Thursday, 24 April 2014


"Prophecy" by Poul Anderson was published in Astounding Science Fiction, May 1949 - when I was four months old. I cannot find the Astounding cover for that month but here is the cover of the issue that contained the same author's "The Helping Hand" (May 1950).

Both stories:

are republished in The Collected Short Works Of Poul Anderson (Framingham MA, 2009);

ask whether a more advanced civilization can meaningfully help a less advanced one;

answer "no" - although in different ways.

One answer is to show help given with disastrous results. The other is to show help refused because the more advanced civilization is wise enough to know the consequences.

I found "Prophecy" uncharacteristically disappointing. In this story, there is no imaginative speculation about extra-solar life forms. Human forms are assumed just to serve the single point of the story. (We are in Jonathan Swift territory: Gulliver encounters Lilliputians, Brobdingnagians, Laputans etc so that Swift can satirize humanity.) "Prophecy" comprises a single conversation summarizing the recognizable Andersonian theme of historical cycles but ending with the bald statement that the alien psychotechnicians cannot help and must leave humanity to learn the hard way even though that way includes atomic wars: too much discussion and too little dramatization of the issues.

"Genius," nicely contrasted with "Backwardness" in the same collection, includes even more socio-historical exposition by its protagonists but  incorporates this material more effectively into the narrative which in this case gives us some impression of what a more intelligent civilization might conceivably look like.

1 comment:

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

Your discussion of "Prophecy" has helped me to remember I too have read that story in CALL ME JOE (NESFA Press, 2009). Maybe I'm easier to please or simply less analytical than you, but I rather liked that story. Very much an early work by Poul Anderson, but still very readable. But, I do see your point about how the story was too "bald" or lacking in imagination.

Guess I better reread "Genius" and "Backwardness"!