Saturday, 30 June 2012

"Flight To Forever" Timeline, Part I

1953 Martin Saunders visits from 1973 in the time projector.
1973 Saunders, physicist, and Sam Hull, mechanic, leave for 2073.
1993 Saunders visits from 1973.
2008 Saunders and Hull find that this is as far back as they can come from 2073. The energy required approaches infinity. They must seek help in the future.
2013 The automatics, lying in the fire-blackened basement, had struggled a little further back, then stopped, batteries drained.
2023 Charred stumps of the burned house. Energy has drained from the returning projector.
2043 As '63 and '53 but the pit is fresher and the projector is drawing too much energy.
2053 Same as '63 but sun instead of rain.
2063 A stop on the return journey to look for the automatic probes which had neither returned from 2073 to 1973 nor been found in 2073. The pit of the house.
2073 Saunders and Hull arrive from 1973 in the half-filled basement of the 1973 house, take readings and start back.
2200's.  Martian colonists revolt against Terrestrial Directorate. A defeated Directorate army leaps forward in time.
2300's -2600's. Armageddonists (Fanatics) rule Earth.
2300's. The Time War. Unsuccessful attack of defeated Directorate army from the 2200's.
2500 Saunders and Hull arrive from 2008, on a hill. Men in black (Fanatics) kill Hull. Saunders flees.
Late 2600's Planetary League and African Dissenters overthrow Fanatics.
2600's-2800's Peace and progress. Chronology dating from the ascension of John Mteza I.
2800's Breakdown. Decay and attacks by barbarians from outer planets.
3000 Saunders, arriving in a besieged city-state, agrees to take the displaced mercenary, Belgotai of Syrtis, with him into the future. 
3100 Radioactivity where an atom bomb had destroyed the city.
3200 No radioactivity but a lifeless crater.
3500 A forest.
3600's  Faster than light drive. Interstellar travel.
4100 A dean of the American College informs Saunders and Belgotai by psychophone that it is impossible to return more than 70 years. An atomic engine replaces their batteries and they are given a psychophone.
4300 Nonhuman mercenaries guard Solar mercantile wealth against interstellar raiders and conquerors.
4400 Barbarians sack Earth.

Series Within Series

In the 1960's, I read "The Game Of Glory," about Dominic Flandry, and "The Sky People," about the Maurai, in different issues of a British reprint version of Venture Science Fiction magazine. Little did I suspect that "The Game Of Glory" was part of a Flandry series that was part of the History of Technic Civilization that was one of several (I suggest there are eight) Anderson future histories, also including the Maurai series.

Later works placed the Maurai in an even wider context. First, an Author's Note at the beginning of the Maurai novel, Orion Shall Rise, explains inconsistencies with earlier Maurai stories by pointing out that new data and insights change our ideas about the past and present so why not also the future? Secondly, the time travel novel, There Will Be Time, changed the status of the Maurai series from that of fiction to that of a fiction within the fiction. A time traveler told an Anderson about the Maurai and Poul wrote a fictional account.

Robert Heinlein wrote the original Future History and three classic self-contained circular causality stories. An obvious question is: if one author writes both a future history and some time travel stories, can he connect or combine them? Can time travelers travel not only through real history but also through the fictitious history? Unfortunately, Heinlein's answer to this question was Time Enough For Love, which belongs firmly in the period of his long, sad decline as a writer. (One admittedly ingenious passage describes how Lazarus Long sent mail from the early twentieth century to his folks back in the far future. Envelopes inside envelopes were stored in a safe place like a lawyer's office until a specified date when the outer envelope was opened and its contents sent to another hopefully safe place but in such a way that no one handling the mail could suspect that its sender knew something about the future. Each link in the chain was strong enough for this to work. Also neatly handled were changes in historical perspectives. People around Lazarus referred to the then current "War." Later it would be called the Great War, then World War One, then Terran Planetary War, Phase One.)

Anderson did not connect his main future history, the Technic History, to his time travel series, the Time Patrol, but did connect his minor Maurai history to a time travel novel, thus locating the Maurai period within a much longer perspective of past and future history. Again, I argue that Anderson succeeded but also superseded Heinlein.

Friday, 29 June 2012

The Avatar VIII

Could Anderson not have written an entire novel about jumps through T machines, leaving out the pettiness of characters like Ira Quick and his Russian colleague? Well, the novel is about humanity as well as about the cosmos. Resistance to progress must be overcome.

The Others are what some characters in this and other works by Anderson seek, an Elder Race, but the seekers of the Elders would be disappointed to learn that usually the Others neither guide nor intervene and will not return. However, their avatar, Caitlin Mulryan, learns that in a few centuries human beings will individually start to become Others so a racial apotheosis approaches.

Caitlin is almost perfect not because she has sex with a lot of men but because she understands how to incorporate sex into friendship and healing. She even wins over and helps her main lover's hostile brother-in-law.

One sickening scene is the infatuated Aurelia Hancock pleading for clemency for Ira Quick.

"...he honestly thought he was doing what must be done..." (1)

debases the word "honestly."

When the Others construct and pass through a T machine, they must take with them enough materials to build another T machine for the return journey, an enormous task. Chinook ran the risk of emerging where there was no T machine and being stranded.

At any time, the Others are constructing a new T machine at the frontier of their existing network. The frontier reached by Chinook is the end of this universe and the beginning of another. Could the time travel aspect of T machines mean that the current Others are visited by their future selves or descendants? What might have happened in a sequel?

(1) Anderson, Poul, The Avatar, London, 1985, p.396.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Avatar VII: the jumps 5-11

The 5th Jump

A new system coalescing. Sun not yet compressed enough for thermonuclear reactions but energised by contraction. Asteroids plentiful, heating planets to incandescence and increasing their mass by falling onto them. In five million years, a planet will be like Earth - unless it is Earth?


In an old globular cluster with little free gas or dust. Stars, mostly ruby, others orange and golden, block out blackness. There is a planet overrun by life where human beings would be able to survive but only on the uppermost plateaus. Elsewhere, the atmosphere is too concentrated.


Near the dust clouds of the galactic core, a black hole with an orbiting observatory. Chinook does not stay because the forces, energies and shape of space are too strange.


Inside the clouds near the galactic centre in the far future. Radiation background moderate. In one direction stellar density increases into  "...a ruby globe..." (1) While Chinook is here, a nearly massless force field ship transits in 37 seconds. Joelle speculates that an intelligent being can send a recording of his personality to be activated in an artificial body, then to be returned as a pattern for transcription into the original. Thus, the ship in transit need have carried only a molecular recording.

The T machine is twice as big as any previous, for transport across bigger distances.


Maybe a billion years futureward and 50,000 light years out in intergalactic space. The entire galaxy is visible. Another big T machine.


 The biggest T machine yet. Back in the galaxy but between 70 and 100 billion years futureward. Only the dimmest stars survive and they are dying while the galaxy disintegrates. The universe is four or five times bigger and the Virgo cluster of galaxies is no longer visible.

One planet has life because the Others have transformed its moon into an artificial sun, a nuclear reactor with almost total conversion of mass to energy, possibly by forced inter-quark interaction in a hollow space protected by fields at the centre of the moon.


The Chinook is enclosed by a vast globe of moving colours containing the T machine, a white-hot sphere with lesser shapes moving around it and a curved ellipsoid extruding a delicate webwork like those seen at the neutron star and black hole observatories. A point of light moves from the ellipsoid to the Chinook. Something stirs in crew member Caitlin Mulryan... Another craft comes from the T machine to the Chinook. Two of the Others enter in the forms of Aengus mac Og and Brigit. Caitlin is an avatar.

Delicately balanced forces artificially maintain the place where they have met " at the end and the beginning of a universe...." (2) So the "...white-hot sphere..." must be a monobloc before its big bang?

A hyperdimensional ocean brings forth universes. Our expanding, dying universe intersects another. Their union will bring forth a new universe with different laws and constants of physics that the Others aim to understand.  

(1) Anderson, Poul, The Avatar, London, 1985, p. 347.
(2) ibid., p. 379.

The Avatar VI: the jumps, 1-4

1st Jump

The spaceship Chinook has jumped at random through a T machine field and is in an unknown planetary system. The bearings of other galaxies show this system to be about 500 light years from Sol towards Hercules. This makes Deneb and the Orion Nebula identifiable.

The new sun is a red dwarf with five planets, none like Earth. The Chinook crew detect artificial radio signals from a gas giant which they name Danu. The ship's boat investigates and finds inhabitants like flying whales with whom they exchange music. The Danaans have instruments of metal which could not have been mined on a planet whose surface is hot liquid hydrogen so must have been donated by the Others who constructed the T machines.


10 to 20 billion years ago. Dark empty space with no stellar background. Gas clouds collapsing into galaxies. One supergiant star, 50,000 times as luminous as Sol, has been big enough to form this early but with just a single companion, not as part of a cluster.

The Others must have originated even earlier when an unusual concentration of elements in a nebula generated a star with life-bearing planets.


Bearings of other galaxies and shape of home galaxy indicate thousands of light years from Earth, same era. Chinook has emerged near a star temporarily green because leaving the main sequence and shortly to expand into a red giant, about ten billion years old but containing enough heavy elements to indicate that it might have formed near a supernova.

The crew detect repetitive radio signals from an old, dying planet they name Pandora. A force field protects uninhabited buildings with an empty spacecraft base and the radio transmitter. A landing party find ruins and three-eyed animals but is attacked by savages and leaves. Theory: the old race has left but sometimes returns to guide the savages who have evolved during the planet's decline.


Millions of years futureward, in the same spiral arm, thousands of light years closer to galactic centre. A "...whirling sword of light..." is a pulsar/neutron star with a quasi-solid quaking surface under a six millimeter atmosphere. (1) A curved shell around the T machine shields emerging spacecraft from the destructive pulsar ray. Near the T machine is a station for visitors of different species. Chinook's holothete, Joelle, a human being linked to a computer, communicates in binary code with the station which informs her that, on the pulsar's surface, interactions between raw nuclei generate self-replicating, thus living, structures lasting for mere seconds but so energetic that they experience the equivalent of more than a century so that to them human beings would be as inert as stones.

The station guides the holothete to contact with the Oracle, a self-aware Others' artifact on the pulsar, which:

is as intelligent as a human being in holothesis;
counsels pulsar life ("...the star dwellers..." (2)) to whom it is a gigantic shrine;
records and plays back pulsar history;
mediates between pulsar life and visitors to the station;
possibly modulates strong nuclear forces to communicate quasi-telepathically with the star dwellers;
communicates, possibly by quark beams, with the station which relays by radio etc;
slows or speeds communications as appropriate for receivers.

The star dwellers:

had no idea of a sky in the pulsar's radiation haze;
exploring through a billion generations, found the Fire Fountains;
to explore the Fountains, climbed thirteen millimeter high mountains, which last as long as a terrestrial year, through many generations and civilizations;
reaching the top of the atmosphere, tunneled up through a mountain;
a million lifetimes later, saw the stars through a transparent dome.

With knowledge from the Oracle, Joelle plans a route between T machines to take Chinook to the frontier where the Others still construct new T machines.

(1) Anderson, Poul, The Avatar, London, 1985, p. 319.
(2) ibid., p. 330.    

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Kinds of AI

Poul Anderson considered every possibility.

(i) Starfarers argues that computers cannot become artificial intelligences (AI's).

(ii) "Quixote And The Windmill" presents an unemployed robot. (I assume here that a robot's brain is a mobile AI.)

(iii) A Circus Of Hells presents an isolated conscious computer keeping its sanity by playing games.

(iv) The Harvest Of Stars tetralogy presents superior AI's interacting with humanity.

(v) Genesis presents superior post-human AI's interacting with each other and with re-created humanity.

(vi) In (iv), (v) and The Boat Of A Million Years, AI applications include conscious simulations of human beings.

(vii) The Avatar presents artificially enhanced intelligence: the consciousness, intuition and flexibility of a human brain linked by electromagnetic induction to the data storage capacity and calculating rapidity of a computer so that the brain, directly sensing the data, continually rewrites the program. A level of consciousness that might exist inside superior AI's here exists inside human brains, computer enhanced.

This list is comprehensive, giving the impression of leaving nothing out. Similar lists could be compiled for the treatment of other themes in Anderson's works. In fact, this AI list refers to five of his eight future histories, according to my reckoning of them.

I agree with the Starfarers argument. Computers are unconscious, are not organisms and simulate but do not duplicate brain functions. However, if artificial brains can be constructed, then, by definition, they will be conscious.

Through Space And Time, Between Worlds

Occasionally in fantasy and science fiction (sf), someone makes a random series of "jumps" through space and time or between worlds without any idea of what they will encounter after each "jump." The author's imagination must be up to the task. Whatever is encountered, it must be something new, not an implication or consequence of anything that had occurred earlier in the narrative. It is like writing, or reading, a mini-series.

The hero of James Blish's Jack Of Eagles made such a journey near the end of that novel. In "Beep"/The Quincunx Of Time, Blish invented what was effectively a variation on this theme. A small group of characters in our future sits comfortably in an office while receiving audiovisual messages from various periods of their future. Thus, like the reader, they go nowhere physically and remain perfectly safe while learning about problems that will concern their successors but not them. In some cases, tantalizingly, they do not fully understand the problems yet.

Poul Anderson, I now suspect, did everything that there was to be done in sf. He certainly contributed to the  "through space and time, between worlds" theme. In "Flight To Forever," he had to imagine a new future scenario every time his characters halted their headlong rush into the future. A timeline for this story is very impressive.

In Chapter XXVI of The Avatar, a spaceship is forced to make a random jump through a T machine field. In Chapter XXVII, it is in an unknown planetary system where there is another T machine so that, after some exploration, it will be able to make another jump. Thereafter, nine chapters begin with the single word "Jump."

Spoiler alert: my next task will be to reread the remainder of the novel and to summarize what is found after each of these jumps.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The Avatar V

I was wondering whether Poul Anderson's account of his character Ira Quick's motivations was fully consistent. On the one hand, Quick wants "social justice" and is motivated by the memory of a child killed in a war. On the other hand:

his private life is self-seeking and self-satisfied;
his public appearances are dramatic performances, duplicitous and patronising;
his professional interactions are cynical and manipulative;
his political practice is clandestine, ultimately murderous.

Is this consistent? Or is it just that Anderson disliked a particular kind of professional politician so was unable to show them in a favourable light? No, not entirely. Anderson held strong views and wrote well. The combination of strongly held views, considerable writing ability, scientific knowledge and historical understanding generated powerful fiction. First, he ensures, by repetition alone, that the reader, having been told, does not forget that Quick's motives include wanting to prevent a repetition of the suffering that he had witnessed.

Secondly and more significantly, Dan Brodersen spells this out:

"...any state - is an end in itself. It's a way for the few to impose their will on the many. And Judas priest, how those few do want to! Need to." (1)

There are, I suggest (this is me speaking now, not Anderson), two kinds of reformers/revolutionaries. The first kind advocates a different direction for humanity and encourages or inspires active participation in that different direction. The second kind tries to gain control of the levers of power in the existing state apparatus in order to impose his ideas on everyone else. The first kind cannot consistently adopt the second course of action, especially not if the different direction necessarily involves dismantling the existing state apparatus.

