Friday, 20 April 2012

The Long Night

Poul Anderson over-uses the term "Long Night" which refers to the immediate post-Imperial period in his Technic History. The Imperialist Flandry continually anticipates the Long Night with apprehension. Four millennia later, Daven Laure says:

"Sir, the League, the troubles, the Empire, its fall, the Long Night...every such thing - behind us. In space and time alike. The people of the Commonalty don't get into wars." (1)

The Lancaster sf book seller, Pete Pinto, commented that, if the Commonalty has arisen from the "Long Night," then Commonalters should not call it that. Of course, the author is mainly signalling to the reader through a character that the latter exists in the same timeline as van Rijn and Falkayn of the Polesotechnic League and Flandry of the Terran Empire. Laure can hardly be speaking League Latin or Imperial Anglic so we might regard the phrase "Long Night" in his dialogue as translating whatever phrase he does use into terms familiar to us. 

Anderson made this point in relation to his earlier future history:

"...a story laid some centuries hence must be thought of as a translation, not merely of language but of personalities and concepts corresponding only approximately to anything we know." (2)

The League and its successor the Empire occupied only a small part of one spiral arm of the galaxy whereas, by 7100, the Commonalty operates in one of several divergent human civilisations thinly occupying two or three spiral arms. There is mention of human diversity but not of any interaction with other rational species. This implicitly contradicts the earlier series but only implicitly. Anderson could have extended the series even further by recounting what the Long Night had done to Merseians, Ythrians, Cynthians, Wodenites etc. However, he regarded the History as already having made its point about the periodic, though not inevitable, rise and fall of civilizations so why belabor the point?
"Better to seek new themes." (3)

...which he did in future histories about human-AI interaction and post-human AI without ET's or FTL (i. e., without extra-terrestrials or faster than light interstellar travel): a different though less implausible scenario. 

If "the Long Night" means not just "later than the Empire" but, more specifically, the period of chaos and barbarism immediately following and resulting from the Fall of the Empire, then "Starfog," about the Commonalty, is set well after the Long Night. Only three works are set between the last Empire novel, The Game of Empire, and "Starfog." The first of these, "A Tragedy of Errors", is definitely set during the Long Night. It begins:

"Later ages wove a myth about Roan Tom. He became their archetype of those star rovers who fared forth while the Long Night prevailed." (4)

Again, the phrase is used to clarify not only which series this story belongs to but also which period of the series it is set in. 
"A Tragedy of Errors" is deceptively simple, on the surface a conventional action-adventure story but with informed scientific speculation throughout. The planet Nike has been colonised not only by human beings but also by "...the more efficient, highly developed species that man commonly brought with him...": oak; birch; primroses; grass overwhelming "...a pseudo-moss that apparently had a competitive advantage only in shade..." although, in one place, the dense vegetation is "...principally native Nikean, dominated by primitive but tree-sized 'ferns.'" (4) (5)

This theme continues in the next short story, "The Sharing of Flesh," set, according to Sandra Miesel, four centuries later. On another planet, a plant descended from clover is "...scattered low among the reddish native pseudo-grasses." (6) The view point character, Evalyth, remembers that:

"Clover was another of those life forms that man had brought with him from Old Earth, to more planets than anyone now remembered, before the Long Night fell." (6)

Evalyth's home world Kraken has altered pines, gulls and rhizobacteria but Krakeners had forgotten that these organisms came from Earth with their ancestors.

Returning to "A Tragedy of Errors," Tom and his wives, even while fleeing from their (temporary) enemies, speculate about the scientific oddities of Nike and its sun and have found answers by the end of the story. Despite its small size, Nike has a breathable atmosphere and a biosphere because it is old enough for its weak gravitational field to have had enough time to pull the heavier elements into the kind of solid core that generates atmosphere-producing planetary forces. It follows that Nike's sun is also old. This explains its variability and enables Tom to import solar meteorologists who will predict the weather on a planet where harsh and previously unpredictable storms were catastrophic. But first he must learn that, in the local lingo, he needs to " 'change " with "camarados," not to "do business" with "friends."

The main point of the story is that words change their meanings over time. An opening and closing quotation clarifies that "awful" once meant "awesome" etc. In the story, space raiders attacking the isolated Nike had ironically introduced themselves as "friends" coming to do "business." A decade later, a refugee seeking help and using those same words is in trouble, especially when he refuses to "slave" himself, i. e., to accept precautionary arrest. This is the main communication problem but there are other examples of linguistic shift. When a scientifically based society degenerates into a feudalism, then "Engineer" becomes the title of a feudal lord. Twice in the Technic History, in the League and Empire periods, a "rogue planet," meaning a loose or sunless planet, had played a pivotal role in history. Tom would call that a "bandit planet" because to him "rogue planet" means a planet, like Nike, with an unusual orbit or composition. A character who has studied the classics knows some science because, in the Long Night, scientific knowledge is a classical art!

