Poul Anderson: Overview

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Author: Sandra Miesel
Editor: Jay P. Pederson
Date: 1996
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,707 words

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James Blish has called Poul Anderson "the enduring explosion" because the quality, quantity, and sheer breadth of Anderson's achievements are unique in science fiction. Seven Hugos and three Nebulas proclaim him the field's premier novelettist, but more than 50 novels and 200 shorter works testify to his mastery of all story forms. Over the course of five decades, he has explored an amazingly wide range of literary types from madcap comedy to grimmest tragedy in such distinctive fashion that the term "poulanderson" was once suggested as a generic name.

Consider the following examples in Anderson's fictional spectrum: broad farce (the Hoka series written with Gordon R. Dickson and The Makeshift Rocket); adventure comedy (Virgin Planet); action adventure yarn ("The Longest Voyage," 1960; the Van Rijn series, and the Flandry series); sociopolitical drama (The Psychotechnic Institute series and "No Truce with Kings," 1963); hard science fiction ("Epilogue, 1962); romantic fantasy (Three Hearts and Three Lions); heroic fantasy (The Broken Sword and Hrolf Kraki's Saga); pastiche (Conan the Rebel); shared universe (major conceptual contributor to Medea, 1985 and Murasaki, 1992); horror (The Devil's Game); historicals (the Last Viking trilogy); and mysteries (Perish by the Sword). Moreover, Anderson also writes songs, poems, parodies, essays, and children's books as well as being a skillful translator of Scandanavian prose and poetry. (For examples of his miscellania, see The Unicorn Trade, written with his wife, Karen.)

Science is Anderson's most important raw material. His formal training in physics imparts a special rigor to his handling of any science. His research is thorough, his extrapolations imaginative. He will interweave hard and soft sciences as in Orion Shall Rise, often contrasting scientific knowledge used for and against life as in "Time Lag," 1962. His most typical approach is the problem-solving story. Here, characters must either discover a phenomenon ("The Sharing of Flesh," 1968, and "Hunter's Moon," 1978) or react to one that is already recognized (Fire Time and "The Bitter Bread, 1975). Setting objective physical problems in parallel with subjective personal ones and linking outcomes is Anderson's favorite literary device. He builds these stories so well that they can outlive their scientific premises. Thus, the Jupiter model in "Call Me Joe" (1957) has passed away; the appeal of its tenacious hero endures.

Furthermore, Anderson makes scientific problem-solving a vehicle for philosophical inquiry. For instance, four marooned spacemen conduct an intense, self-conscious debate on the meaning of life in The Enemy Stars. Tau Zero, which Blish has judged "the ultimate hard science fiction novel," shows the crew of a crippled...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420000222