I am bound to agree with Brodersen that his proposed interstellar free for all is preferable to a static welfare state spoon fed by Quick, who no doubt would continue considering it necessary to incarcerate or murder anyone who disagreed with him.

"...we'll skite off through every star gate the Betans have mapped, as well as mounting our own program to chart new ones. The sheer profit to be made, in countless places and ways, must beggar the even before we start large-scale emigration, the balance of economic power will shift away from Earth. It'll also shift away from governments, unions, giant corporations, toward small outfits and individuals. There goes the tidy world welfare state the Actionist types hope to build. I daresay Quick foresees as much." (1)

This reminds me of James Blish's Cities In Flight Tetralogy where the Bureaucratic State banned spaceflight but not before a few colonists had escaped from the Solar System with faster than light drives.

I am not sure of Brodersen's certainty that "...small outfits and individuals..." will cope with this massive task. Even if they do, successful small outfits tend to grow, take over, merge and eventually become big corporations. Of course, "...profit..." here means new knowledge, materials, resources, techniques, concepts, inter-species contacts etc whatever economic system is involved.

In the interstellar free for all, many extrasolar colonies will become independent and some at least will become self-sufficient. There will therefore be the possibility of experiments in communal and cooperative modes of production different from the kind of market economy that entrepreneurs like Brodersen are used to operating in. It will no longer be possible, let alone necessary, for anyone to impose a single system everywhere. That is the human freedom and diversity that Poul Anderson advocated.

(1) Anderson, Poul, The Avatar, London, 1985, p. 189.

The Avatar IV

Let us compare Poul Anderson's The Avatar with his The Winter Of The World, Tau Zero and Time Patrol series.

In The Avatar, Earth is gradually approaching an Ice Age. Is this the Ice Age of The Winter Of The World? It could be but Anderson would have had to write a transitional volume to connect the two novels.

Both The Avatar and Tau Zero describe long interstellar journeys without a faster than light drive and within the laws of physics as understood at the time when the novel was written. The premise of Tau Zero is that a Bussard ramjet accelerates uncontrollably at relativistic speeds, thus traversing intergalactic distances in a very short time as experienced by its crew.

The premise of The Avatar is that the Others have placed a network of T machines throughout the universe. By approaching the T machine in the Solar System on a carefully controlled flight path, a spaceship can enter a target planetary system where it will be able to use another T machine to return home. Approaching a T machine on a random path can take you anywhere or when. Inevitably, an emergency will force the characters to the latter course - although I have yet to reread to that point so I look forward to being reminded of the details.

Random trips via T machines are the equivalent, in The Avatar, of the uncontrolled acceleration in Tau Zero. In each case, the novel's premise allows this kind of journey into the unknown so Anderson can explore the possibilities.

Imagine discussing as a matter of public policy whether to use a T machine to change history. Some Betans suggest preventing their scientific revolution but no path can be found to take a ship into their historical past. I think that that is how T machines work, allowing only consistent causality. If Betans intending to prevent a scientific revolution had emerged from their T machine earlier in their history, then Betan history would already have incorporated their arrival and its consequences and, if they had succeeded, then they themselves would have traveled back from a Beta without science so they would have had to use a spaceship borrowed from some other race. Thus, no Time Patrol is necessary.

Andersonian Paragraphing by Sean M Brooks

It is my considered opinion that the late Poul Anderson was one of the greatest of all science fiction writers. I would like to mention in particular his skillful writing of opening paragraphs.

What is a paragraph? I'll answer that question by quoting from page 328 of the HARBRACE COLLEGE MANUAL (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1941, 1946, 1951, 1956, 1962, 1967, 1972): "A paragraph is a distinct unit of thought -- usually a group of related sentences, though occasionally no more than one sentence -- in a written or printed composition. The form of a paragraph is distinctive: the first line is indented. The content of a unified paragraph deals with one central idea. Each sentence fits into a logical pattern of organization and is therefore carefully related to other sentences in the paragraph."

I'll next quote the opening paragraphs of three or more of Poul Anderson's books to demonstrate examples of especially striking and effective opening paragraphs.

From THE BROKEN SWORD, Chapter 1 (Abelard, 1954):

"There was a man called Orm the Strong, a son of Ketil Asmundson who was a great landsman in the north of Jutland. The folk of Ketil had dwelt in Himmerland as long as men remembered, and were mighty landowners. The wife of Ketil was Asgerd, who was a leman-child of Ragnar Hairybreeks. Thus Orm came of good stock, but as he was the fifth living son of his father there could be no large inheritance for him."

The chief point of interest in the text quoted was how Poul Anderson modeled it on the Norse sagas. The strong genealogical orientation should be noted. Also, the story develops from the fact Orm could not hope for a large share of his father's estate. And of the means Orm chose for remedying that.

From WE CLAIM THESE STARS! (Ace, 1959), Chapter I:

"It pleased Ruethen of the Long Hand to give a feast and ball at the Crystal Moon for his enemies. He knew they must come. Pride of race had slipped from Terra, while the need to appear well-bred and sophisticated had waxed correspondingly. The fact that spaceships prowled and fought fifty light years beyond Antares, made it all the more impossible a gaucherie to refuse an invitation from the Merseian representative. Besides, one could feel delightfully wicked and ever so delicately in danger."

This paragraph arouses many questions and thoughts. Who exactly were Ruethen and the Merseians? Why did he subtly mock his enemies by giving them a feast and ball? Where and what were the Crystal Moon? Why had "pride of race" slipped from Terra? The comment about fifty light years beyond Antares suggests enormous distances. And a sense of decadence is suggested for Terrans. The paragraph is designed to entice readers to continue so they will find the answers to these questions.

From A CIRCUS OF HELLS (1969, rpt. Gregg Press, 1979), Chapter I:

"The story is of a lost treasure guarded by curious monsters, and of captivity in a wilderness, and of a chase through reefs and shoals that could wreck a ship. There is a beautiful girl in it, a magician, a spy or two, and the rivalry of empires. So of course -- Flandry was later tempted to say -- it begins with a coincidence."

This paragraph also inspires many thoughts. The paragraph gives a good cryptic summary of the entire book without giving away details. What lost treasure was guarded by curious monsters? Who were the spies, the beautiful girl, the magician, and the rival empires?

It is my opinion that the three examples quoted above are excellent specimens of Poul Anderson's skill in writing opening paragraphs. Consciously or not they make the readers ask questions and lures them on to read further.

Monday, 25 June 2012

The Avatar III

Still rereading The Avatar, I have looked ahead to trace the development of the avatars.

In Chapter I, a birch is Tree.
VI: a moth is Insect.
XIII: a salmon is Fish.
XXI: a crow is Bird.
XXIX: a chimpanzee is Mammal.
XXXVI: a man is Man.

The salmon is the first to mention "...the Summoner..." who:

"...came and took me into Oneness." (1)

The man, when Summoned:

"...was every god that had ever been, and understood everything that was." (2)

In Chapter XLV, a woman avatar explains the process to future humanity and thus also to the reader.

An avatar:

is brought forth by the Others;
is a normal organism;
has come into being instead of a similar "bion" (?) that would otherwise have done so;
contains deep and fine molecular/atomic structures that do not affect its functioning and are not heritable but that make Oneness possible;
in the case of a Terrestrial vertebrate, is usually generated by parthenogenetic fertilization of an ovum with the addition of the micro-organ for the cell to replicate;
in the case of a human being, is conceived by a woman who remembers an encounter with a supernatural being ("...rainbows and suns, purple and gold, wind and wild seas and everything a glory." (3));
lives out its time as a member of its species;
may never be Summoned;
if Summoned, is a means by which the Others partake in all life;
is then returned whence it came to go on as it was;
if sentient, may partially remember Oneness.

The experiences of the avatars are just one thread through a 404-page novel although they could have formed a shorter work in their own right.

