Poul Anderson (d. 2001) described interstellar space as well as anyone ever has. Consider this recollection from astronaut pilot Kyra Davis, the heroine of his 1993 novel Harvest of Stars, who takes a look around while traversing part of Olympus Mons, the mountain on Mars that rears higher than any other in our Solar System:
A stride set her afloat. The worldlet was little more than a darkness, faintly asheen where a crest jutted out of shadow, a piece torn from the sky that otherwise encompassed her. Stars filled that night, their multitudes overwhelmed it, unwinking brilliances, colors clear, steel-blue Vega, amber Arcturus, smoldering coal that was Betelgeuse. The Milky Way torrented in frost and silence.
Beautiful, no? Almost every reference to starlight in the novel has similar poetic reach. Anderson’s gift for vivid description trumps his workmanlike plotting, and may have been what caused Larry Niven to praise Harvest of Stars as “more tightly integrated than Moby Dick.”
Whoa, Nelly! Nothing in this book has the iconic heft of “Call me Ishmael,” or describes a profession with Herman Melville’s mania for the minutiae of old-time whaling. Niven exaggerated. Nevertheless, Harvest of Stars deserves a good solid B+. Only two things keep it from earning the slightly higher grade associated with literary classics: The first is Anderson’s secular materialist outlook, and the second is his antiseptic approach to his protagonists. On the one hand, Anderson apparently thinks that macro-evolution is settled science, population control is necessary, and artificial intelligence must eventually supplant our own. On the other hand, a civil war and other events in the story are described in strangely dispassionate terms or after they happen rather than while they are happening.
It may not be fair to ding a novel because its characters make a few wrong assumptions, but I don’t care. I grew up around too many cops and military veterans. Dad still calls candy “Pogey Bait,” and an old marine expression says that if you find yourself in a fair fight, you planned poorly.
At plot level, Harvest of Stars ponders the nature of freedom and the relationship between man and machine. Anson Guthrie, the visionary CEO of a multinational company with extraterrestrial assets, must outwit a formerly secret duplicate of himself whose mind was forcibly reprogrammed to serve a totalitarian regime. The high-stakes game between “good Guthrie” and “bad Guthrie” spawns strife on Earth and a problematic alliance with a civilization on the moon. Soon enough the motley collection of human, near-human, and Lunarian protagonists must make decisions on which their collective future depends.
Harvest of Stars wants to be epic, and Anderson knows what any trek to that plateau requires. A soldier of fortune with a bit part in the story describes his time as “the kind of age where four stand at the corners of life: the worker, the warrior, the priest, and the poet.” Forgive the man his word choice (by “corners,” he means “center,” unless you shift perspective enough to see how people at the corners hold up what is between them); the description seems otherwise apt.
Unfortunately, while a poet and several workers feature prominently in this story, Harvest of Stars gives warriors and priests short shrift. Apart from early and unserious flirtation with worship of the state, religion is irrelevant to Anderson’s main characters. They are fascist, monarchist, or libertarian, but they have no need of priests because they are never pious. Pilot Kyra thinks faith might be incompatible with reason, and pointedly leaves that hypothesis untested. On the other side of the ledger, her sometime bodyguard enters the story as a warrior, but spends the rest of the book either laying low or regretting the profession of arms, mostly because Kyra finds his itchy trigger finger reprehensible.
Anderson mishandles certain relationships. Mick Jagger burned hotter for honky-tonk women (and Marc Cohn hotter for a silver Thunderbird) than anyone in this novel does for his or her spouse. While several characters sprinkle their native English speech with Spanish endearments, scattered references to “jefe” and “querida” never overcome the impression that Anderson would rather describe the difficulty of storing antimatter safely than round out his portraits of the good-hearted jock, her larger-than-life boss, and her poet friend. Tellingly, Kyra herself is described in terms that a shipwright might use for his current project. She is “broad-shouldered for a woman,” wears her blonde hair in a Dutch bob, and is “slender but well outfitted fore and aft.” The secondary problem with language like that is that Anderson describes the tree that grows in a space station more lovingly.
Alien psychology also gets superficial treatment. In what might be a tip of the hat to starship captain James Tiberius Kirk, Lunarian lords and ladies – taller, thinner, and more delicate than most humans but otherwise similarly equipped — are depicted as inscrutable or coolly seductive.
This is a book where the journey matters more than the people on it, yet Anderson’s craft is such that Shakespeare provides an interpretive key by which we can understand it better. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. Characters here suggest that we answer ultimately to Nature. The “primordial soup” theory that had been discredited even before Anderson spiced it with nanotechnology makes an appearance, and so does evolution as a tool for making humans less quarrelsome or “chaotic,” which perhaps explains why the United Nations in this future calls itself the “Peace Authority.”
Stepping up to his own podium late in the story, Anderson announces that “A natural ecology is no more than a set of relationships among organisms.” Materialist assumption uncloaks itself in the next sentence: “However wonderfully complex and subtle, [these relationships] are the result of geological eras of strife, blind chance, the modifications that life itself has made to its surroundings, and pitiless winnowing of all that does not find ways to belong.”
Egad, I thought, who let Al Gore and his Copenhagen Climate Conference cronies into a perfectly good space opera? Can “blind chance” account for irreducible complexity? Not bloody likely! Anderson there wrapped one science fiction in another. The irony is that in a figurative sense he puts Darwin on the front porch, trumpeting evolution like Louis Armstrong, while intelligent design slinks through the screen door out back, close-lipped and quiet as magi dodging the minions of King Herod.
Despite the flaws in Harvest of Stars, I like its ambition and most of its craft. If you time-traveled back to Bethlehem in the first century and wanted a compelling account of what it must have been like to encounter a multitude of angels, you could do worse than tap Poul Anderson for the description. He might not be able to guess what the angels were doing and why, but he’d do poetic justice to the star-flecked radiance of the heavenly host, and we all have to start somewhere.