Friday, 20 April 2012

Near and Past Futures

A future history typically comprises stories or chapters set in the near future followed by others set in a further future. Several times now, the readers and the author if still alive have lived into the real near future and, of course, found that it differed from the imagined near future. This is not a problem because fiction is not prediction. Further, classic science fiction (sf), like The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds, endures over a century after it was written. On the other hand, more mediocre "past futures" come to seem dated. More significantly, it can be difficult for a still living author to continue writing a future history whose earlier parts contain not only counterfactual history but also outmoded science.

In his History of Technic Civilization, Poul Anderson avoided creeping counter-factualism by setting his earliest episode much later than any of us can expect to live. "Wings of Victory," for many years the earliest story in this series, is set on an extra-solar planet so that Anderson did not have to describe a near future Earth or even a near future Solar System, although he did speculate elsewhere about how Technic civilization and the Anglic language could had evolved from the world familiar to us. (1)

Later, Anderson did add one story set earlier, in the mid-twenty first century, describing exploration of the Solar System, and he took this opportunity to contradict a premise of much earlier sf. (2) Would immense time, energy and effort be invested in enabling three or four space-suited human beings to spend a few days in a single locality on the surface of Mars? Surely instead vast solar sailed colony ships containing entire communities of scientists and their families would cruise the System sending probes and manned craft to planetary surfaces? This might happen if industrial development of space became a way to save Earth from ruin.

The story asks how human psychology would be affected by long periods of isolation in an entirely artificial environment. Not only is the story narrated in the third person but most of it lacks a single viewpoint. We read a dialogue involving three or four characters but do not perceive the dialogue from the point of view of any single character. However, italicized passages recount a fantasy psychodrama hypnotically played out by several of the characters in this hard sf environment. On the surface of Iapetus, they imagine Ginnungagap. Anderson wrote both sf and fantasy and here, as in "The Queen of Air and Darkness," combined them, although, in both these cases, the fantasy is a fiction within the fiction. Two characters in a life-or-death situation in the real world can end their distracting fantasy only by killing their characters. We must read on to learn whether they have killed or been killed in reality also. They have not but the fantasy had become a nightmare to which they cannot return.

The only internal evidence that this story is part of the History is that one of its characters is a former member of the Jerusalem Catholic Church which exists later and is important. The History begins with four stories preceding the introduction of the first series character, Nicholas van Rijn, as it ends with four works set after the period of the third series character, Dominic Flandry. 

The stages of the History are: 

interplanetary exploration;
interstellar exploration;
interstellar trade, the League;

League merchant, van Rijn;
van Rijn's protege, Falkayn;
Falkayn's colony, Avalon;

post-League Troubles;
Empire founded;
early Empire;

Empire v. Avalon;
Flandry defends Empire;
Flandry's daughter;

post-Imperial "Long Night";
civilization restored;
a later civilization.

"The Saturn Game" presents interplanetary exploration.
"Wings of Victory" and "The Problem of Pain" present interstellar exploration and introduce Falkayn's non-human fellow colonists.
"The Problem of Pain" also introduces the planet they will colonize.

"How to Be Ethnic in One Easy Lesson" introduces the League and Falkayn's later companion, Adzel.
"Margin of Profit" introduces van Rijn.
"Three-Cornered Wheel" introduces Falkayn and the planet Ivanhoe.
"A Sun Invisible": Falkayn working for van Rijn's company.

"The Season of Forgiveness": later events on Ivanhoe.
"A Little Knowledge": a League story referring to van Rijn.
The Man Who Counts: the first of five further works about van Rijn.
"Trader Team": the first of five works about van Rijn's team, including Falkayn and Adzel.

"Wingless": Falkayn's grandson on Avalon.
"Rescue on Avalon": later events on Avalon.
"The Star Plunderer": Troubles and founding of the Empire.
"Sargasso of Lost Starships": the early Empire.

The People of the Wind: Terran-Avalon war.
Ensign Flandry: the first of seven volumes about Flandry.
"Outpost of Empire": the first of two other works contemporary with Flandry's early career.
The Game of Empire: a novel about Flandry's daughter.

"A Tragedy of Errors": one story set during the Long Night.
The Night Face: the first of two works set in the Allied Planets period.
"Starfog": a story set in the Commonalty period.

The Chronology of Technic Civilization informs us that the establishment of the League preceded "The Problem of Pain" but I do not think the text of the story confirms this. The next three stories after "The Saturn Game" are all first person narratives although their narrators are not necessarily their central characters.

In "Wings of Victory," the first person narrator remains in the spaceship orbiting the newly discovered planet Ythri but recounts what her colleagues discover on the surface. In "The Problem of Pain," the first person narrator and his colleague Peter Berg explore the planet Lucifer where Berg recounts his earlier experience with Ythrians on the planet Gray/Avalon. The extended flashback to events on Gray is recounted in the third person. "How to Be Ethnic..." introduces Adzel but is narrated by James Ching who appears only here. However, the story ends with Ching about to be apprenticed to a Master Merchant of the League so it is an appropriate prequel to the introduction of Master Merchant van Rijn. 

(1) Poul Anderson, "Concerning Future Histories" IN Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America, Vol 14 No 3, Fall 1979, pp. 11-12.
(2) Poul Anderson, The Saturn Game, New York, 1989.

No comments: