Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Technic History and Potential Histories

The Technic History

Writing about a series necessitates re-reading it. Re-reading reinforces appreciation of future historical interconnectedness. To summarise again:

“The Saturn Game.”
Early exploration.
“Wings of Victory.”
Human-Ythrian first contact on Ythri under Captain Gray during the Grand Survey. (References to the planets Cynthia, Woden and Hermes.)
“The Problem of Pain.”
Early human-Ythrian interaction on a second Grand Survey planet, provisionally named Gray.
“Margin of Profit.”
Nicholas van Rijn, Master Merchant, Polesotechnic League.
“How To Be Ethnic In One Easy Lesson.”
The Wodenite Adzel studies on Earth.
“The Three-Cornered Wheel.”
The Hermetian David Falkayn is an apprentice on the planet Ivanhoe.
“A Sun Invisible.”
Falkayn is a journeyman in van Rijn’s company.
“The Season of Forgiveness.”
Later events on Ivanhoe.
The Man Who Counts.
Van Rijn and the Hermetian ducal heiress are shipwrecked on the planet Diomedes.
Van Rijn; first contact with Babur.
Trader to the Stars (three stories).
Van Rijn.
“The Trouble Twisters.”
Van Rijn’s trader team of Falkayn, Adzel and the Cynthian Chee Lan.
“Day of Burning.”
The trader team helps the Merseians to survive radiation from a nearby supernova.
Satan’s World.
Van Rijn and the trader team.
“A Little Knowledge.”
Later events on two other planets discovered during the Grand Survey.
Secret exploitation of super-metals on Mirkheim by races that cannot afford to buy knowledge or technology from League companies. Falkayn, the discoverer of Mirkheim, has broken his oath of fealty to van Rijn but marries van Rijn’s granddaughter.
A League cartel engineers the Baburite invasion of Mirkheim and Hermes. Conflict in the League. The later lives of the major characters.
Falkayn’s grandson interacts with Ythrians on the jointly colonized planet Avalon, formerly “Gray.”
“Rescue on Avalon.”
Later human-Ythrian interaction on Avalon.
“The Star Plunderer.”
During post-League “Troubles,” Manuel Argos leads a slave revolt and founds the Terran Empire.
“Sargasso of Lost Starships.”
The early Empire.
The People of the Wind.
The Terran War on Avalon: a descendant of Falkayn meets a forerunner and possible ancestor of Flandry; “Gray” is now the name of an Avalonian city.
The Flandry period.
Dominic Flandry, active on many planets, including some introduced earlier, defends the Empire against rebels, barbarians and Merseians.
The Game of Empire.
During Flandry’s old age, his daughter, the son of an old acquaintance and a new Wodenite character foil a Merseian plot. Potentially, a new series begins…
The Long Night period (three stories and one novel, if we include the disputed “Memory”).
The Empire has fallen. In one story, Roan Tom roves the stars. Potentially, a new series begins… Later, humanity evolves.
Descendants of rebels expelled by Falkayn contact a new civilization, the Commonalty. Daven Laure is a Ranger of the Commonalty. Potentially, a new series begins…

(“Memory” is set after the fall of a human interstellar Empire but Anderson denied that this was the Terran Empire of the Technic History.)

The Imperial and post-Imperial periods, like the Polesotechnic period, could be analyzed story by story but I here resort to summarizing the later “History of Technic Civilization” in a few sentences. Nevertheless, the reader of this summary should be able to appreciate the scope of the complete series, despite its obvious pulp sf origins. The Terran Empire, introduced as a colorful backdrop for “space opera,” sf action-adventure fiction, later became the setting for novels reflecting on the process of imperial decline. If van Rijn profited from capitalist expansion but Flandry, later, resisted imperial decline, then what went wrong, or at least what happened, between their periods? The two periods were originally presented in unrelated series until Anderson, writing Flandry, suddenly thought to make him refer back to van Rijn and a new future history was born.


Hermes is a Terrestrial colony so Falkayn is human. Ythrians are winged carnivores with gills adapted as superchargers to lift bodies massive enough for intelligence. Diomedeans also fly but with bat-like, not feathered, wings. Wodenites are large reptilian quadrupeds descended from hexapods whose forelimbs came to be freed for manipulation. Adzel played the dragon in Chinese New Year and Wagnerian opera when he was a student on Earth.

Cynthians, arboreal hunters and traders, sound like intelligent squirrels. The Cynthian Chee Lan, small, female and aggressive, is clearly written to be an antithesis to the Wodenite Adzel who is large, male and placid, even converting to Buddhism. Ivanhoans, Merseians and some other species are humanoid with relatively minor variations. Baburites are hydrogen-breathing giant centipedes. Ymirites, encountered by Flandry, inhabiting Jovian planets and also breathing hydrogen, have many legs and tendrilled heads but cannot be seen clearly through a Jovian atmosphere. Flandry’s main opponent, a Chereionite, is of avian descent but humanoid.

