history. Flandry is Dark Falkayn (he's even a brunette); he has to be a sonofabitch, because he lives in a time when the Norns are bringing down the final war of gods and giants. Whoops, I mean he's in the final days of the Terran Empire.

The main ways this is expressed? Two. One, Falkayn solves problems by, well, solving problems -- coming up with the brilliant idea for the escape, figuring out where the alien's home world is, etc. Flandry, on the other hand, usually solves problems by manipulating people. (This is Bad.) Falkayn is an engineer; Flandry is a politician or a salesman or a lawyer or some other species of the Fallen.

Two, Falkayn has good relations with women, and Flandry doesn't.

A while back, I compared Anderson to John D. McDonald. You said you liked that, but that "the MacDonald hero has a far-flung network of friendships and past obligations, while the Anderson hero has maybe a few people maybe too close to him, and is otherwise alone with
his weird against the world." That fits Flandry much better than Falkayn, who ends up with two good friends, a wife, and a surrogate father figure (who must be defied and brought down, but is still beloved) in old Nick.

3) Yeah, that story is how I knew that "zmay" was Serbian for "dragon".

Of course, they could also have been Croats.

(Note to bemused non-Anderson fans: we couldn't go on like this if we didn't love the guy. Go and read some of his stuff now. You'll probably like it.)

Doug M.

Bernard Guerrero

re: "Mirkheim" Correct.


I really wonder what the Danes have to be gloomy about. Barring a few bad years (under the least malign Nazi occupation in Europe), their past century or so has been great. They're healthy, rich, and good-looking, with Legoland and some of the best dairy on the continent.

Anyway, Toynbee. You know, I don't mind Blish's use of Spengler very much -- it adds extra weirdness to his work -- but Toynbee and historical mimesis... just doesn't work for me. I suppose I am too much a Braudelian at heart.

Light Falkayn and Dark Flandry, yes. It's very Leslie Fielder.

In A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows, if they're Croats, they're Orthodox Croats.

James Nicoll

Is there some obvious way to thread comments that I am overlooking?

One tell-tale about where Flandry fits into Anderson's moral landscape is that at least once Flandry uses the same "burned up little girls amidst rubble" justification that Anderson gave to misguised Big Government types in other stories.

Also, consider how important preserving the past is in other Anderson stories and what Flandry has done to Cherion.

Bernard Guerrero

Braudel didn't believe in cycles?


James, I don't know whether Moveable Type has threading or not. I've never used it in that manner. Claudia?

Bernard, Braudel doesn't have Toynbeean cycles: birth, challenge, response; failed response, decline, disintegration; repeat. Braudel's are much more about shifts in the gold/silver price ratio and the like.

Toynbee is somewhat like a smarter, less jingoistic Samuel Huntington. (I know that's a low bar, but you know what I mean.)


David Weman

The Poor Man used to have threaded comments in MT.


One tell-tale about where Flandry fits into Anderson's moral landscape

Well, Falkayn bears the ultimate Anderson marker of innocence, honesty, and generally being a Good Person: he has a snub nose.

I've always wondered what was up with that.

Carlos, Toynbee was an Anglo-Catholic intellectual, which right away means you're in for some interesting times. (JRR Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh and Paul Johnson walk into a bar...)

Doug M.

David E. Siegel

2) Compare'n'contrast the Flandry stories with the David Falkayn ones. Falkayn is so much nicer than Flandry -- a good, goodhearted /D/a/n/e blonde man of action, whereas Flandry is, as noted, an SOB.

Now, note: Falkayn gets to be good because he lives in a better period of history. Flandry is Dark Falkayn (he's even a brunette); he has to be a sonofabitch, because he lives in a time when the Norns are bringing down the final war of gods and giants. Whoops, I mean he's in the final days of the Terran Empire.

And It should be noted that Flandry is also a direct descendant of Falkyn -- the key link is seen in _People of the Wind_.