(1) Anderson, Poul , The Avatar, London, 1981, p. 124.
(2) ibid., p. 317.
(3) ibid., p. 85.

The Avatar II

Where would extrasolar aliens hide an artifact to be found by humanity only when we have started space travel? On the Moon (Arthur C Clarke). In the same orbit as Earth but on the other side of the Sun (Poul Anderson). Both artifacts are "star gates," but Clarke's is unexplained whereas Anderson's is a T machine, a large spinning cylinder, conceived by FJ Tipler, around which spacecraft can travel to other points in spacetime.

Thus, Anderson's The Avatar curiously combines the mundane (Keynsian economics on Earth) with the fantastic (because the T machine is a gate through both space and time, the characters are unsure of the temporal relationship between their home planet and their extrasolar colony.)

Anderson's sympathetic characters are gungho for as much interstellar travel as possible as soon as possible whereas his odious political villain, Ira Quick, is for channeling all resources into social welfare, therefore delaying all interstellar exploration indefinitely. He sees the population merely as voters and as passive recipients of governmental policies without any capacity for collective action. Anderson, as always, presents a credible account of this character's personality and motives but nevertheless portrays him as unpleasantly unscrupulous and manipulative. I am bound to think that a third position would be possible, addressing social problems and improving conditions on Earth while valuing the scientific knowledge to be gained by interstellar contact.

Quick thinks, of interstellar exploration:

"The best and the brightest gone off in search of mere adventure, when they could be serving." (1)

How many things are wrong with Quick's view? Maybe Cavor and Bedford went to the Moon in search of mere adventure but Armstrong and Aldrin went as agents of a large government agency which must have had its own agenda and in fact did not follow up Apollo with any further interplanetary journeys. Secondly, scientific exploration is not "mere adventure." We can get that by scuba diving or mountaineering on Earth. Thirdly, some of the "best and brightest" in the relevant sciences will want to go into space but others will indeed stay at home and "serve." Fourthly, Quick gives no thought to educational or other campaigns to mobilize his "general public" and "the poor" to address problems that surely do need a collective response.

I have reread the novel to a point where Quick is self-righteously planning a final solution for the returned explorers whom he has concealed and incarcerated. Thus, even a reader who had, improbably, agreed with Quick so far would have to reject his next step with revulsion. 

(1) Anderson, Poul, The Avatar, London, 1981, p. 103.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Avatar

I have commended Poul Anderson for celebrating life, both human and alien. In The Avatar, superior aliens observe Earth through terrestrial organisms which thus become their "avatars," retrospectively gaining memories even of organic processes that would have been unconscious at the time of their occurrence. Thus, author and reader are able to celebrate life at different levels.

Chapter I is two paragraphs narrated by a birch tree which tells us of times at which it had not been conscious:

"My leaves drank of the sunlight...danced in the wind...but I did not see or hear. Waning days turned me brittle golden..." (1)

As a summation:

"I was Tree." (1)

We will realize that the Others learn treeness through this tree.

Chapter VI, four paragraphs, is narrated by a caterpillar that became a moth. S/he, as an infant:

"...lived among riches: juice and sweet crispness in a leaf, sunlight warm or dew cool..." (2)


"My food was the nectar of flowers..." (2)

Later again, without yet understanding what is happening, we read how the moth became an avatar:

"...One gathered me up, taking me back into Oneness, and presently We knew what my whole life had been since I lay in the egg. Its mysteries were many. I was Insect." (2)

A better way to say this might be not that the tree and the moth become conscious and gain memories but that the Other gains memories as of having been them but then lives these memories to the full, as we live them vicariously through Anderson's words. If I were able to access and experience some of your memories, then I would have to distinguish between myself receiving the memories and the "I," really you, whose experiences were being remembered so I might then use the word "we." Since I am currently rereading the novel and have reached only Chapter VII of L, I will wait to re-encounter the remaining avatars in their chapters.

Meanwhile, in the longer chapters, Anderson, as expected, shows us human life on the future Earth and on other planets. He easily presents a period of global turmoil. Dan Broderson complains both about the Keynsian economics of the World Union government and about the utopian economics of the terrorists who murdered his first wife.

In yet another sense of "life," Anderson, as always, disabuses us of any presupposition that the ground on a colonized planet is covered with grass, as on Earth. Demetrian ground is:

"...clothed in bluish-green growth wherever boulders did not thrust forth - lodix like a kind of trilobate grass or clover..." (3)

There is much to appreciate before getting far into the plot of the novel.

(1) Anderson, Poul, The Avatar, London, 1981, p. 1.
(2) ibid., p. 55.
(3) ibid., p. 41.

Friday, 22 June 2012

An Elder Race?

In "A Missing Elder Race" (April, 2012), I argued that, although some works of sf show an elder race guiding lesser beings, Poul Anderson's Technic History more subtly and plausibly shows human and other beings believing that the Elders exist but never managing to prove this. Several volumes after The Day Of Their Return, a novel in which mere belief in the Elders had almost launched a jihad, a Jerusalem Catholic priest is just beginning to search among prehistoric ruins for evidence of a non-human Incarnation. He has all too credibly put a Christian spin on the Elders idea but we do not see him making any progress in his research, even though Admiral Dominic Flandry has generously offered to fund it.

However, Anderson tended to explore every possibility. In one short story, he even posited the occurrence of a genuinely Biblical miracle, the Sun standing still in response to prayers, in order to examine how people might respond to such an event. Instead of heeding the man who started the prayer campaign or just accepting that he knows no more than them, they would try to influence him to support their projects. In The Avatar, Anderson does assume the existence of a technologically and spiritually superior race but, instead of guiding humanity, the Others, as they are referred to here, let us use their T machines for cosmic travel but otherwise keep themselves hidden and leave humanity to its own affairs.

An Andersonian entrepreneur type character, Dan Brodersen, obliged like everyone else to accept tangible evidence for a superior race, reasons cogently about them:

if they were evil, they would have destroyed or domesticated us by now;
a race capable of building T machines is unlikely to have allowed itself to become extinct;
with that kind of technology, they will have made themselves better beings if evolution has not already done this for them;
why should they collectively move on to another universe when this one can be studied and enjoyed for as long as it exists?

It follows, from the evidence available to the characters and from Broderson's reasoning, that a race of technologically and morally superior beings exists in this universe but Broderson does not place any religious faith in them. He simply continues to conduct his business as the richest man on the colony planet Demeter while supporting cosmic exploration via T machines, exploration that will bring humanity into contact with other races, possibly eventually to include the Others.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Anderson and Blish

For anyone who may have been following these posts chronologically, I have finished rereading The Winter Of The World and have started rereading The Avatar but meanwhile have posted "ASK Haertel" on

Both Blish and Anderson:

were serious hard sf writers;
were among the authors whose series were edited by John W Campbell;
felt obliged to present new rationales for standard sf props like FTL;
wrote future histories;
speculated about the future of society;
were agnostics who took religion seriously;
also wrote historical fiction and fantasy.


Anderson was prolific, able to produce many works very quickly, whereas Blish's much smaller body of work was written at times, we understand, with considerable effort; 
Anderson not only wrote both historical fiction and sf but also synthesised them in several works;
Blish managed to combine the three genres of historical fiction, fantasy and sf in a single trilogy;
Blish's sf series are more closely interconnected as he develops related ideas in different directions.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Winter Of The World III

Still rereading Poul Anderson's The Winter Of The World, I am learning more about the Rogaviki. Anderson condensed a wealth of background information into one short novel. Anyone who just follows the plot to find out how it ends will not remember many details but should realise that he has read a rich text.

More about the Rogaviki

A Kithmeet meets near solstice in each territory. The Landmeet, two months later, is for everyone in the Northlands but Rogaviki attend as individuals, not as leaders or delegates.

