Thursday, 5 July 2012

Andersonian Paragraphing II by Sean M Brooks

I think it would be a good idea to continue my discussion of how skillfully Poul Anderson crafted opening paragraphs for his stories and novels. I also want to comment a bit on his literary style.

From Part One of ORBIT UNLIMITED (Gregg Press, 1978), page 7:

"Svoboda was about sixty years old. He did not know his exact age. The Lowlevel seldom counted such, and his earliest memory was of weeping in an alley while rain fell past an overhead beltway that roared. Afterward his mother died and someone who claimed to be his father but probably wasn't sold him to Inky the thiefmaster."

Even from an author who composed many striking opening paragraphs, this one has stayed in my mind. An effective paragraph arouses many thoughts and questions. Why did living in the "Lowlevel" make an accurate counting of age and other forms of record keeping unlikely? What exactly was this "Lowlevel"?

How did the child Svoboda end up weeping in an alley and then being sold as a slave after his mother died? What kind of society was this?

The next example I'll quote from and comment on is from A KNIGHT OF GHOSTS AND SHADOWS. More accurately I'll quote the opening paragraphs of the preface and the first chapter.


"How shall we tell it, brothers, the tale of Bodin's raid? Whence can we draw the words of wrath and sorrow, the words of valor and vengeance? Who today is a poet such as Andrei Simich, singer of heroes?"

As was so often the case this paragraph was designed to elicit questions from readers. Who was Bodin and what was his raid? Where and against whom was this raid? I also note how the unnamed narrator compared himself unfavorably to a poet named Andrei Simich.

The first paragraph of Chapter I of A KNIGHT OF GHOSTS AND SHADOWS (Gregg Press, 1979) is an example of a short two sentences paragraph which goes:

"Every planet in the story is cold--even Terra, though Flandry came home on a warm evening of northern summer. There the chill was in the spirit."

Brief though it was this paragraph stimulates both questions and evokes a mood. Where are these "cold" planets? Why does coming home on a pleasant summer evening brings a chill to the spirit? It makes the reader feel an ominous sense of foreboding and anxiety. In other words, evocative!

A few questions also come to mind about how Anderson writes. That is, what is his natural voice or style of writing? A few comments from other writers or editors suggests some answers.

For example, this is what Tom Easton wrote for the preface in Volume 3 of THE COLLECTED SHORT WORKS OF POUL ANDERSON: THE SATURN GAME (NESFA Press, 2010):

"His style, though it could wax poetic in "The Saturn Game" (1981), was always easy, conversational, and accessible; and it dealt with topics dear to the heart of every science fiction fan. In fact, he introduced us to some of those topics."

Broadly speaking, what kind of stories did Poul Anderson write? In the prefatory essay he contributed to ADMIRALTY (NESFA Press, 2011), David G. Hartwell made some very telling remarks on page 10. He wrote:

"His heroes are heroic and strong in the slightly tragic vein of 19th century Romanticism--often they have suffered some earlier emotional wound--but blended in is a practical streak, an allegiance to reason and to knowledge that is a hallmark of hard science fiction characters, that Heinlein and Campbell tradition referred to above. You know a fair amount about what they are feeling, but what really matters is what they do, regardless of how they feel."

What Hartwell said about Anderson's heroes having "...a practical streak, an allegiance to reason and to knowledge" applies at least as strongly to his fantasies as to his hard SF. One example of this being THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS, whose hero is a 20th century engineer who more than once used his scientific knowledge to solve problems in an alternate universe where the Carolingian legends were literally true.

To again quote Hartwell (page 10 of ADMIRALTY): Anderson "...most often wrote about strong men and women pitted against the challenge of survival in the face of the natural universe. Some of them die. But Anderson was optimist enough to see beyond the dark times into both a landscape, sometimes a starscape, and a future of wonders--for the survivors. Anderson's future is not for the lazy or the stay-at-homes. He was fairly gloomy about current social trends, big government, repression of the individual, so he catapulted his characters into a future of new frontiers, making them face love and death in vividly imagined and depicted environments far from home."

Hartwell cited as examples stories like "Kyrie" and novels such as THE MAN WHO COUNTS. Many, many others could be listed.

So much more could be said and quoted about Anderson's skill in writing opening paragraphs and as a literary stylist. I have, however, written enough for the purposes of this essay.

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