I didn't find the sense of impending doom in the Flandry stories so implausible and synthetic as all that. The Empire is doomed not because it is decadant, in the sense of homosexual and ogiastic emperors and nobles. it is doomed because it is corrupt. Because the people running things will sell out the populace at large, and even their own long-term iterest for short-term advantage.

if there is one thing that is evil in Anderson's work it is a focus on the short-term at the expense of the long term. This is part of the 'duty to preserve the past" thing, or perhaps the two are both parts of a larger thing. But it is there, and i don't find it so artificial as all that.



Anderson on homosexuality -- and in fact on non-monogamous or non-heterosexual relationships in general -- is its own, somewhat fraught discussion. But it's usually an indicator of the unheimlich.

In modern jargon, Anderson's Empire collapses because it becomes a 'failed state', unable to meet the challenges of outside barbarians or internal dissension. But it's a failed state that can produce first-class starships? Oookay.

And barbarians with starships? Uh-huh. Anderson tried squaring that circle on several occasions, and never convincingly. In a weird way, Anderson never came to terms with the Industrial Revolution, unlike (say) Kipling or Heinlein, who celebrated it.

Anderson's Empire owes a lot to pre-WWII views of the Roman Empire and its fall. Gibbon and Toynbee, mainly.


Bernard Guerrero

"And barbarians with starships?"

Yeah, that part always bugged me. The conflict-of-empires-leading-to-ossification of Flandry always made more sense to me than the more pure collapse-in-the-face-of-barbarians of the League stories.

Interesting side note: Gibbon had a thing going with Germaine de Stael's mom, before Necker showed up.

Interesting second side note: Germaine later had a thing going with none other than Simonde de Sismondi, of Lenin's "Sismondi and Our Native Sismondists" fame. Small world.

Jordin Kare

Happened to find this via a link in the comments on Making Light. I was also very fond of Poul's writing, but find much of it hard to reread for similar reasons to yours, especially in concentrated doses. I would put Tau Zero in the keeper category, but I was already a budding physicist when I read it, and liked the astrophysics and (since disproven, but state-of-the-art for the time) cosmology.

But I did get to know him (and his wife Karen) fairly well, starting when I moved to Berkeley for grad school in 1978 and ending, alas, with his death. I attended his memorial service and wake, and what was remarkable was that many people, independently, referred to him in one way or another in terms of chivalry. (He was, of course, one of the founders of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and there were a great many toasts to Sir Bela of Westmarch.) I wrote the following at his wake; I thought you might enjoy it:

A Toast To A Knight Departed

Lyrics and Music copyright 2001 by Jordin T. Kare

I sing the tale of a gallant knight who rode among the stars
On a high crusade from the lands of fey to the orange skies of Mars.
He owned a manner chivalrous, and a calm and modest mein
But a fighter he was in the long, long fight like few this world has seen.

His foes were the dragons of ignorance, of cruelty and fear
Of willful blindness and foolish greed, and all that holds us here
Bound down to the ancient mud of Earth, when our birthright is the sky
And many a prison’d mind he freed, to open its wings and fly.

His steeds were his dreams of times to come, times past, and worlds afar.
His bridle rein was his knowledge keen of how things work and are.
His lance was a tale, his sword the words that rang out clear and strong.
His shield was his gentle humor, and his armor was a song.

In his keep, he had all that a noble knight should have within his hold
His lady love, and his daughter fair, and loyal friends and bold
A fire warm, and a table fine, and a flowing cask of ale
And an open door and a voice for song that would make any dragon quail.

Now his banner is lowered o’er the worlds he made,
and great ships that race the light
And van Rijn and Flandry and all of us shall drink to his name tonight
But so long as our reach exceeds our grasp, so long shall his tales be told,
And so long shall he ride where the gathered suns
touch helm and heart with gold

So long shall he ride out among the stars, touched helm and heart with gold.


Thank you.

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