Each family practises private rites, know only their own and do not discuss them. A Fellowship is an informal association of families with nearby winter quarters, hunting together. Widowed husbands might stay together for the children and remarry even to a much younger wife.

Most unwed women stay in their Fellowships but some:

form trapping or trading partnerships;
settle at Stations;
travel abroad, returning rich in tales;
become artists, artisans, entertainers, inventors, prospectors, scholars, teachers or scientists;
seek wisdom as Forthguides travelling freely and repaying hospitality by teaching or advising.

Forthguide Krona of Starrok, in her late thirties, lifelong celibate, often travels naked, carrying a staff bearing a sunburst carved in walrus ivory from the Mother Ocean, but at night wears a long gray gown and hooded blue mantle. She lives for her own enlightenment, requiring oneness of body and mind which is like the oneness of bird and flight and is approached by efforts and austerities.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Winter Of The World II

I have referred to Poul Anderson's The Winter Of The World as post-Ice Age, but the novel begins, "Once during the Ice Age..." (1)

In the novel, the Rogaviki, an entire population who turn out to be a new human species, live by hunting bison, moonhorn cattle, bronco, antelope, wild deer, caribou, moose and elk. This makes them sound like the most primitive of homo sapiens societies.

However, a multi-chimneyed, mostly underground Rogaviki dwelling surrounded by shed, smokehouse, workshop, stable, kennel and mews uses both a sunpower collector and a windmill manufactured in neighbouring urban civilisations and shelves hundreds of books in its principal chamber below.

The largest formal social group is a single family. Associations of families are informal. Households are self-sufficient in necessities but buy finely made goods either imported in exchange for metal salvaged from ancient ruins or manufactured at "Stations", where Rogaviki, frequently travelling alone, can swap ponies and self-employed postal couriers stay overnight. A Station is a set of independent businesses run by single women or misfit men.

Bullgore Station print shop can bind books but buyers usually do this in winter when they practise arts or enjoy idleness. One new pamphlet describes astronomical observations made by a man with an imported telescope and navigator's clock at Eagles Gather. Most paper is imported although Whitewater Station on the Wilderwoods edge has a paper mill. Rogavikian manufacture is expanding and innovative, e.g., a portable loom and a repeating crossbow. All manufacture and trade are private with no government, guilds or laws although no one would sell game meat or hides because they live by the game beasts.

Bullgore makes brandy and distils, from fermented wild grain and fruits, alcohol to fuel blow torches and small machine tools. Although there is a windmill, the main energy source is the solar collector sending water to a subterranean fired clay tank where pressure generates heat used for cooking and warmth. Domesticated horses, hounds and hawks are indistinguishable from their wild counterparts. Rogavikians live healthily on a mainly meat diet by eating the whole animal, adding fish, fowl, eggs, breads, mare's milk and cheese, fruits, herb teas, beer, wine and mead.

One Rogavikian seriously offended by another severs all relationship with the offender. Offenders of too many become Outrunners, vicious bandits.

A kith is a set of families traditionally sharing a single large hunting ground. Territorial herds define each kiths' territory which no other kith ever invades although individual travellers are welcome guests and may hunt en route. There are less than a hundred kiths and each has at most three thousand members. Rogaviki women can control their fertility. In a cross-kith marriage, the man joins his wife's. A Rogavikian woman decides whether to become a wife of several husbands or to remain unmarried but with other sexual outlets.

(1) Anderson, Poul, The Winter Of The World, New York, 1976, p. 9.

The Winter of the World

In Poul Anderson's The Winter Of The World, the post-Ice Age economy is wind- and steam-powered. Seafolk Intelligence use radio and someone in the Empire has invented telegraph.

The main puzzle of the novel is the eccentric behaviour of the Rogaviki people. Hunters, not herders, capable both of civilised discourse and of berserk rage, they fanatically resist invasion but never invade, not even to counterattack, and resume friendly relations with former invaders as soon as the latter have been expelled.

In other works by Anderson, his characters must fathom the initially incomprehensible motivations either of extraterrestrials or of isolated extrasolar colonists but these mysterious beings are fellow terrestrials. However, like some of the societies that Anderson imagines as isolated on other planets, the Rogaviki have diverged evolutionarily. The explanation offered at the end of the novel is that they are a new fundamentally individualistic species with no social organisation larger than single families but with a very strong territorial imperative because each of them needs to be surrounded by open spaces, not by other people. They are adapted to post-Ice scarcity on the plains. As in a detective novel, earlier mysteries make sense when explained at the end.

 A question not asked in the novel but unavoidable for readers of science fiction is whether pre-Ice space travel left any colonies on other planets. It is stated that there was flight to the Moon but, since the novel was published in 1976, this was not then a science fictional proposition. Having so far reread to page 96 of 190, I have found only one clue. A character regards the "...bluish brilliance..." of Mars. (1) The reader thinks: Mars blue? We are immediately told that an astrologer had found ancient records of a red Mars so the author has not just got the colour of a planet wrong.

Has Mars been terraformed? Is the blue oceans? Are there people there now? We cannot help asking. The character who has looked at the blue Mars remarks that it was red before the Ice but quotes this only as evidence that "...nothing endures forever..." (2) He does not suspect colonisation.

Is the novel set in the timeline of Anderson's Technic History or any other series? During the League and Empire periods of the Technic History, Mars was red, inhabited by extrasolar aliens, but it could have been changed since then.

(1) Anderson, Poul, The Winter Of The World, New York, 1976, p. 78.
(2) ibid., p. 80.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Further Future

Some science fiction novels are set on Earth in the far future without giving many details about what has happened between now and then, e.g.:

The Time Machine by HG Wells (802,701 AD, then the Further Vision);
Midsummer Century by James Blish (about 23,000 years hence);
The Winter Of The World by Poul Anderson (at least 10,000 years hence).

Of particular interest to sf readers is whether there has been any space travel, either interplanetary or interstellar, in that time.

However, a Dirac message transmitted in Midsummer Century is received many millennia earlier in Blish's interstellar novel, The Quincunx Of Time, so we know that there has been space travel in that timeline.

What happened between the 1890's and 802,701? Did anyone (re-)invent Cavorite and leave Earth to contend with Selenites or Martians? Wells mostly wrote one-off works and did not connect them into a series.

Decades ago, the Lancaster sf bookseller, Peter Pinto, told me that he thought that The Winter Of The World was set in Anderson's Technic Civilization timeline. On reflection, he added that it might just be that Anderson had got into writing about futures in a particular way so that there seemed to be a connection. If this novel is set in the Technic timeline, then its events occur long after the Fall of the Terran Empire but while human beings who have never seen Earth are still spreading through the galaxy.

The Winter Of The World is so named because an Ice Age has destroyed our civilisation. Mankind, with new racial distinctions, has thrived in various societies, including an Empire, mines metal from the sites of the former technological civilisation and has just re-invented telegraph.

Since I am currently rereading the novel, I will look out for any clues as to which timeline it belongs in but do not really expect to find any - although apparently Sandra Miesel persuaded Anderson that Planet Of No Return could fit into the Psychotechnic future history so it is always possible to re-assess connections between works.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Anderson Celebrates Life

Poul Anderson celebrates humanity throughout history and into speculative futures. His characters inhabit diverse locations, including:

Hiram's Tyre;
the legendary Ys;
the city of Gray on the planet Avalon;
a future era, the "Winter of the World," when technology has been lost.

They can struggle for survival or enjoy great wealth, can meet gods, aliens or superior AI, may be pious like Gratillonius of Ys and van Rijn of the League or cynical like Everard of the Patrol and Flandry of the Empire. What they have in common is that they live and Anderson conveys their sensations and perceptions.

