Friday, 20 April 2012

Comparing Anderson

Robert Heinlein's Future History is the definitive science fiction (sf) future history series with stories and novels set in successive periods, thus not focusing on any single character. Star Trek, Star Wars, Dune and Foundation are well known sf series about exotic but implausible interstellar wars and empires. Poul Anderson's Technic History is a Heinleinian future history series incorporating several volumes about interstellar wars and empires. Anderson's series is comparable to Heinlein's and superior to the better known works mentioned here. He describes faster than light (FTL) space battles with technical precision. His hyperspace (in this series) is not another space but quantum jumping in and out of this space with no time needed for each jump, thus generating an FTL pseudo-velocity. His interstellar empire and the reasons for its decline are less implausible and more substantial than Asimov's, Herbert's etc. 

Anderson's Dominic Flandry struggles to delay the Fall of the Terran Empire in a small volume of one galactic arm whereas Asimov's Hari Seldon organises an elite who will secretly manipulate populations in order to reduce the interregnum between the First and Second Galactic Empires. The First Empire easily embraces the entire galaxy but strangely never ventures beyond it. Asimov wanted a galaxy full of humanly colonized planets merely to give him a population large enough for Seldon's psychohistorical predictions to work but did not otherwise consider the implications of galactic vastness whereas Anderson emphasizes the impossibility of fully comprehending any single planet, let alone controlling the many entire worlds in his, much smaller, Terran Empire. 

Unlike Asimov or Herbert, Anderson shows many species interacting in different ways before and during the Imperial period. Human and other merchants of the Polesotechnic League amass vast wealth by opening up interstellar traffic but the League declines. Later, green-skinned Merseians seek to destroy the Terran Empire, winged Ythrians organise independently of it and hydrogen-breathing Ymirites are indifferent to it. Colonising Jovoid, not terrestroid, planets, the Ymirite Dispersal overlaps with the Terran Empire and the Merseian Rhoidunate but need directly interact with neither, even when occupying neighboring planets in the Solar and other Systems. Terrans and Merseians are alike enough to be enemies. Ymirites are so unlike either as to have no conflicting interests - and can have few common interests. (An attempt to destroy the Sun would be a common threat since Terrans inhabit Earth, Luna and Venus and Ymirites inhabit Jupiter.) 

Extra-solar aliens colonizing Mars come to be called "Martians." They have yellow eyes, feathers, owlish faces and clawed hands, are (like Edgar Rice Burroughs' green Martians) organized in "hordes," run a Martian Transport Company in the League and are subject to a human Duke of Mars in the Empire. We know of these Martians only from two short scenes:

Kraachnach of the Sirruch Horde represents the Martian Transport Company at a meeting of League merchants;
the Duke attends an Imperial party at the Coral Palace.
The account of the merchants' meeting, reproduced in The Earth Book (see below), informs Avalonians of their Founder, Falkayn's, employer and mentor, van Rijn.

As in Heinlein's Future History, each period provides a base for works set in later periods: 

interplanetary exploration;
interstellar exploration;
interstellar trade by the Polesotechnic League;
the League merchant, van Rijn;
van Rijn's protege, Falkayn;
a colony founded by Falkayn;
post-League Troubles;
early Empire;
conflict between early Empire and Falkayn's colony;
the Flandry period of the Empire;
the post-Imperial "Long Night";
restoration of civilization, the Allied Planets;
a later civilization, the Commonalty.

Thus, there is no direct connection between the early period of interplanetary exploration and the much later period of the Commonalty. However, these very different periods are indirectly linked by, according to this way of listing them, no less than eleven intermediate stages, more than in Heinlein's series. Further, each period is presented in colorful detail. 

For example, Falkayn's joint human-Ythrian colony on Avalon resists Imperial annexation and remains in the Domain of Ythri. Avalon is ably defended by its Marchwardens, Ferune of Mistwood and Daniel Holm. Holm's son, Christopher, is also Arinnian of Stormgate, a human being who has joined an Ythrian choth. Arinnian translates several Ythrian works into Anglic and contributes to The Earth Book of Stormgate which presents human perspectives on events leading to Avalonian colonization. We do not see the Ythrian Sky Book.

Some planets have two indigenous rational species. Starkad has both land-dwellers and sea-dwellers. The two Talwinian species inhabit the same territory but are active at different times of the long year with one species, Domrath, regarding the other, Ruadrath, as supernatural. 

Many rational species and human societies co-exist but retain their unique characteristics within the Empire. Human Freeholders resist the Empire until it accepts their completely different, non-urban, way of life. The colony planet Aeneas nearly becomes the flash point of a Jihad until Erannath of Stormgate Choth on Avalon, spying for both Domain and Empire, reveals that a Chereionite telepath working for Merseia controls the prophet. Some human beings work for Merseia and one Merseian population on a human colony planet is loyal to the Emperor.

Many planets appear in only a single short story although several are re-visited:

Gray, re-named Avalon.

Gray that was the scene of a moral conflict between Christianity and the Ythrian New Faith becomes Avalon that is the scene of the military conflict between Empire and Domain. We see the inhospitable planet Dido, then, later, its sister planet Aeneas, colonized as a base for studying the tripartite Didonians. Large, quadruped Wodenites convert to Terrestrial religions. One, studying on Earth, becomes a Buddhist. Later, another, ordained in the Jerusalem Catholic Church, seeks among Ancient ruins for evidence of a second Incarnation. 