Thus, instead of designing new organisms from their molecules up, Anderson usually adapts terrestrial forms. His humanoids may have differently coloured skins, different numbers of fingers, thumbs or eyes and no visible ears or nose but they remain recognizably humanoid. As a hard sf writer, Anderson can defend this procedure:

“On an essentially terrestroid planet, evolution basically parallels our own because it must.” (1)

And psychologically:

“Those we encounter on a regular basis are necessarily those whose bent is akin to ours…” (2)

If there are many races, then many of them will be incomprehensible to us but we will deal with those who are not. Anderson applies this principle in other works.

Three Novels

Any story set in the future is potentially an episode of a future history. A novel written in 2000 but set in 3000 assumes a history connecting the known events of 2000 with the fictitious events of 3000. The author of a single story could add any number of sequels and prequels to it. The Star Trek series moved in this direction, becoming more than a single series set in a single period.
Tau Zero, After Doomsday and World Without Stars by Poul Anderson remained independent works - except that one short story, “Pride,” is set in the same future as Tau Zero, with Stockholm as the world capital. The earlier, shorter version of Tau Zero had not shared this political background with “Pride” but the novel does, thus potentially launching yet another future history.

Each of these three novels takes a basic sf premise and presents a comprehensive conceptual development from that premise. Tau Zero avoids alien contact because it concentrates on the human crew of a relativistic spaceship which accelerates uncontrollably. Through time dilation, the ship and its crew survive into the next universe. The central character hopes that surviving humanity can become the Elder Race of that universe but we are not shown this happening.
The premises of After Doomsday are that:

the galaxy is full of intelligent races;
“superlight” travel is possible.

It follows that:

superlight is discovered somewhere some time, once or more than once;
explorers encounter many races, some of whom are willing and able to acquire superlight from them;
superlight travel spreads like dandelion seeds;
space traveling races deal with those with whom they can converse and ignore or bypass others;
they can deal regularly only with those in their immediate vicinity;
therefore, the galaxy is full of “civilization-clusters,” between which there is no regular contact;
within a cluster, space travellers learn a common language and one such language is used in several nearby clusters;
even within a cluster, every planet is economically self-sufficient so trade is in knowledge and luxury items;
the civilized galaxy is so vast that there cannot be a single Empire or Federation and no one knows the history or current macro-status of the entire galaxy;
militaristic imperialism between nearby worlds is possible and, this being a work by Anderson, it does occur in our cluster – marine warriors on one planet and nomadic conquerors on another maintain their societies by expanding into space, engage in conflict with each other and involve other races in the hostilities.

This scenario could have been the basis of an indefinite number of novels. This one novel has two specific additional premises:

first, human spaceships re-enter the Solar System at different times to find that some other race has destroyed all life on Earth so – who murdered Earth and what can be done about it?
secondly, the American spaceship crew is all male whereas the Europeans are all female so – how can they find each other to continue the human race?

Anderson wrote detective novels and this sf novel clearly has elements of detective fiction. Deducing who murdered Earth involves realizing that whoever did it used equipment which required them to translate from a numeral system based on the power of six to a system based on the power of twelve. A six fingered race tried to frame a twelve fingered race.
The European women aim to get rich in a capitalist cluster so that they will be able to pay for a fleet of ships to search the galaxy. The American men aim to win the local interstellar war, then to devise a ballad about their victory in a multi-cluster language. One of the women hears the ballad sung in a multi-species bar, Yotl’s Nest. By the end of the novel, Terrestrial men and women have met and have changed the balance of power in two civilization-clusters.
World Without Stars has two basic premises:

antithanatics prevent death by illness or old age so that people now die only by accident or violence;
by a series of instantaneous jumps, although with time-consuming intermediate journeys, a spaceship can reach not only other stars but even other galaxies.

It follows that:

population is not a problem;
life-styles and perspectives adjust to the long view (Earthside property left in the care of robots is unchanged centuries later; a spaceman has wives in several ports and may not see any one of them for several decades but each wife also has several space traveling husbands);
some individuals live for millennia, for example three thousand year old Hugh Valland who has lived through the entire period of interstellar and intergalactic travel and who is content, every few years or decades, to revisit a certain grave on Earth.

Again, these premises could have been the basis of an indefinite number of novels. This particular novel has the specific premise that its characters, crash-landing on a planet in a system between galaxies, need to work hard and to organize native labor in order to get back home and are led by Hugh Valland. Getting back off this ancient planet where there are no heavy metals takes them four decades. For Valland, Mary O’Meara waits on Earth.

  1. Anderson, Poul, “Wings of Victory,” Analog Science Fiction, April 1972, reprinted in Anderson, Poul, The Earth Book of Stormgate 1978, New York, pp. 3-22 at p. 14.
  2. Anderson, Poul, The Trouble Twisters, 1966, New York, p. 56.

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