Poul Anderson Essay - Critical Essays

Anderson, Poul


Anderson, Poul 1926–

An American novelist and translator of Danish folk tales, Anderson is best known as a science fiction writer, although he has also written detective stories and historical novels. He is the winner of several Nebula and Hugo awards. Anderson has also written under the pseudonyms Michael Karageorge, Winston P. Sanders, and A. A. Craig. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Theodore Sturgeon

Poul Anderson's beefy, beery, big-brained van Rijn, merchant adventurer extraordinary, stars in three long novelettes [in Trader to the Stars]—good ones—and proves for all time that when science fiction's sachem of swashbuckle sets out to write a story, he thinks first. He thinks clear across the spectrum … on micro- and macro-cosmic terms. Add many a bloody fight and flight, a clear and sometimes edged view of human societies and motivations, and you have what's given Anderson his high status in the field. The long view—that is, considerations not on the biographical scale but on the historical and geological scales—is not only refreshing: it's vital. There is literally no other way in which humanity can be made to realize, and therefore made to prevent, the tragic repetition of its own errors. (p. 1075)

Theodore Sturgeon, "Anyone for …?" in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1964; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XVI, No. 48, January 12, 1964, pp. 1074-75.∗

James Blish

[Tau Zero] is the ultimate "hard science-fiction" novel. Everybody else who has been trying to write this kind of thing can now fold up his tent and creep silently away.

The scientific problem is deceptively simple: What happens when an interstellar vessel, accelerating at a steady one gravity, is damaged in such a way that it can't stop doing so?…

The eventual consequences of this seemingly modest and constricting set of assumptions are so staggering as to make the inter-galactic epic of E. E. Smith, Ph.D. (who made up all his "science") seem in retrospect like a trip with mommy to the corner grocer. (p. 14)

[Anderson's book is mind-boggling because when you finish it you realize that:] It is almost all completely possible. Only at the very end does the author pull a rabbit out of his hat, and it seems like a rabbit only because of the scrupulosity of the rest of his argument: He makes two cosmological assumptions, one of which is in good odor among many reputable astrophysicists, the other a conjecture which, to say the worst of it, nobody is ever likely to prove wrong.

Anderson has not failed to populate his starship with interesting people with complex human problems, and the hero … is especially well realized. There are many moments of genuine emotion (as well as a few of facile tear-jerking). But nobody but a Dostoevsky could have given this novel a cast that would not be overshadowed by the grandeur of its events. Its flaws are mostly the consequences of its strengths. Overall, it is a monument to what a born novelist and poet can do with authentic scientific materials. And as is usual with recent Anderson, the poet is as important as the novelist…. (p. 15)

James Blish, "Books: 'Tau Zero'," in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (© 1971 by Mercury Press, Inc.; reprinted from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), Vol. 40, No. 3, March, 1971, pp. 14-15.

James Blish

[In the five novelettes of Operation Chaos Poul Anderson] posits an alternate Earth where magic works and is a part of everyday life, as well as of politics, warfare, medicine, the law, and, of course, religion. The hero and heroine have become the objects of special attention by the Adversary, though they seem only perfectly ordinary members of their society—he a werewolf, she a witch….

Poul's magic—his formal magic, that is—is borrowed eclectically from a good many different sources, and he has done a thorough job of making it seem an adjunct to, rather than a denial of, natural law….

In addition [to the speed of the action], the book is well populated and contains a great deal of humor; and—difficult though it is to imagine under these essentially playful circumstances—quite a lot of genuine emotion.

James Blish, "Books: 'Operation Chaos'," in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (© 1971 by Mercury Press, Inc.; reprinted from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), Vol. 41, No. 6, December, 1971, p. 25.

Roger Baker

Poul Anderson's future [in The Enemy Stars] bears no resemblance to anything. This could be a less than admirable example of his work, for he is renowned among sci-fi addicts. Although written with basic simplicity I found it very hard to understand. One is blinded by pseudo-science, then treated to rather eager statements about Man and God and the Universe.

Essentially it is the old, old story of four contrasting men trapped together in an unpromising situation…. Danger lurks, escape is essential and, of course, character shows through. Anderson's trap is a vast space ship off course and magnetically fixed to a planet which is just a lump of iron.

The scientific mumbojumbo is just not good enough to blind us to the fact that his characters are more than usually weak stereotypes—the golden youth, the cynical (but clever) older figure, the pilot who confesses himself frightened of space and so on. Were it dressed in anything but science-fiction it would be naked. (p. xiii)

Roger Baker, "Into the Future" (© copyright Roger Baker 1972; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 17, No. 11, August, 1972, pp. xii-xiii.∗

Sandra Miesel

It is not enough for [Anderson] to merely state the problem of mortal man in a finite universe. His concern lies with the effects of the problem: how should mortal man in a finite universe act? Rejecting passivity, he asserts that free action is both possible and necessary….

Mortals must resist entropy in both its guises, tyrannical stasis or anarchic chaos. The fight is all the more valiant for its utter hopelessness. (p. 6)

Anderson translates thermodynamics into metaphysics for his fantasies. Here, the physical equations relating order and entropy are replaced by a mystical struggle between the Principles of Law (order) and Chaos (disorder). But Law in Anderson's universe is order in the life-building sense of the term. It is nothing like the sterile emptiness of perfect equilibrium, a state that is as high in entropy as total randomness. Stasis may sometimes masquerade as Law, and pretend that any display of dynamic, creative order is Chaos. But in practice, tyranny is disorderly and turmoil static. Enantiadromia drives the two extreme states together as mirror images, leaving Law as the healthy middle ground confronting entropy.

