Strangers from Earth, by Poul Anderson (part 1)

Poul Anderson (1926-2001) an acknowledged “grandmaster” of science fiction, had a writing career than spanned several decades, from the late 1940s to the end of the 20th century. As was typical of his generation, he established his name with a large number of short fiction pieces, many of which were expanded or reworked into novels at later times. His large bibliography reflects a consistent respect for ongoing market trends, ranging from magazine-published novellas to SF novels and a Heinleinesque “future history,” followed up by later series of longer novels (not to mention a healthy amount of fantasy works).

I’ve been reading through some of Anderson’s future history books, particularly those featuring his Flandry character. While entertaining as a combination of SF and spy genres, the Flandry books feature layered characters and several big ideas about the future of human progress. But before I delve into that series, I decided to review a collection of some of his early short stories, Strangers From Earth (1961). This article is probably going to be the first of three posts on SfE, whose component stories were first published between 1950 and 1957.

Vincent di Fate cover for 1987 Baen edition.

“Earthman, Beware” (1951)

This novelette describes the plight of Joel Weatherfield, a reclusive superhuman who had a brilliant career as an inventor and child prodigy before disappearing from society. With his suspected off-planet origins and unprecedented mental abilities, Joel might be Anderson’s adaptation of Kal-el of the Superman comic. Revealed to be biologically distinct, Joel is a benevolent but disaffected h. superior, beyond the reach of ordinary h. sapiens laws and limitations. Such characters are all the rage in the movies.

Lonely? No human being would ever know how lonely.

It hadn’t been too bad at first. As a child, he had been too preoccupied and delighted with his expanding intellectual horizons to care that the other children bored him–and they, in their turn, heartily disliked Joel for his strangeness and the aloofness they called “snooty.” His foster parents had soon learned that normal standards just didn’t apply to him, they kept him out of school and bought him the books and equipment he wanted. . . . He’d always been “a good boy,” as far as he was able. They’d had no cause to regret adopting him, but it had been pathetically like the hen who has hatched ducklings and watched them swim away from her.

This simile involving two species is relevant to the Joel’s present confrontation with one Dr. Margaret Logan (“Peggy” to Joel), who worked with him at MIT before his disappearance. “Earthman, Beware” begins with Joel returning to his remote Alaska cabin from a fishing trip to discover that Peggy has tracked him down, in person.

“Couldn’t you just have let me stay vanished?” he asked wearily.

“No.” Her voice was trembling with her lips. “Not till I knew you were safe and–and–“

He kissed her, tasting salt on her mouth, catching the faint fragrance of her hair. The broken waves of her thoughts and emotions washed over him, swirling through his brain in a tide of loneliness and desolation.

Besides his technical acumen, then, Joel is separated from Peggy and her kind with the ability to read the thoughts of others. He manipulates Peggy into abandoning her infatuation with him, but the experience leads him to think that his telepathy–the cause of so much of his desire to isolate himself–could be a means of escaping his “feral child” existence.

Maybe it’s my lack of enthusiasm for comics, but instead of Superman, Joel reminds me of the titular character in Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John. There is the similar immature body, oversized brain and soft contempt for ordinary humankind. Joel’s emotional distance is far less toxic, but he does, like Odd John, “reach out” telepathically for others of his kind. This effort leads to a second confrontation, with unexpected consequences.

“Earthman, Beware” is a neatly packaged extension of the telepathic h. superior trope, adding comeuppance reminiscent of classic mythology. There isn’t much room for Anderson to explain how Peggy became so enamored with Joel, which is unfortunate because she provides the only representation of human-h. superior interaction, outside of Joel’s own recollections. At least this time she doesn’t get called back again and again like a loyal pet, unlike Fido of Odd John.

“Quixote and the Windmill” (1950)

Anyone paying attention to artificial intelligence (AI) these days is likely to be at least a little unnerved at the depth it reaches into our daily lives. My very first review, which described how (in 1962, no less) Fritz Leiber anticipated the way in which the computer would conquer the board game go, was posted in July of 2017. Since then, I’ve witnessed AI becoming a mainstream and off-the-shelf approach in my industry (internet infrastructure) and many others, including transportation, finance and medicine. Of course, we’ve also experienced AI-driven “flash crashes” in the stock market, erroneous election predictions, and out-of-control censorship of social media platforms. For better or worse, this is the world we’re living in.

Karl Stephan cover for 1965 Moewig edition.

“Quixote and the Windmill” is an example of a story more valued for its prophetic ideas than for its plot or characters. There’s also an ending punch line that looks like a retort to Asmiov’s I, Robot stories. The plot can be explained succinctly:

  • Two unemployed men of the future are sitting at an automated bar, drinking and complaining about their lot in life. Advances in technology, and AI in particular, have left them without a meaningful occupation, consequently suffering from a lack of respect.
  • They confront a large, humanoid robot, who had been wandering through the countryside, also without an apparent purpose.

