February 21, 2021

Reflections on the Science Fiction of Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson's science fiction is, in my opinion, not so uniformly excellent as Theodore Sturgeon or Ursula Le Guin. However, he produced some real masterpieces (the 1972 novelette "Goat Song"—a futuristic retelling of the myth of Orpheus, with a computer in the role of the god—being my favorite) and he pioneered several major tropes of the 'space opera' sub-genre, as well as the "Time Police" trope. The majority of his stories are simply fun adventures.

One of the most striking and interesting things about Anderson's work for me is the way his image of the future differs from many other science fiction writers of the same era. Many science fiction writers envision a future in which the political unification of earth leads to total cultural, racial, and ethnic uniformity (usually, among Anglophone writers, with white Anglo-American culture more or less displacing all others). This one human culture is then carried to other planets. Additionally, in the future, as envisioned by most of these writers, science has rendered religion and philosophy obsolete. Many writers predict a turn toward the social and human sciences in the future (think of Asimov's Foundation series), but these become "genuinely scientific" by being reduced to mathematical laws, similar to the laws of physics.

None of this is true in Anderson's world. In his world, cultural differences are a permanent feature of human experience, even considering planet earth alone. Further, in his world, religion and philosophy—and, indeed, religious and philosophical diversity—never become obsolete. In fact, I can't remember any other writer who has advanced aliens show up on earth and say that they can't explain the philosophy that will solve all of our socio-political problems because it is too sophisticated for us (as in Anderson's 1949 story "Prophecy").

It was only recently that I realized that these interesting features of Anderson's writing are rooted in a particular socio-political perspective. According to The Science-Fiction Encyclopedia, "It might usefully be thought that Anderson's cultural style could more fruitfully be regarded as a form of romantic Libertarian individualism most comfortably adhered to far from the large cities of the world." This, however, is certainly false, at least if 'libertarian' is understood in the way philosophers understand it.

It is easy to see how the authors might have gotten the idea that Anderson's perspective was libertarian. Anderson's Polesotechnic League stories glamorize free industry and appear to celebrate a situation in which interstellar trading companies are able to resist the demands of governments. Characters patterned after Gilded Age robber barons figure as the heroes in these stories.* At some points the possibility of new antitrust laws are treated as if they might be the end of the world.

I suspect that these Polesotechnic League stories are revealing as to Anderson's views about the proper economic policies for 1970s America. However, to describe Anderson's ideology as libertarian on this basis is to ignore a variety of stories that describe sociopolitical circumstances less similar to (what he takes to be) his own. In fact, in other contexts one can find Anderson giving sympathetic treatment to all manner of sociopolitical structures, including highly authoritarian ones that lack the kind of free enterprise structure found in the Polesotechnic League stories.

For me, it was the discussion of the political future of the planet Hermes in Anderson's novel Mirkheim (1977) that finally made sense of the ideology behind his work. The planet Hermes is ruled by a hereditary nobility descended from the planet's original settlers. This, let us note, is not really a capitalistic free enterprise system, although it grew out of something like that. As the planet is portrayed at the time of the action, class is guaranteed by heredity in a way that must certainly interfere with free-market transfers of wealth. The key themes in the discussion of the political situation on Hermes are: (1) that this political and economic system is established by long usage developed along with the local culture, and (2) that it works well enough for the vast majority of people. This, in the view of the heroes of the story is reason enough to fear any kind of revolutionary change, even when they recognize the legitimacy of (at least some of) the complaints raised by those who desire change. By the end of the novel (minor spoiler, sorry) the Grand Duchess willingly accepts a collection of reforms aimed at securing greater rights for the lower classes. She accepts these changes with a mixture of hope and fear: she recognizes the imperfections in the status quo and hopes for improvement, but believes that the current system—which, again, is said to work pretty well for the vast majority of people—is fragile and fears that the changes may lead to collapse rather than improvement.

This is quite clearly not libertarianism. This is Burkean conservatism. The key idea is that stable, functional social and political organization is created by trial and error in a long historical tradition. This tradition is dependent on a particular culture and particular circumstances, and cannot be expected to be the same everywhere. Further, there is a deep skepticism of any idea that there is one true political system, discovered by reason or science.

I said above that the Polesotechnic League stories likely are reflective of Anderson's view of the political situation of 1970s America. This is because the stories are set in a social, political, and economic environment quite similar to what Anderson probably took to be his own. But Anderson also spent a great deal of energy imagining radically different environments. The Burkean reading shows how these habits of thought fit together. Further, the skepticism of centralized control, or of attempts at rational reconstruction of the political order, is quite explicit in many of Anderson's works. For instance in the 1950 novella Flight to Forever, a time traveler meets distant future beings much smarter than humans who believe they have solved the problem of constructing a stable and permanent social organization, with some advanced social science. Traveling further into the future, the time traveler discovers that, while these beings were indeed able to achieve very long term stability, the real world is just more complicated than their calculations, and reality caught up with them eventually.

