Friday, 20 April 2012

Poul Anderson’s Future Histories

Robert Heinlein’s major successors as future historians are Poul Anderson and Larry Niven. Two differences between Anderson and Niven are:

Anderson always writes clearly, although his rich vocabulary necessitates a dictionary;
Niven’s prose always reflects, I think, a comfortable life-style whereas Anderson frequently emphasizes the suffering caused by governments and wars.

Anderson’s Future Histories

: a time chart
Technic: social change
Maurai: post-nuclear Earth
Flying Mountains: asteroid colonization
Rustum: extrasolar colonization
Kith: interstellar trade
Harvest of Stars tetralogy: human-AI interaction
Genesis: post-human AI

(AI = artificial intelligence.)

This summary makes these works look like successive stages of a single series but their mutual inconsistencies mark them off as distinct future histories.

Anderson’s future histories make three successive sets of assumptions:

The first two: many humanoid aliens; FTL.
The middle four: fewer, less humanoid, aliens; STL.
The last two: no aliens; STL mainly or only for AI’s.

(F/STL = faster/slower than light interstellar travel.)

These future histories present four levels of competition or conflict:

familiar trade and imperialism but across interstellar distances;
trade across distances that make imperialism impossible;
a clash of values between chaotic humanity and harmonious AI;
a disagreement between post-human AI’s about whether to re-create chaotic humanity.

The Psychotechnic History

Anderson, following Heinlein, compiled a time chart, then set stories and novels in successive periods of the chart. This framework could not constrain his imagination indefinitely but, while it lasted, he used it to address Heinleinian and Asimovian themes:

the first robot is unemployed;
immortality is possible only for organisms sheltered from all radiation, therefore confined underground;
a science of social control prevents mutiny on a generation ship (Heinlein’s crew had mutinied; religious fervor sustains Simak’s);
despite its science of social control, the Psychotechnic Institute cannot prevent unemployment or social unrest and is overthrown by the Humanist Revolt of 2170, just as Heinlein’s theocratic social controllers had been overthrown by the Second American Revolution of 2070.

The Technic History

Anderson’s main conventional future history is his longest in number of volumes: seventeen plus two or three extra short stories. His subsequent speculative works make the Technic History seem dated. However, this series remains imaginative in its descriptions of other planets, exciting in its narrative of a career in Intelligence and convincing in its evocation of imperial decadence. Anderson, more than any other sf writer, wrote well on different levels and also developed.

The Short Histories

Tales of the Flying Mountains is a single collection whose characters discuss how to teach their history to their children. Two collections describe the colonization of the extrasolar planet Rustum and all but one story in a third collection are consistent, or at least not inconsistent, with the Rustum history. Thus, with only minor revision, this could be packaged as a three volume future history: Orbit Unlimited, High America and The Queen Of Air And Darkness and other stories.

The Maurai and Kith histories are so short that both were contained in a single collection, Maurai and Kith. However, each later gained a novel. Further, the Maurai Federation is one of the periods visited in Anderson’s time travel novel, There Will Be Time, which presents a longer perspective on past and future history.

Anderson’s Interstellar Travel

FTL is an sf cliché. Anderson counteracts cliché by presenting a different means of FTL in every relevant work or series.

Like FTL, relativistic STL makes generation ships redundant but, like generation ships, it distances starfarers from planet dwellers, hence the distinctive Kith culture.

AI’s are less vulnerable to radiation, need no life support and can switch themselves off or contemplate mathematics, aesthetics etc during long interstellar voyages. In the Harvest of Stars tetralogy, human personalities downloaded into artificial neural systems and accompanied by organic human beings in suspended animation travel to extrasolar planets where they either preside as the governing intelligences of newly introduced terrestroid ecologies or are downloaded into newly grown human bodies.