"A Tragedy of Errors" is one of at least three proto-series in the Technic History, i. e., Roan Tom could have become a series character. The two other potential series characters are Diana Crowfeather abd Daven Laure. By contrast, "Margin of Profit," introducing van Rijn, and "Tiger by the Tail," introducing Flandry, would have been proto-series if they had not had sequels. We are told that, during Tom's life-time, his " was already in the ballads of a dozen planets." (7) 

He even introduces the story from an imaginary Valhalla where Earth grown tobacco is available but this is only a narrative device. Anderson stops short of introducing the fantasy of a literal Valhalla into the hard sf of the Technic History. One Empire novel refers to Manuel Argos " whatever hypothetical hell or Valhalla the Founder dwelt." (8) Fittingly, the Valhalla references link Manuel, slave and Emperor, to Tom, trader and warlord. Manuel responds to the Troubles by leading a slave revolt and founding the Terran Empire. Tom copes with the Long Night by trading when possible and fighting when necessary. He shares van Rijn's ability to identify common interests and to arrange mutually advantageous exchanges that can transform potential enemies into trading partners and allies.

  I would not have remembered the details about Nike, and thus would not have fully appreciated Anderson's work, if I had not set out to re-read and summarize the details.

The remaining three post-Imperial works deal with more fundamental changes than linguistic alterations. "The Sharing of Flesh" occurs when the Allied Planets are restoring interstellar civilisation, thus at the beginning of the end of the Long Night. A mutation in a small and impoverished population which for one or two generations had practiced cannibalism for survival entails that boys can reach puberty only by gaining the extra hormones provided by cannibalism. Thus, cannibalism continues until the Allied Planets provide hormone pills, then Terrestrial-type meat animals.

In "Starfog," the Kirkasanter population that has been isolated for millennia has an instinctual compulsion to have children but cannot interbreed with the people of the Commonalty. Thus, Laure cannot after all marry a Kirkasanter woman whom he has met. The single post-Empire novel, The Night Face, is set before "The Sharing of Flesh." Organizations from two civilized planets join forces to explore Gwydion which has been isolated throughout the entire Imperial period. The Gwydiona are unusually peaceful and harmonious without any legal coercion or government control but something mysterious, a transcendent experience that they cannot describe, occurs once a year. It turns out that everyone becomes insane for a few days. They can harm themselves or each other but instantly forget that it is they themselves that have done it. They have unconsciously developed ways to minimize the harm. For example, when everyone is insane, ritual chanting and dancing channels the energy that would otherwise be expressed as homicidal violence. But the ritual is disrupted by the presence of extra-planetary visitors who do not understand what is happening... (9) I think there was a Star Trek episode like this but, of course, Anderson does it better.

What can we say about the post-Imperial period of the Technic History? It comprises four works. Each work describes an encounter with an isolated human community, not with a new non-human species. In each work, something important has changed: language; biology; psychology; again biology. The first biological change is reversible. The second is not. The works present four stages of development from the barbarism of Roan Tom in a small part of the former Imperial volume of space to the support services of the Commonalty stretching across a spiral arm.

Would the Technic History be better balanced and more satisfactory if there were less of Flandry and more of the Long Night? In my opinion, the series would be better if there were more of Flandry and more of the Long Night. It is long but seems too short.

(1) Anderson, Poul, "Starfog," Analog, 1967, IN Anderson, The Long Night, New York, May 1983, pp. 240-310 at p. 251.
(2) Anderson, P, Virgin Planet, London, April 1966, 151.
(3) Anderson, P, "Concerning Future Histories," Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America, Volume 14, No 3, Whole No 71, Fall 1979, pp. 7-14 at p. 13.
(4) Anderson, P, "A Tragedy of Errors," Galaxy, 1967, IN The Long Night, pp. 133-201 at p. 155.
(5) Anderson, P, ibid, p. 177.
(6) Anderson, P, "The Sharing of Flesh," Galaxy, 1968, IN The Long Night, pp. 203-240 at p. 205.
(7) Anderson, P, "A Tragedy of Errors," p. 139.
(8) Anderson, P, A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows, London, 1978, p. 39.
(9) Anderson, P, The Night Face, London, 1972, pp. 113-124.

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