Thursday, 1 August 2013

Flight To Forever III

I thought that another memorable passage in Poul Anderson's "Flight to Forever" (IN Anderson, Alight In The Void, New York, 1993, pp. 161-240) was:

"'...this last farewell to the days when we fought with our own hands, and fared between the stars, when we were a small band of sworn comrades whose dreams outstripped our strength.'" (p. 226)

Taury the Red, about to assume Galactic Imperial power, feels nostalgic about the days when her small band was almost powerless. Looking ahead, she continues:

"'When you work for a billion stars, you don't have a chance to see one peasant's wrinkled face light with a deed of kindness you did, or hear him tell you what you did wrong - the world will all be strangers to us -'" (ibid.)

Could a high tech interstellar civilization really have a social hierarchy with an Empress at one end and peasants at the other? Surely not. Why do we read such stuff? What we are appreciating here is a fantastic combination of elements from historical fiction and from science fiction. It is like the Tsarist Empire with spaceships, although Anderson's canon does also include both straight historical fiction and serious speculative fiction.

The change in Taury's Imperial status is from de jure to de facto. Earlier:

"'...we are the Empire - legally. Taury is a direct descendant of Maurco the Doomer, last Emperor to be anointed according to the proper forms. Of course, that was five thousand years ago, and Maurco had only three systems left then, but the law is clear. These hundred or more barbarian pretenders, human and otherwise, haven't the shadow of a real claim to the title.'" (p. 205)

But would Galactic Emperors be anointed and hereditary? If so, then any of the pretenders can seize power and start a new dynasty. De jure always begins as de facto. And, as it happens, only an implausible coincidence enables Taury to enforce her claim.

Saunders and Belgotai, time traveling futurewards in their time projector which, like Wells' Time Machine, is confined to a single position on the Earth's surface, stop in 50,000 AD. Over the millennia, the Galactic Imperial capital had been located closer to the Galactic center. However, Taury's father had fled back to the Solar System and had occupied the Terrestrial fortress of Brontothor which happens to have been built, seven millennia earlier, in sight of the location of the time projector. And it is this imported time travel technology that enables Taury's fleet to win a decisive space battle.

Thus, a far more probable scenario would have had the time travellers arriving in 50,000 AD while the seat of Imperial power was still located elsewhere in the Galaxy. Even if it was now in the Solar System, why should it be on Earth, let along in direct line of sight of the arriving time projector?

Some other arrivals also have this convenient coincidental quality, enabling the time travelers instantly to assess the Galactic situation immediately on exiting the projector:

in 4100 AD, they arrive among buildings where a man uses a "psychophone" to greet them with "'Welcome, travelers...'"! (p. 185);
in 4300 AD, they are greeted by young people emerging from summerhouses who regard time travelers as "'...the biggest lark...since the ship came from Sirius...'" (p. 188);
in 4400 AD, a villa burns as "...huge bearded men in helmets and cuirasses..." carry loot and captives to a scarred spaceship (p. 190);
in 25,296 AD, Lord Arsfel of Astracyr from the Galactic Institute has led an archaeological expedition (spaceship parked nearby) to excavate the Ixchulhi pyramid in which the projector had been trapped for twenty thousand years;
in 31,000 AD, they are in a city with a spaceship, yet again, parked nearby and this time there is a Matriarchy;
in 36,000 AD, there is a village with a battered spaceship and a main in Imperial uniform.

On all but one of these dates, as in 50,000 AD, the time travelers are immediately greeted by informative locals. In the remaining case, 4400 AD, they can see at a glance that the barbarians have arrived so that it is prudent to flee.

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