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The critic was James Blish (also a fine writer in his own right), and the author he was talking about was Poul Anderson.
For as long as I remember, I’ve felt Poul Anderson (1926-2001) was the master of classic science fiction. Why? Because he could handle all the classic tropes of the genre (space travel, time travel, aliens, future societies, you name it) and produce uniformly good, solid work, and — from time to time — even acknowledged masterpieces.
Second, he kept coming back, again and again, to one of the most important themes a writer can tackle, and finally made it his own: freedom.
Third, he was a realist, who knew and accepted that man was mortal; and so were civilizations, planets, even the whole universe. But, to quote James Blish once again, “he wasted no time sniveling about it.” The Andersonian hero knows the end will come, but his duty is to fight the forces of entropy in order to postpone that end.
Fourth, and finally, he was a poet.
Now, that may sound strange, but bear with me. I don’t think Anderson was a master because he used to sprinkle verse in his fiction (though he did, and always for a good reason). What I mean is that he crafted his work like poetry.
A case in point, “The Longest Voyage,” one of his most famous stories.
An aside here: this work, which first saw print in 1960, was last published in 1991, as part of a “Tor Double.” But I would advise you instead to find a copy of The Many Worlds of Poul Anderson (Chilton, 1974, edited by Roger Elwood; paperback edition as The Book of Poul Anderson, DAW, 1975). You’re in for a treat. But back to “The Longest Voyage.”
The story takes place on a planet where a human spaceship was once wrecked. Several centuries later, man is climbing back from savagery and developing several cultures, including one akin to Europe during the Age of Exploration. Captain Rovic and the hardy sailors of the Golden Leaper are charting unknown seas and looking for the fabled Aureate Cities. And they do find something.
Not the Cities, but a Starman, living among the savages in an unknown land. This man claims to come from Earth; his spaceship has crashed in the jungle, and, if Rovic can find him some quicksilver, he can repair it and fly back to Manhome. The sons of Terra will get back to their long-lost mother!
Now, the end of this story is one of the most devastating you can imagine, and I won’t spoil it for you. Let me only say some lessons can be quite harsh.
“The Longest Voyage” won a Hugo award, Poul Anderson’s first one, but not his last. This story works on almost every level. It’s a rousing adventure yarn; it has all the exotic charm of good SF, for it’s narrated in a sometimes florid style, apparently at odds with its subject matter; it’s solidly plotted, like a well-oiled mechanism.
But it’s also a work of poetry, where the author has found a striking image that illuminates both the story point and the characters. Now, if you are interested in point of view (see Dan’s “Writing Well”), you’d better pay attention.
The story is told in the first person by one Zhean, a young apprentice who’s studying to become a captain. It’s through his eyes that we get to know Captain Rovic and his shipmates, including Froad, the astrologue, who teaches celestial mechanics to the boy. Zhean is in awe of his captain, whom he describes as a heroic figure.
The world the characters inhabit is not exactly a planet: rather, it’s the moon of a gas giant, which the characters call “the ogre planet” — a permanent, disturbing presence in their sky. Of course, primitive societies would make a god of this orb, and such is the case with the savages Rovic and his mates encounter; but their own civilization is sophisticated enough to realize it’s only a celestial body (fact is, they are quite proficient in astronomy, given the observations they can make in such a planetary environment).
As for Earth… The Mother Planet plays a huge part in our characters’ mental make-up. They yearn for it, they want to be reunited with Terra…
Do you start to get it? Anderson has created an image that operates on the psychological, the astronomical and the cultural level. In a sense, this story is about the loss of innocence, the death of one’s gods, even, and maybe “The Longest Voyage” is the one that ends when we reach maturity.
Now, I could wax lyrical about Anderson’s works, and that’s what I did—but it took me a book to give justice to the man’s genius. Yes, this column is a roundabout way to plug my just-released opus, Orphée aux étoiles: Les Voyages de Poul Anderson, whose trade edition is out now from Les Moutons Electriques. (A limited edition was issued last December.)
You have to speak French to read it, of course. But you’d better read Poul Anderson first — in the language of your choice. I would recommend you start with his posthumous, retrospective collection, Going For Infinity (Tor, 2002 — see Paul DiFilippo’s review here: http://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue265/books.html), which features some of his best stories (such as “The Queen of Air and Darkness” and “Goat Song” — the latter may have influenced Dan when he tackled the Ilium/Olympos diptych). In the months to come, be on the lookout for The Van Rijn Method, from Baen Books, the first volume in an ambitious project: no less than the complete “Technic Civilization” cycle, which encompasses both the time of the Merchant Princes (of whom Nicholas van Rijn is the most famous) and the days of the Terran Empire (of whom Dominic Flandry is the bravest defender).
Time is not kind for dead SF writers, and I was afraid Anderson would be gradually forgotten, as some SF greats were before him, but it seems Baen Books will play keeper of the flame here. All hail the shade of Jim Baen!
Pocket published the paperback edition of Ilium last fall. You can get a glimpse of the cover here: http://medias.univers-poche.fr/IMAGES/POCKET/ZF/9782266149150R1.JPG
According to the Pocket website, Olympos is scheduled for next September. I do hope they spell my name right on the title page. (The translation of Ilium is attributed to Jean-Michel Brèque, who is a real person, by the way — an opera critic and the author of a book about Venice. We may be distantly related.)
The French translation of The Terror is slowly sailing toward the bookstores. Publisher Robert Laffont has decided to release it in October, 2008, right in the middle of the busiest season, publishing-wise. I think they want to make a splash here.
Mmm… The Olympos PB in September, The Terror in October — that could spell French Book Tour for Mr. Simmons. I’ll keep you posted.
Last, I’ve been approached by publisher Bragelonne, who are going to issue the Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan-edited anthologie The New Space Opera, including (among other gems — trust me on this: the book is excellent) Dan’s “Muse of Fire.” Bragelonne wants me to translate the story, of course, and I’ve said yes.
Juliette, the singer-songwriter about whom I raved two years ago (see my December, 2005 column) has a new album out, called Bijoux et babioles. I haven’t had time to listen to it, but I notice a song inspired by Franck Stockton’s famous story, “The Lady or the Tiger” (which has never been translated into French, as far as I know — the lady is indeed well-read).
Philippe Meyer, the writer-producer about whom I raved last time (see my August, 2007 column), must be as lazy (or as busy, take your pick) as I sometimes am. I’m sorry to report that is book Traits et portraits has been indefinitely postponed. He was supposed to release another book, Un Parisien dans Paris, a sequel of sorts to his bestseller Paris la Grande, but this book, too, has proven elusive. Now, Monsieur Meyer may have other fish to fry, as he is taking part in Paris’ council elections, in the 5th Arrondissement, opposite incumbent Jean Tibéri (who was Mayor of Paris till 2001). Good luck to him, I say, but I miss his written wit.