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Poul Anderson: His Life and Work

Profiled by Galen Strickland
Posted June 3, 2001, with later edits

RIP: Poul, November 25, 1926 - July 31, 2001

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Born in Pennsylvania of Scandanavian lineage, he lived for a short period of time in Denmark before WW2, and resided in California with his wife (and sometimes writing partner) Karen until his recent death of prostate cancer. I've never been sure how his first name is pronounced. Is it one or two syllables - "Pole" or "Poe-uhl"? He is difficult to classify, as he had been tremendously prolific in both the science fiction and fantasy genres, and many of his works are a melding of the two. He created no less than seven distinct fictional sequences, two of them in collaboration with other authors, as well as a host of short stories not connected with any of these sequences, and dozens of singleton novels.

His scientific literacy is probably exceeded in the genre by only Asimov and Clarke, whereas the traditions of his ancestral heritage embues much of his work with a profound humanistic and libertarian philosophy, reminiscent of the best of vintage Heinlein. I would rank him higher in the SF heirarchy if not for what I consider his one shortcoming; the inability to create (with just a couple of exceptions) well-rounded, distinctively identifiable and believable characters. Even with that, I would still have to say that his galaxy-spanning narratives and hard-SF scenarios never overlook or overshadow the personal and emotional impact on his protagonists.

Anderson is the recipient of seven Hugo awards, as well as three Nebulas, all for novella-length and shorter works, although quite a few of his novels have been nominated. He was also named an SFWA Grand Master in 1997. He received a degree in physics from the University of Minnesota in 1948, but had already become active in writing and fan activities before that. His first publication came in 1947 with "Tomorrow's Children" in Astounding (in collaboration with F. N. Waldrop), but other sales were infrequent until the early '50s. His first novel, Vault of the Ages, was published in 1952, while a collection of some of his earliest stories, Alight in the Void, did not appear until 1991.

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1953 was the year in which his career seemed to come afire, with a total of nineteen short stories in various venues, as well as three very well received novels; Brain Wave, Three Hearts and Three Lions, and The War of Two Worlds. Brain Wave is still one of his strongest stories and perhaps as well-written as anything in his career. The premise is simple; for countless millennia Earth has been within the confines of an area of space in which exists a strong electro-magnetic damping field, the effect on humans being a supression of higher neuronic brain functions. When the planet finally is free from this area of space and of this effect, humanity and most animal species exhibit rapidly increased brain functions and thus a sudden evolution of intelligence. The story ends with humanity embarking on the exploration of the galaxy, leaving Earth under the control of former mental defectives and the higher animals. Three Hearts and Three Lions was one of his first efforts at combining the elements of science fiction and fantasy, as well as with his knowledge of northern European folklore. It was later sequeled by A Midsummer Tempest (1974).

As mentioned previously, Anderson is known for quite a few different interconnected story sequences, with perhaps the longest-running and most detailed being known as the Technic History cycle. This in turn is composed of three separate but related sequences, the chronology beginning with the stories collected in The Psychotechnic League, originally printed in 1981 but containing stories written as early as 1953. This details the efforts of humanity to rebuild following a devastating nuclear holocaust, and ends with our first steps back into space. This cycle was continued in several other story collections, including Cold Victory and Starship, both issued in 1982, as well as the novels The Snows of Ganymede (1955), Virgin Planet and Star Ways (1959 & 1956, respectively). This last was reissued in 1978, with a new introduction and retitled The Peregrine.

The continuation of the Technic cycle revolves around the Polesotechnic League, a group of laissez-faire interstellar traders, dominated in turn by two charismatic leaders. The first is Nicholas van Rijn, who made his first appearance in the 1958 novellette "War of the Wing-Men," which was reissued in 1978 with restored text as "The Man Who Counts." Van Rijn's story continued in the collections Trader to the Stars (1964) and The Trouble Twisters (1966), and the novels Satan's World (1969), and Mirkheim (1977), among others. As you might expect with an author of Anderson's prolificness, there are many of the books I've mentioned and will mention that are currently out of print. It is unfortunate that one of those is The Earth Book of Stormgate (1978), which includes a very detailed chronology of the Polesotechnic League stories. It lists the 21st Century as the century of recovery, with the 22nd Century being one of interstellar exploration. The 23rd Century sees the establishment of the Polesotechnic League, with van Rijn's birth coming in 2376. The next major character in the sequence is David Falkayn, born in 2406. The stories begin to overlap in about 2426. Earth Book itself is set at the end of the cycle, near the end of the 26th Century, the "Time of Troubles," which sees the dissolution of the Polesotechnic League.