While an escaped mutineer hides, floating in the water of a harbor, he smells salt, smoke, tar and fish, sees docks, warehouses, fishing smacks and steamboats and -

"Inshore, Newkeep raised walls, towers, battlements. The light of a newly risen sun glowed on lichenous brick, flashed off high windows, gave back red and gold from the Imperial standard which flew above...Despite its name, as commonly translated by the Seafolk, Newkeep was over three thousand years old." (1)

It is always worth rereading Anderson's novels to savor descriptive passages. Here, our viewpoint character is on the run, in danger of his life and up to his neck in water but, like van Rijn feasting and conniving, he is alive.

(1) Anderson, Poul, The Winter Of The World, New York, 1976, p. 19.

"The Vacant Interstellar Spaces"

Poul Anderson's Brain Wave is noteworthy for its galactic connection and its change to human nature. (See posts earlier this month.) What it did not need was the interstellar travel that became a major feature of Anderson's later science fiction. Human beings express their freedom and maintain their dynamism simply by traversing interstellar distances.

In Brain Wave, the reasoning is:

the premise of the novel is a sudden significant increase in global intelligence levels;
it follows that many people will learn about science for the first time and that many already working in the sciences will make new theoretical and technological discoveries very quickly;
these will include the very rapid building and launching of a fleet of faster than light spacecraft (powered by a psi field, which ties in with the increase in mental abilities).

People of enhanced intelligence fly these starships through atmosphere and galaxy and land them anywhere on the ground more readily than you or I drive and park a car. In a matter of months, they have observed fourteen inhabited extra-solar planets, discovering, e.g., tailed barbarians, centaurs with local interplanetary flight and three species of hydrogen breathers on a single giant planet, and even measuring their intelligence levels. Before long, all the enhanced human beings bequeath Earth to former morons and imbeciles, whose intelligence has now risen to the former norm, and go off to become a guiding presence for lesser intelligences throughout the universe, while now linguistically able dogs and chimpanzees cooperate with the former morons on Earth. An improbable scenario, especially since a more important topic for a novel would have been the intellectual control of instinct that, we are told, results from the increase in intelligence. (One character makes a good critique of the cultural specificity of IQ tests.)

The later Anderson would have acknowledged that, even if intelligence were increased, the laws of physics might not grant us the freedom of the universe as easily as that. And I would expect the enhanced intelligences to retain different interests and purposes, some of them remaining on or near Earth.

In Anderson's later novels, Orbit Unlimited, The Boat Of A Million Years and Harvest Of Stars, groups that are thwarted or stifled at home assert their freedom by departing at sub-light speeds to colonise extrasolar planets. If, in our future, such voyages become both possible and necessary, then they are to be encouraged but, meanwhile, freedom is to be found on Earth and in the Solar System. I do agree that, for long term racial survival, we need to get off Earth:

first, an asteroid defence system;
then, solar-powered, self-sustaining habitats;
next, exploration of the outer planets and the Oort Cloud.

To survive there, we will need to take our environment with us and therefore will not be dependent on finding any (improbable) uninhabited but habitable planets further away.  

Aldiss, Amis, Anderson, Asimov, Lewis

I list these names as an arresting alphabetical arrangement with curious conceptual connections. In book shop science fiction sections, I always look for Anderson, Poul but usually find instead Aldiss, Anderson, Kevin and (a lot of) Asimov.

A recorded discussion between Kingsley Amis, Brian Aldiss and CS Lewis was the Introduction to Kingsley Amis' and Robert Conquest's Spectrum IV science fiction anthology. Although well known as anything but "sf writers," both Amis and Lewis wrote some science fiction. Lewis also wrote a poem that could have been aimed directly at Asimov's Galactic Empire novels and Anderson's Terran Empire series:

"Why did you lure us on like this,
"Light-year on light-year, through the abyss,
"Building (as though we cared for size!)
"Empires that cover galaxies,
"If at journey's end we find
"The same old stuff we left behind,
"Well-worn Tellurian stories of
"Crooks, spies, conspirators, or love,
"Whose setting might as well have been
"The Bronx, Montmartre or Bethnal Green?

"Why should I leave this green-floored cell,
"Roofed with blue air, in which we dwell,
"Unless, outside its guarded gates,
"Long, long desired, the Unearthly waits..."

- as it does in Lewis' own interplanetary novels. (Lewis is a period piece, writing "Tellurian" rather than "Terrestrial" or "Terran.")

Finally, to complete this sequence, Brian Aldiss, in conversation at an sf convention, made precisely the same point as Lewis' poem and specifically about Anderson, saying, in effect, "Poul Anderson will tell you a dozen ways to get to another planet but what happens when we get there? The same things as on Earth!"

I think that this criticism is far more valid of Asimov than of Anderson. The latter's dozen different ways to get to another planet are scientifically informed and imaginative. Asimov merely invokes the cliche "hyperspace" whereas Anderson gives us a different and plausible interpretation of "hyperspace," among other means of interstellar travel.

Asimov wanted a humans-only Galactic Empire merely to give him a population big enough for Seldon's psychohistorical predictions to work whereas Anderson gives us a far more plausible and colorful declining interstellar empire. In an entire novel, The People Of The Wind, Anderson's colony planet Avalon successfully resists Terran imperial annexation. So far, then, Lewis' and Aldiss' criticism seems valid. However, the Avalonian environment and its non-human colonists are realized in detail. We are not still on Earth.

Anderson's Flandry series gives us "...spies, conspirators, or love..." in exotic settings. It has to be acknowledged that action fiction in extraterrestrial and futuristic settings was one appeal of Planet Stories sf. However, Anderson creates, and Flandry contends with, planetary environments like Talwin which are not the Bronx moved into space. And Anderson's later novels, like Genesis and Starfarers, venture into speculative futures going far beyond interstellar espionage or imperialism.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Changes In Human Nature

In at least three works, all novels, Poul Anderson envisaged different fundamental changes to human nature. In Brain Wave, everyone becomes significantly more intelligent. Larry Niven's characters to whom this happens think with embarassment:

"I've been stupid." (1)

In Brain Wave, this major change is initially felt only on the intellectual level. Everyone can think more quickly, clearly and efficiently and this can be difficult to adjust to, especially since motivations, beliefs and superstitions are as yet unchanged. Someone now thinks more effectively about how to impose his beliefs on others, for example.

However, a second, more gradual, change is latent. Human history has been a struggle between instinct and intelligence but now intelligence has won so human beings can:

consciously select their desires;
adjust their personalities to intellectually conceived requirements;
end psychosomatic diseases;
control organic illnesses at will;
end pain;
learn enough medicine to make doctors redundant;
extend lifespans;
abolish senility.

In The Night Face, the entire population of a colonised planet is peaceful and harmonious without any governmental or legal coercion but extra-planetary visitors learn that all the colonials become insane for a few days every year, afterwards remembering only that they have had an indescribable experience. During that time, ritual dance and chanting channel otherwise destructive and homicidal energy.

In The Winter Of The World, a new human species has ceased to be herd animals. Each of its members is from birth emotionally self-sufficient, responding to others only as individuals but not regulating behaviour with governments, laws or courts.

It may be more imaginative to conceive of these inner psychological transformations than to anticipate outer technological advances.

(1) Niven, Larry, Protector, London, 1974, p. 213.

The Galactic Connection

Science fiction writers and readers are very aware that we inhabit not only a planet and a planetary system but also a galaxy. That we inhabit one of many galaxies is awesomely expressed in the Brian Aldiss title, Galaxies Like Grains Of Sand. Our galactic connection, like the God of mysticism, is within us at all times whether or not we realise it because it was stellar fusion that synthesised the elements of which we are composed. It is also possible that pre-biotic complex molecules came to Earth from elsewhere.