The dialectic of Law and Chaos is drawn … clearly in Operation Chaos…. From segment to segment, the tempo quickens, concepts broaden, and emotions deepen. The protagonists, a witch and a werewolf, grow to meet the challenges posed by a progressively more dangerous array of supernatural foes…. (pp. 7-8)

Operation Chaos puts magic to the most practical use possible as the commonplace technology of the goetic age. Showing magic as a perfectly rational, orderly activity applicable to work, play, war, and homemaking produces that shift in frame of reference that makes fantasy so pleasureable. Prosaic settings for broomsticks and crystal balls are not only humorous, but they serve to throw the story's supernatural elements into higher relief.

Here content and theme unite: Operation Chaos celebrates ordinariness. (pp. 8-9)

Homely values are soundest; domestic happiness is sweetest…. Law is not constraint but protection for these humble realities. Without Law, the very concept of normalcy would vanish. Chaos is ever its foe…. (p. 9)

[In Operation Chaos Anderson follows] the traditional Augustinian view of evil defined as the absence of goodness. Evil is the decay, perversion, ruin of something initially good. It has no existence in itself….

Anderson embodies this concept in imagery both old and new. He designs his demons according to High Gothic and Northern Renaissance specifications—they might have stepped from the works of Schongauer, Grunewald, Bosch, or Brueghel. But making such a demon an idiot who speaks in crude hoodlum slang and travels between universes by exchanging itself for the contents of a garbage pail and a catbox puts infernal horrors in correct perspective.

Using the medieval three-decker universe as a starting point, Anderson's gifts of logic and poetry unite to produce [an] ingenious fantasy hell…. [This] hell is not a state of mind but an entire low-energy universe adjacent to the Middle World of men. (p. 10)

Tyrant, mob, and puppet giant attack a family in a dramatic skirmish in the unending war between Chaos and Law. Armed with innovative spells, the mathematical knowledge of a genius, and an heirloom sword the forces of love, loyalty, and courage prevail. This harmony struck among imaginative components—itself an example of Law—makes the climax the best section of Operation Chaos. (p. 11)

Anderson's Satan, exemplar of spiritual entropy, is a corpse-eyed Solipsist lost in the ultimate emptiness of his own monstrous ego.

Satan's foes respond to the challenge posed by his designs with outpourings of creative energy and efficient cooperation. They surprise their Enemy by acting in the face of hopeless odds. Courage is as alien to him as honor. They defeat the agents of Chaos by using familiar natural and preternatural laws….

The weak confound the strong in each episode, demonstrating that Law is more powerful than Chaos sub specie aeternitatis. Hell is barren disorder, loveless turmoil, tyranny, and anarchy combined. Heaven, on the other hand, is an "eternal high adventure" where patterns of advancement unfold without limit. Hell wants to curb spontaneity in its servants; Heaven encourages it. Results prove which policy is the wiser. Ironies multiply in geometric progression over the course of the novel while Heaven plays its marvelous cosmic joke on hell. (p. 12)

Enduring, not prevailing is man's lot in The Broken Sword. This "unrelievedly savage" novel provides the starkest possible contrast to Operation Chaos. It is a tumultuous saga that epitomizes Tolkien's definition of the Northern heroic spirit: "uttermost endurance in the service of indominable will." Here Fate, the force that sunders ties of blood, faith, and reason, proves too mighty a foe for the bravest and truest of lovers to survive. Only courageous death bears witness against entropy. (p. 15)

Going beyond motifs, Anderson mines the treasures of Norse poetry to give The Broken Sword a fitting emotional lustre. He has always favored this technique. His pages gleam with poetry—original, translated, adapted, or simply quoted. (Nearly all the works analyzed in this study feature some poetry.) When verse as such is absent, his poetic gift still makes its alloying presence felt in the sensuousness of his prose style. His talents are nowhere more lavishly displayed than in The Broken Sword. The text contains fourteen separate poems: lyrics, narratives, descriptions, and incantations done in a variety of lengths and meters, mostly treating...

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Gerald Jonas

For the science-fiction or fantasy writer, the rules governing the genre serve as a reminder of the importance of discipline; without discipline, imaginative literature tends toward a hermetic expression more akin to madness than to art. And finally, without labels like science fiction and fantasy, we could not have the salutary experience of seeing our expectations confounded by writers who know that, in the long run, it is the business of the imagination to break all rules.

Poul Anderson's "The Merman's Children" is a case in point. The story, which is based on a medieval Danish ballad, depicts the dying out of the folk of Faerie—including the web-footed amphibian creatures of the title—as a...

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Poul Anderson

[There] is a basic attitude, I suppose, which underlies my writing—namely, that this is a wonderful universe in which to live, that it's great to be alive, and that all it takes is the willingness to give ourselves a chance to experience what life has to offer. If I preach at all, it's probably in the direction of individual liberty, which is a theme that looms large in my work….

[But my main job is to entertain the reader and] to hold his interest as best I can. I do this, primarily, by keeping the story moving. Since most stories have a basic content, though, I suppose they're bound to reflect certain philosophical overtones. And so, where I can, I try to say some-thing that I feel is...

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Joanna Russ

"It was a brutal age," says Anderson defensively in his afterword about the 9th-century setting [of his novel The Demon of Scattery]. Then why write about it except as protest … or nightmare warning …? Demon does it for fun. There is much casual brutality and stiffly antiquarian detail, and one good sea-serpent which should have devoured the entire project, especially whoever thought up charging readers five times what the wordage would cost elsewhere. Caveat emptor.

Joanna Russ, "Crossing Inner Lands," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), February 24, 1980, p. 7.∗

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