In Genesis, AI, including “uploaded” human memories, spreads, over millions of years, through a mostly lifeless universe and starts to form a galactic brain whose smallest units (nodes) retain individual consciousness which they can divide and re-merge while learning, creating and self-evolving. At sub-light speeds, nodes fill the spiral arms and Magellanic Clouds. They reach the Andromeda galaxy long after human extinction and shortly before terrestrial extinction.

Anderson’s Stapledonian Apotheoses

Anderson’s last two future histories update Stapledonian speculation about the ultimate fates of consciousness and the cosmos. In the tetralogy, AI plans to survive stellar extinction by utilizing the energy of particle disintegration. Stapledon’s cosmic mind was a telepathic union between many organic races originating throughout the universe whereas Anderson’s potentially cosmos-surviving mind is an electromagnetic linkage between many post-organic intelligences emanating from Earth.

Telepathy is used for espionage in the Technic History but Anderson’s later works transcend clichés like telepathy and espionage. (The Flandry component of the Technic History began as a space opera series including a story in which Dominic Flandry “discovered how to lie to a telepath,” (1) ie, allowed himself to be convinced of inaccurate intelligence which his opponent then read from his mind. Flandry and that opponent developed into more substantial characters but their future history remained saddled with implausible inter-species telepathy which Anderson rationalized well but then dispensed with, along with humanoid aliens and FTL, in later future histories.)

Scientific Supernaturalism?

In Genesis, the solar AI, Gaia, re-creates extinct human beings on Earth and “emulates” human societies inside conscious computer systems. (“Simulates” would imply unconsciousness.) Anderson does not show how his computer systems can be conscious. "In crude, mythic language...," (2) they apply programs to numbers or maps. Programs apply rules to symbols but do not understand meanings. The running of a program is an unconscious process. Numbers and maps cannot be conscious, unless a "map" of a brain were so accurate as to be an exact replica of the original. Anderson's "emulations" do not duplicate the usual causes of consciousness but do somehow duplicate consciousness.

Specifically, they do not duplicate the universe but do duplicate the appearance of the universe in many, not just one, "emulated" minds. They do not duplicate millions of brains but do duplicate the effects in brains of sensory inputs. Can qualitatively different causes have identical effects? Maybe, but programs, numbers, maps and models are insufficient explanations. However, if this language is "crude" and "mythic," then really something else is happening. Artifacts duplicating brain functions would duplicate consciousness so Harvest of Stars rightly refers not to conscious computer systems but to artificial neural systems.

Gaia hopes to learn from her emulations how to guide her physical creatures towards a stable but free technological society but galactic AI may disapprove of her re-introduction of conflict and suffering. Thus, an issue from the Biblical-Miltonic supernaturalist tradition, whether it is right to create conscious beings, is re-introduced in scientific contexts not only by the first sf writer, Mary Shelley, but also by Poul Anderson.

Anderson’s scientific equivalence of supernaturalism is reinforced when Gaia communicates with her creatures in the form of divinities in which they would, in any case, have believed at an early stage of their social development. Anderson’s fantasies had assumed the literal existence of Norse gods.

A man caught in the conflict between two nodes of the galactic brain embarks on a quest as in a fantasy novel. Entering and exploring emulations resembles visiting alternative timelines in a time travel novel. Thus, Genesis combines elements of earlier works.


Gaia’s emulations are necessarily incomplete with simplified ecologies, fictitious inhabitants and stars that are mere lights in their skies. Anderson recognizes the limits even of such advanced technology but adds that the power to model the entire universe (effectively, to create a new universe) may lie immensely far in the future.

Human beings who “uploaded” their memories “…went up in the machines…” willingly:

“…because that was the way by which the spirit could live and grow forever.” (3)

“…went up…” connotes spiritual ascent, transcending the connotations of “machines.”

Perhaps there can never be an ultimate culmination of sf but, as Stapledon was for an earlier period, Anderson was for his.

1. Poul Anderson, Flandry Of Terra (London: Coronet Books, 1976), p. 9.
2. Poul Anderson, Genesis (New York: Tor, 2001), p. 145.
3. ibid, p. 245.

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