Fiction reflects our galactic context in different ways. Most obviously, human and other organic beings can cross interstellar distances but imaginative writers can do more. In Larry Niven's Known Space future history, terrestrial human beings are mutated Pak breeder colonists of a former Slaver food planet so neither we nor our biosphere originated on Earth.

In Poul Anderson's Brain Wave, no spacecraft arrive and none have yet been launched (but read on). Instead, life is proceeding as normal in the 1950's. However, gyromagnetic action within atomic nuclei near the galactic centre had generated an electromagnetic force field radiating outward in a cone now many light years across, inhibiting electromagnetic and electrochemical processes, particularly neuronic interactions. Nervous systems adapted to the inhibiting force by becoming more efficient. Now the Solar System moves out of the field so that everyone becomes more intelligent. A small quantitative change in neuronic efficiency causes a big qualitative change in thought because the processes involved in consciousness are so sensitive.

Anderson wrote much about spaceships later but here, in his first novel, he invented an original way to show human beings interacting with the galaxy.


The Classics are the works that are always in print. We can always buy a new copy of The Time Machine, and can even choose between editions. I do not have to name the author to identify the work.

Of the many works that do go out of print, some are remembered, referred to as "sf classics" and occasionally revived. I regard Bring The Jubilee by Ward Moore as a classic of time travel but it went out of print after two years, I bought an edition published nearly ten years later and the New English Library SF Masters Series republished it another decade after that.

When James Blish's After Such Knowledge Trilogy was published in a single volume, I did not buy it because I already owned the individual volumes and it simply did not occur to me that the single volume edition would go out of print or indeed that all the works of a writer like Blish would go out of print in my lifetime.

I am rereading Poul Anderson's Brain Wave, a good first novel, in a now out of print SF Masters Series edition with an appreciative Introduction by Brian Aldiss and am buying the Baen Books Technic Civilization Saga, the first uniform edition of Anderson's major future history. It is to be hoped that Baen will publish Anderson's Complete Works?

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Starfarers Economics

In Poul Anderson's Starfarers, Chapters 47-52:

On Earth, robotics and nanotech make all necessities and all or most comforts free like air or sunlight so no one either pays for necessities or profits by selling them. However, a money economy still exists on the colony planet Harbor eleven and a half light years away:

 "The economy today is ruthless; for each person who succeeds, a hundred or a thousand go under." (1)

And land is overcrowded because population is rising steeply. Why have robotics and nanotech not been imported from Earth? Especially since it is stated that on Harbor:

"...technics feeds, clothes, houses, medicates everybody..." (1)

although with the qualifications that:

"...but it can't create living space; and poverty is relative." (1)

The population issue needs to be addressed but otherwise poverty would not need to remain relative if Harborian "technics" were upgraded to the level of terrestrial robotics and nanotech.

Speaking of his opponents on Harbor, Ricardo Nansen asks:

"This is a free society, isn't it? How can they forbid us applying our knowledge to make money and spending the money as we see fit?" (2)

The answer is that the opponents, with superior funds, resources and influence, can undercut Nansen's businesses, pressurise his potential financiers and subsidise hostile propaganda.

Nansen is right that he can make and spend money in a free society provided that that society has a money economy. Thus, it must be neither a primitive hunting and gathering society nor the robotics/nanotech economy existing on Earth at that time. On Harbor as it is described to us, both Nansen and his opponents can make money by hiring skilled or unskilled labour from among the rising population most of whom "go under" but, on Earth, Nansen would build and launch starships not by investing and hiring but simply by cooperating with like-minded people to deploy available resources.

Of Earth, we are told:

"The sort of competitiveness that drove material innovation, whether or not there was any current need for it, was simply not in this society." (3)

If this is a given of the story, then of course I must accept it as such while reading the story. However, I am confident that freedom from economic competition would not stifle but, in some individuals at least, would liberate human curiosity, creativity, ingenuity and energy. It would not be necessary for a small spaceship crew from eleven thousand years ago to re-inspire exploration.

I am grateful to Anderson for writing novels that initiate this level of discussion not only of alien life forms and of technological advances but also of human society. 

(1) Anderson, Poul, Starfarers, New York, 1999, p. 471.
(2) ibid., p. 465.
(3) ibid., p. 450.

The Holont: Second Potentiality

A common human-Holont language is established swiftly and surely because the contemporary Holont have received a message from the future Holont telling them that human beings would arrive and how they would try to communicate: trans-temporal communication and circular causality paradox. Unfortunately, we are told this but are not otherwise told very much about what passes between the two kinds of beings.

It is suggested that thousands or millions of years must pass before galactic civilisation flowers as a result of interactions between organic and holontic cultures. Meanwhile, human beings, exploring, colonising and trading in interstellar space, hope to build holontic time communicators which, like James Blish's Dirac transmitters, will not only receive messages from the future but will also operate instantaneously in the present, making the universe one.

A sequel to Starfarers could have shown a utopia like that in Blish's "Beep" and The Quincunx Of Time, where starfarers, receiving messages describing themselves preventing disasters and presiding over a peaceful, expanding culture, then did prevent disasters and preside over a peaceful, expanding culture: cosmic circular causality.

Starfarers and Holont

How much does Poul Anderson tell us about the Holont in Starfarers? Not enough, really. They are quasi-stable quantum states in the virtual particles of the vacuum in the changeable space-time near a black hole, bearing information, therefore alive, and communicating linguistically, therefore intelligent. But we do not read any conversations with them as we do with the organic intelligences encountered by the starfarers. Instead, a human character summarizes communications for her colleagues and thus for the reader. Before that, the narrator had summarized holontic evolution.

Forms of quantum states appeared, linked, multiplied and became an intricate set of codes, mutated by the uncertainty principle, until some were a thinking mind differentiating itself into individually living waves or avatars that re-coalesce and redivide at will, experiencing lives and histories that resemble memes in organic minds, but also, like organic minds, acting to change their states and those around them, their actions detectable as photonic, electronic and nuclear events, then as dialogue with organic beings when the latter approach the black hole in spacecraft.

Anderson's account is extremely condensed. I found it difficult to paraphrase but otherwise would have understood little and would have retained even less of what he had written. I hope that my account is interesting and informative for other readers.


 Thought requires symbols which require language which is social so I suggest that holontic differentiation preceded thought.

The Holont have two obvious unrealised potentialities. I am sure that there are more but I do not know enough science to draw them out.

First Potentiality

A sympathetic human character, Jean Kilbirnie, dies in the black hole. Or does she? In fiction, and particularly in fantastic fiction, when no body has been found, the author might reverse the death. Two of Jean's colleagues later suspect that holontic configurations are not transitory but permanent, imposing a trace on the vacuum, a direction on randomness, a change in the metric, thus lasting and surviving death, implying that organic patterns and processes might last also.

So could the Holont rescue Jean's consciousness from the death of her body? This is my speculation, no one else's, but it is implied by passages that otherwise are left undeveloped. Anderson's intention is to show us that there is always more to be learned so there will at any stage be still unanswered questions.

Starfarers, a long novel that had already incorporated the Kith series, could, like other Anderson works, have had a sequel. Jean had not returned by the end of this novel but -

To be continued.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Comets And Strange Spaces

(Coincidence: while mentally drafting this article referring to comets in Wells and Verne and to Brain Wave by Poul Anderson, I read the following sentence in another work by Anderson:

("Yes, we have to ride the comet..." (1) )

I do not currently plan to reread In The Days Of The Comet by HG Wells so I am relying on memories from a single reading decades ago (Addendum: However, see here.) (But I have a good reason to mention it here.) First, the title is misleading. It suggests maybe a comet causing alarm by passing near the Earth if not also causing damage by hitting the Earth?