Like Larry Niven's Known Space series, the Technic History refers back to a much earlier interstellar civilisation but Anderson keeps his earlier civilization mysterious. Who were the Ancients and where did they go? To transcendence or extinction? If, as Aycharaych claims, they were his people, the Chereionites, then they have two features in common with Niven's Thrintun, telepathy and living relics.
Although Merseians refer to "the God" and Ythrians to "God the Hunter," their religions have no common ground either with each other or with any human faith. The God favors the Race. Because Ythrians, although intelligent, remain winged, hunting carnivores, a good death in the New Faith involves neither peaceful acceptance nor a hoped for hereafter but active resistance to give God the Hunter a good fight. 

Ramnuans, small gliders on a heavy planet, need Imperial help to end their Ice Age but must first contend with incomprehensible human politics. One Ramnuan hopes that she has misunderstood her human oath-sister when the latter tries to explain that the star-folk submit their wills and fates to others whom they may never have met. Most stellar and planetary names are based on terrestrial mythologies but Ramnu, discovered by Cynthians, was named by them. 

Talwin, discovered and named by Merseians but neutralized as an advance base by Flandry, becomes a joint scientific base and meeting place for the two races. Talwin and its star, Siekh, are named after Merseian civil war heroes. "Dom" is the Merseian attempt to pronounce a Talwinian name. "-rath" is Eriau for "folk." Eriau is the dominant Merseian language and Ruadrath were nocturnal supernatural beings in Merseian mythology. Thus, if Terrans had discovered the system, then the star, the planet and the inhabitants could instead have been called, e. g., Argos, Molitor, Dom-folk and Elven-folk. (Manuel Argos founded the Terran Empire; Hans Molitor won an intra-imperial civil war.)

Anderson gave Betelgeuse a large planetary system before it was discovered that red giants should not have such systems so he later presented his characters as puzzled by this development. His Venus is humanly habitable but we learn that this is because of only partly successful terraforming. Political refugees leave known space and their descendants are encountered millennia later when the cause of the conflict has been forgotten.

Chunderban Desai, an Imperial bureaucrat from the colony planet Ramanujan, is a theoretician of empires and their decline but cannot emulate Seldon's impossible feat of diverting the course of history. At most, Desai warns Flandry that his enemies may know that the Empire has entered an unavoidable period of internal conflicts so that, by pushing in just the right places, they might hasten its Fall. Flandry cannot prevent that Fall but does delay it till after his death. He supports Molitor's usurpation when legitimate succession has broken down but otherwise opposes, and defeats, attempted usurpations. One later attempt, defeated in part by Flandry's daughter, is indeed backed by Merseia. We see no sign of Merseians advancing towards galactic domination after the Fall of the Empire but, since space is three dimensional and unbounded, perhaps they just expand in a different direction? A more likely theory is that the two imperia wore each other out and it would be interesting to know how the Merseians coped with their failure to conquer the galaxy. 

As Charles Monteith said of James Blish's Cities in Flight series, this reads like a higher and greater Star Trek. Blish's Manhattan in Flight, like the Enterprise, visits extra-solar planets and intervenes in their affairs. Anderson is better than Star Trek at multi-species interaction. Compare Flandry, Aycharaych, Chereion and Merseia with Kirk, Spock, Vulcan and Kling. Anderson's post-Imperial period resembles Asimov's series in that it focuses on the remote future of humanity and does not mention the other species encountered earlier. Humanity spreads through several spiral arms, changes its form of interstellar organization and evolves biologically and psychologically. Many other species must still exist but a much longer series would have been necessary to present their further futures.

The four works set after the Empire, in the years 3600, 3900, 4000 and 7100 according to Sandra Miesel's Chronology of Technic Civilization, describe encounters not with newly met alien races but, as in Blish's series, with human populations that have been isolated by interstellar distances. There have been linguistic, biological and psychological changes. In Star Trek, the encounters would have been with humanoid aliens but Anderson's hard sf is more credible or at least less incredible.

Re-reading and writing about the series focuses attention on many rich details otherwise forgotten. In particular, I appreciate:

the "Martians";
the black Merseian seen by Falkayn;
the back story for The Earth Book;
the one story featuring the Founder of the Terran Empire;
the Coral Palace and
Flandry's illuminating dialogues with Molitor, Desai, Aycharaych and Tachwyr the Dark of Merseia.

Contending for the same planets, Flandry and Tachwyr drink each others' beers and practice each others' languages. In addition, when Tachwyr asks whether Flandry is still a bachelor, he must speak Anglic because the Eriau equivalent would be an insult. They can shake hands but Flandry lacks a tail. Over several volumes, the "greenskins" or "gatortails" grow from space opera villains into solid characters. Their dominant culture is single-minded about conquest and racial dominance. Therefore, their leaders regard Terran-style diplomacy as merely a new kind of warfare against a powerful enemy. Flandry knows this. He also knows that his side resists Merseian expansion but lacks the will to counter-attack. He mans the pump on a sinking ship. Although we see neither his death nor the Empire's Fall, it is fitting that we read post-Empire narratives and intriguing that they do not mention Merseians. As in real history, there is always more that could be told.

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