The Burkean reading also accounts for some rather disturbing items in Anderson's fiction. One of Anderson's best known works is an intentionally disturbing story, "The Sharing of Flesh" (1968). In this story, anthropologists learn that humans on a colony world long separated from other human planets practice a systematic, ritualized form of cannibalism. The anthropologists initially dismiss this as a product of a broken and evil culture that must be fixed by education and cultural change. However, it turns out that there is an essential nutritional reason for the practice, and there is a different problem—the nutritional one— that must be solved to end it. The message, clearly, is that even cultural practices that look wicked or obscene to us do not develop for no reason. The culture is responding to some imperative in its environment, solving some problem. The wisdom of the past, embodied in these cultural practices, cannot just be dismissed. Change (careful, incremental reform) may be a good thing, but one cannot dismiss the tradition.

Some other related bits in Anderson are probably unintentionally disturbing. For instance, in "Genius" (1948) it is casually mentioned that the current practice of the Terran Empire is to exterminate intelligent non-humans on colonized planets, because the problem of governing multiple species is too complex. The character sees this as bad and hopes to solve the problem, but speaks as if this is just a pragmatic response to an unfortunate problem. Another example is that (probably not coincidentally) the attitude of the Grand Duchess in Mirkheim, with which Anderson clearly sympathises, is very similar to the attitude of certain white moderates who, while claiming to recognize the legitimacy of the grievances of civil rights protesters, feared that too quick an expansion of civil rights might destabilize the country. This was, of course, a clearly Burkean argument. (N. K. Jemisin is responding to attitudes like Anderson's when, in the Prologue to The Stone Sky, she describes participants in a slave revolt as "those who would see the world burn before enduring a moment longer in 'their place'.")

What is interesting to me, however, is the way that Anderson's conservatism is actually the reason why, unlike many other science fiction writers of his generation, he does not erase cultural, political, ethnic, linguistic, religious, and philosophical diversity. Writers of more liberal and cosmopolitan persuasions, in Anderson's time, mostly envisioned a future in which reason, science, and cosmopolitanism led to the erasure of these forms of diversity. Anderson's Burkean skepticism about the ability of reason or science to displace the wisdom embodied in local cultural traditions is the reason why he thinks that there will always be a diversity of local cultural traditions. Science fiction, for Anderson, can help to expand our imagination about the range of possible social and political arrangements, but in the end we have to come back home and live within our own tradition. (This is also often illustrated in Anderson's Time Patrol stories, as characters experience the cultural practices of the past.)

It would be interesting in this respect to compare Anderson with another science fiction writer, just three years his junior: Ursula Le Guin. Le Guin, like Anderson stands out in this era for her interest in exploring the diversity of possible human cultural, social, and political arrangements. But Le Guin clearly and obviously comes from a very different social and political perspective than Anderson. This post is already plenty long enough, so I will not explore this hint any further here.

I want to conclude on a timelier note. I began writing this post shortly before the storming of the US Capitol and I've found it rather difficult to finish. The Burkean ideas I see in Anderson's work are very much in the air. Trump's supporters clearly and frequently express a very Burkean fear that too much change is coming too quickly in a way that might destroy what has been built. But many of us who oppose Trump—and would not call ourselves 'conservative'—had our own moment of Burkean fear when the Capitol was breached. This was a moment when the fragility of democracy was brought home. The peaceful transition of power is secured only by the entrenched cultural tradition of accepting the certified outcomes of elections, even when we disagree with the result or think the procedure was unfair in various ways. Burkean conservatives are no doubt correct to think that an entrenched cultural tradition of this sort is difficult to build and easy to destroy.


Note

* I note, in this context, that editorial introductions to collections of Anderson's stories often describe robber baron Nicholas van Rijn as one of Anderson's most beloved characters. I can't stand that jackass and think the van Rijn stories are among Anderson's worst. Nothing against unlikeable characters, you understand, it's just that it's clear from the writing that van Rijn is intended to be a 'lovable rogue' and as far as I can see nothing lovable about him. On the other hand, van Rijn appears in some of the same stories as one of Anderson's best characters, Adzel. Adzel is a dragon-like being from the planet Woden who converted to Buddhism while attending university on earth.
Posted by Kenny at February 21, 2021 12:48 PM
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