(Parenthetically, I have yet to read Jules Verne's bizarre but fascinating-sounding account of people ascending by balloon (?) to join a comet for a trip around the Solar System, then returning safely to Earth (Addendum: However, see here), but I think I remember it from a Classics Illustrated comic book adaptation.) (The googled comic book cover seems to confirm the balloon.)

Wells' novel is not really about a comet. The comet serves only to introduce into the terrestrial atmosphere a gas or vapor that affects human brains, enabling them to harmonize reason and emotion. Thus, two men still love the same woman but they now openly and honestly compete for her instead of trying to do each other down. And, in the new world after the Comet, she has relationships with both of them.

Global psychological harmonization enables everyone to cooperate in rebuilding society on a rational and humane basis: a revolution but from within each psyche, not resulting from external conflicts. Unfortunately, highly implausible. Let's imagine that the entire galaxy enters a space where all beings are enlightened like the Buddha...

Wells fails in one respect. Before the Comet, his central character argues with a dogmatic and unsympathetic clergyman but, after the Comet, Wells does not show us the changed clergyman.

Science fiction writers imagine external changes of location (to the Moon, from Mars) or of technology (aircraft, spacecraft) etc but rarely internal changes like this psychological revolution which brings us to Poul Anderson's first novel, Brain Wave, which I am just about to reread. Earth enters a space where everyone's intelligence is enhanced, enabling them to cooperate in rebuilding society on a rational and humane basis...

It is a truism that sf writers follow Wells but here is perhaps a less recognized example.

(1) Anderson, Poul, Starfarers, New York, 1999, p. 464.

Starfarers and Seladorians

In Poul Anderson's Starfarers, the spaceship Envoy leaves the Solar System at an unspecified date in our future and returns eleven millennia later. The surviving crew members have aged mere months in transit and only a few years at their destination.

Earth has been peacefully united by the philosophy of Selador for three thousand years. As in Anderson's The Boat Of A Million Years, robotics and nanotechnology have made all necessities and many or all comforts:

", like air and sunshine. There was presumably some way to control their distribution and maintain a stable population, but whatever coercion this required was not obvious." (1)

But why control distribution of something as free as air and sunlight? Why should coercion be necessary? If some can perceive a necessity and try to coerce others, then why instead cannot all agree on the necessity? Indeed, a starfarer speculates:

"Probably social pressure does most of the work...The great majority like things as they are." (1)

Interstellar exploration has stopped because the distances to new systems have become too great at sub-light speeds. Interstellar trade has almost stopped because extrasolar colonies have become self-sufficient. Terrestrial science has ceased to be an enquiry and become a body of knowledge. Artistic creativity has ceased.

"Most effort went into exploring and re-enacting the accumulated works of the ages. No one lifetime sufficed to exhaust that heritage." (2)

Anderson and his starfarers (I think) see free necessities, cessation of exploration and trade and scientific and artistic stagnation as forming a pattern but I suggest that it would not have to be like that. If Earth is at the centre of a sphere of interstellar colonisation several light centuries across, then I can understand that few terrestrials would want to embark on exploratory trips beyond known space but this would not prevent them from engaging in scientific enquiry and artistic creation within the Solar System, which still involves observing the universe beyond the System, and some of the colonists at the frontier could certainly retain an interest in exploring further and thus founding new colonies with which it would be profitable to trade.

Previous speculations on equal distribution of abundant wealth have presupposed a human population actively engaged in using modern industry to produce that wealth. If instead we imagine nanotechnology producing everything, then we also imagine an entire population freed to engage either in re-enactment of the past or in new discoveries and, given human diversity, some would do both. They would certainly have the means to do both.

A terrestrial tells a starfarer:

"We of Earth today seek what we may find in ourselves...You seek elsewhere, outward." (2)

But this seems rather a simple dichotomy. Nothing in their circumstances is preventing terrestrials from looking outwards and they can certainly explore the external universe even if not many of them want to make ten or eleven thousand year round trips in the process.

(Anderson elsewhere imagines not only nanotech producing everything but also AI superceding humanity but that does not happen in Starfarers.)

(1) Anderson, Poul, Starfarers, New York, 1999, p. 450.
(2) ibid., p. 460.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Starfarers and Tahirians

In Poul Anderson's Starfarers, the organic "Yonderfolk" encountered do not have vocable names for themselves so the human explorers name their planet "Tahir" and the beings themselves "Tahirians."

The Tahirians have ended interstellar travel and stabilized both their population and their culture. Although they differ individually, their majority fears the arrival of unpredictable human beings bringing new knowledge of the universe. This is the major conflict in much of Anderson's fiction.

In an earlier future history series, Nicholas van Rijn championed free enterprise against bureaucracy. In some later works, technological advance means that free enterprise is no longer the prime mover of the economy but then the conflict takes other forms: freedom versus control; unpredictability versus continuity; starfarers versus Tahirians - although this last conflict cannot become violent. A capacity for violence is one of the many aspects of humanity that horrifies Tahirians. They can only ask human visitors to leave and not return. When a human spaceship captain replies that he and his crew cannot speak for the whole of mankind, this also is horrifying.

A book-length essay might be necessary to analyze all the forms that this conflict takes in novels like Planet Of No Return, The Avatar etc. In the Harvest Of Stars future history, orderly AI cannot tolerate the continued existence anywhere in the universe of wild human beings. Why not? Surely a whole universe is vast enough for two approaches to existence?

Most basically, matter and life are interactions between energy (change) and inertia (resistance to change). Without change, nothing would happen. Without resistance, nothing would remain in existence from one moment to the next. But there is always scope for argument about how much change and how much continuity is desirable.

Starfarers and Time Travelers

Is it time travel if only information is transmitted to the past? Once, in conversation with James Blish, I referred to what I called "the limited time travel" of his story, "Beep," to which he replied that there was no time travel in "Beep." What happens is that Dirac transmissions are instantaneous. It follows that, in a four dimensional continuum, each Dirac device simultaneously receives all transmissions from past, present and future in a single beep from which individual messages can be filtered and slowed down so that information can be received from the future.

It might be said that information at least has traveled through time but, in any case, this situation does generate the causality paradoxes that are familiar from speculations about time travel.

In Poul Anderson's Starfarers, intelligent quantum states near a black hole can form giant spinning nuclei causing space-time warps through which they send information. Again, a causality paradox results. The quantum states can immediately communicate with newly arrived human explorers because they have been told how to do so by their later selves who know how to communicate with human beings because they have already done so.

Earlier in Starfarers, another situation, while not time travel, was also relevant to time travel paradoxes. The quantum jump that formed the universe was not to the lowest but to a higher energy level. The starfarers' "zero-zero drive" spaceships instantly boost to near light speeds by borrowing energy from the lowest level. It is feared that this exchange of energy between levels destabilizes the universe so that it might collapse to the lowest level. It is stated later in the novel that this fear is unfounded and that instead the energy exchanges strengthen cosmic stability.

However, while the fear was entertained, it was thought that a sphere of nothingness expanding at light speed could engulf the universe. This is comprehensible. However, a character then adds:

"- the past itself annulled, and we not only cease to be, we never were." (1)

And, in the Time Patrol series:

"...brightness that at any instance might not only cease to be but cease ever having been." (2)

This is incoherent. We can exist until time t, can cease to exist at t and can no longer exist after t but we cannot exist until t, than at t cease having existed until t.

The speaker's companion replies that it has not happened yet to which she responds:

"It may already have happened somewhere. It may be on its way to us. We'll never know." (1)

If a sphere of nothingness is on its way to us now, then we exist now so that we have not been prevented from existing until now. We can fear for the future but not in the same way for the past. These few lines could be deleted without affecting the rest of the novel.

(1) Anderson, Poul, Starfarers, New York, 1999, p. 290.
(2) Anderson, Poul, The Time Patrol, New York, 1991, p. 301.