Anderson identifies redundancy as a male problem in this story, with the two characters having capabilities, but not those of a “first-rank genius” who can stay ahead of the machines. They live off of a universal income (an idea which returns to us again and again, regardless of the fact that it destroys incentives and productivity), but lack the ability to replace the meaning of work with recreation:

They sat quiet again. Then Borklin said, slowly: “At least you can get some fun. I don’t like all these concerts and pictures and all that fancy stuff. I don’t have more than drinking and women and maybe some stereofilm.”

“I suppose you’re right,” said Brady indifferently. “But I’m not cut out to be a hedonist. Neither are you. We both want to work. We want to feel we have some importance and value–we want to amount to something. Our friends … your wife … I had a girl once. Pete … we’re expected to amount to something.”

When the two men hear the robot pass by, they debate their eventual fate as being “scrapped” and replaced by “men of metal in a meaningless metal ant-heap.” This inspires a brief, one-sided and drunken fight with the machine. This ends in mutual embarrassment:

Brady reeled about to stand before the robot. The alcohol was singing and buzzing in his head, but his voice came oddly clear.

“We can’t hurt you,” he said. “We’re Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. But you wouldn’t know about that. You wouldn’t know about any of man’s old dreams.”

Unfortunately, I haven’t read Don Quixote, so I probably missed the more subtle elements of this explicit reference. My best guess would be that man’s old dreams involve the basic fulfillment that comes from meaningful work, but the answer probably resides within Cervantes. In any case, the robot has something to say in response to end the story on a lighter note: see this review for discussion.

As mentioned in another review, “Don Quixote and the Windmill” actually begins with a more ambitious literary style, describing the robot as it walks: He walked with a rippling grace that was almost feline, and his tread fell noiselessly– and so forth. The robot is explicitly gendered, engineered to replace the male in his traditional role in the industrial workforce. Had the cast of characters a bit more to do, and the story not a setup to a genre-typical zinger, Anderson would have followed through with a more nuanced statement about the challenges awaiting men in the post-labor future. As it is, we have an acceptable but talky “future history” story.

“Gypsy” (1951)

The “future history” I mentioned above is called the Psychotechnic League series in, and also includes “Gypsy.” Whereas “Don Quixote…” described economic changes on Earth, “Gypsy” introduces events related to mankind’s efforts in colonizing exoplanets of faraway star systems.

Richard Powers cover for 1961 Ballantine edition.

In “Gypsy,” Anderson uses a human-interest narrative as a means of exposition for his Psychotechnic League series. Unfortunately, this means that very little actually happens aside from some self-reflection of the main character (a starship pilot-turned-homesteader) and conversations with his wife and nine-year old son.

Erling Thorkild (many far-future Andersonian spacemen work in multiethnic crews, but retain old-world names and cultural traits) is reminiscing while finishing an errand aboard a small space “boat” above his colonized planet:

The planet swelled before me, a shining blue shield blazoned with clouds and continents, rolling against a limitless dark and the bitterly burning stars. Harbor, we had named that world, the harbor at the end of our long journey, and there were few lovelier names. Harbor, haven, rest and peace and a sky overhead as roof against the naked blaze of space. It was good to get home.

Erling and his crew aboard the Traveler were part of a large mission from Earth to search the outer reaches of known space. They had been knocked off course by accident, and visited many planets before finding Harbor as an ideal destination. Unfortunately, they had completely lost the location of Earth and its solar system, so that they have had lo live with the disappointment of never being able to return.

Readers of this blog might be reminded of a Robert Silverberg novel with a similar premise: Star of Gypsies. That novel was a much deeper exploration of a speculative Roma culture, with its boundless travels and mythical homeland, whereas this Anderson story uses the title Gypsy as pure metaphor. Here, Erling is represents the future version of the perpetual traveller who is unable to ignore the pull of the sea, especially when his old shipmates are visiting.

We began reminiscing about the old days, planets we had seen, deeds we had done. Worlds and suns and moons, whirling through a raw dark emptiness afire with stars, were in our talk–strange race, foreign cities. . . Oh, by all the gods, we had fared far!

One can guess the outcome of the next conversation between Erling and his wife, after his friends leave. It’s no real spoiler to say that ancient traditions are followed in the end.

The most recent “future history” experience I have for comparison is comprised of the Heinlein stories within The Green Hills of Earth and Orphans of the Sky (which I liked). I’ve found it hard to think of these SF series as anything more than the sum of their constituent parts, perhaps because of a lack of truly interesting characters. I never became interested in what happened in Niven’s history following Ringworld. I’ll come across more Psychotechnic pieces as I work my way through my pile of unread Anderson titles, but they won’t take special priority.

My next post (yes, I’m back to doing these) will continue with SfE, covering two more early Anderson stories. We seem to be finished with the Psychotechnic League for now, and the next entries certainly do not lack for plot.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
This entry was posted in books, science fiction, short fiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Strangers from Earth, by Poul Anderson (part 1)

  1. bormgans says:

    Welcome back, looking forward to more post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yooper in Mississippi says:

    Hey, glad you’re back!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Strangers From Earth, by Poul Anderson (part 2) | gaping blackbird

  4. Pingback: Strangers from Earth, by Poul Anderson (part 3) | gaping blackbird

  5. Pingback: Virgin Planet, by Poul Anderson | gaping blackbird

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