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Continuing along the same chronology, the 28th Century sees the establishment of the Terran Empire, the stories of which are dominated by the character Dominic Flandry, whose first novel appearance came in Ensign Flandry (1966). Other works featuring this character include the novels A Circus of Hells (1970), The Rebel Worlds (1969), and The Day of Their Return (1973), along with the novellas "Mayday Orbit" and "Earthman Go Home," and the collection Agent of the Terran Empire (1965). As with many others whose careers include continuing story sequences, Anderson did not write these in the order of internal chronology, in fact the first appearance of Flandry came as early as 1951 in the short story "Tiger by the Tail" in Planet Stories. Originally depicted as self-centered, tough and pessimistic, Flandry was later developed into a character of much complexity and great stature in the Empire.

Another series of interconnected tales include those concerning the Time Patrol, a sort of galactic police agency whose exploits attempt to preserve the events of history which has led to a very advanced and enlightened civilization. Several different groups have discovered various means of time travel, and each attempt to alter the timelines to create scenarios more suitable to their own private ambitions. All of this sequence are shorter works, and have appeared in several collections. Guardians of Time (1960) and Time Patrolman (1983) were later combined in Annals of the Time Patrol (1984), with others appearing in The Year of the Ransom (1988), The Shield of Time (1990), and The Time Patrol (1991). Other shorter series include the History of Rustum sequence (the collections Orbit Unlimited and New America) and the Last Vikings (the novels The Golden Horn, The Road of the Sea Horse, and The Sign of the Raven).

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With his wife Karen, Anderson produced the The King of Ys series, which like the Last Vikings is high fantasy. This series includes the novels Roma Mater, Gallicenae, Dahut, and The Dog and the Wolf, and is now available in a single volume. He collaborated with the late Gordon R. Dickson on the comical Hoka series, which depicted man's interaction with an alien species of small, furry creatures. I'm not making any accusations, but I think a strong case could be made that the Hokas were a big influence on George Lucas' creation of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. These stories have been collected in Earthman's Burden (1957), Hoka! (1984), Hokas Pokas(1989), and Hoka! Hoka! Hoka!(1992).

Also of note are other singleton novels not previously mentioned: The High Crusade (1960), concerning an alien invasion of medieval Europe; The Star Fox (1965) and Fire Time, (1974) detailing two separate alien encounters; The Dancer from Atlantis (1972), which involves time travel but as far as I can recollect is not connected to the Time Patrol series; and the Hugo-nominated Tau Zero (1970), one of the finest - but at the same time complicated - hard SF tales ever written. Anderson almost lost me a couple of times in this book in his attempted discussions of the physics involved in the starship drive engines, but redeemed the tale with a counterpoint analysis of the emotional effects on the ship's crew members.

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A more recent series of novels, surrounding the adventures of Anson Guthrie, began with Harvest of Stars (1993), and continued in The Stars Are Also Fire (1994), Harvest the Fire (1995), and The Fleet of Stars (1997). The earlier The Boat of a Million Years (1989) can perhaps be viewed as a prequel to this series. Other recent works include the story collection All One Universe (1996), and the novels Starfarers (1998) and Genesis (2000), which was awarded the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. I have not read these last three works, but as far as I have been able to determine, they are not connected with any of Anderson's previous story cycles. The latest available titles were published posthumously; Going for Infinity is a story collection, while For Love and Glory is apparently the last novel Anderson completed before his death.

Because he wrote such a vast number of novels and stories, there are several that are not of the caliber that I could recommend, but at the same time much of his work is close to the best the field has to offer. There is no doubt that his Grand Master award was well deserved. The astute reader should be able to detect a great sense of the spirituality inherent in man in Anderson's work, and also of his basic goodness and nobility. As with many of his character's, it is apparent that Anderson considered the most worthy ambition of man is to survive, to endure the chaotic and potentially decaying universe, with values intact.


Related Links:
Anderson's Bibliography at fantasticfiction.com
Religion in the fiction of Poul Anderson by Glenn McDavid
Reviews of several Anderson books by Dani Zweig
Locus Online Interview


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November 25, 1926
Bristol, Pennsylvania

July 31, 2001

No Official Website
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7 Hugos
3 Nebulas
SFWA Grand Master (1998)
SF Hall of Fame (2000)
Prometheus (The Stars Are Also Fire)
John W. Campbell Memorial (Genesis)