My survey of early Poul Anderson novels continues with After Doomsday, a 1962 novel that begins with the end of the world. At the time of the nuclear holocaust, several spaceships of humans are engaged in various trading and exploration missions, meaning that survival of the species is decided by the post-disaster actions of a select few people. Also, Earth had been interacting with a handful of space-traveling alien races at the time, but was in open hostilities with any of them.
Originally published in Galaxy during its famous run under the editorship of Frederik Pohl, After Doomsday takes on a number of weighty themes because of its post-disaster premise. The remaining humans have serious tasks assigned to them, guided–perhaps unconsciously–by the history of the 20th Century:
- organizing themselves under leaders who can thrive in times of crisis
- using intrigue to find out which outside power is responsible for genocide
- surviving as a diaspora, by taking on new economic or political roles
AD depicts all three missions by splitting its focus between the Franklin, a merchant marine vessel of American men (plus one alien navigator), and the Europa, a spaceship populated entirely by female European scientists. Both crews successfully avoid being destroyed by alien torpedos left in Earth’s orbit, and leave home forever on voyages outside the solar system.
The story of the men is pretty standard fare. The crew of the Franklin, after escaping destruction and finding clues inside a disabled torpedo, land on a planet called Tau Ceti II. There, the leadership splinters and the makeshift colony starts to descend into chaos. An engineer (and notably, a military veteran) named Carl Donnan was away while the coup was attempted, and he works to curb the despair he finds.
“To hell with that noise,” Donnan said. “Those are good men. Good, you hear? Nothing wrong with ’em except they’ve had the underpinnings, and props and keystones, knocked out of their lives. Strathey [the old captain] was the one who failed. He should have provided something new, immediately, to take up the slack and give the wound to heal. Howard’s failing ’em still worse. Why the blue blazes does he stand there jibbering? Why don’t he take charge?”
“How?” Easterling’s teeth flashed in a wolf grin.
“By not quacking at everybody but addressing himself directly to the ones like you, that he can see have got more self-control than average,” Donnan said. . . . “restore order before this thing completely gets out of hand. And then, stop asking them what they think we out to do. Tell them what we’re going to do.”
Donnan’s no-nonsense lecturing wins him a cadre of support, and soon he is charge of the Franklin. He realizes that their survival depends on adopting a new purpose, and so adopts the mission to identify the alien race that destroyed their planet. Along the way, they invent ways of contacting other survivors (the know vaguely of the Europa), but the primary objectives are the truth, and ultimately, vengeance.
To contact the alien powers, they become mercenaries in an ongoing war, a Great Game of diplomacy and wars-by-proxy between empires. The nature of these aliens is not especially important (they are not compellingly portrayed, in any case), except that they cannot seem to keep Donnan’s crew under control for very long, either as hirelings or prisoners. Anderson keeps things moving with action and political intrigue, to the point that what would seem primary actors (commanders and the like) are rather gullible and cardboard.
In contrast, the women of the Europa are mostly highly educated civilians, and are not threatened with a leadership crisis. They too seek a purpose to bide their time, and establish themselves on a trading planet through innovative commercial activity. Anderson describes their new home as an ornate and diverse place:
From their window high in that tower known as i-Chula–the Clouded–Sigrid Holmen and Alexandra Vukovic could easily see aro-Kito, One Who Awaits. That spire lifted shimmering walls and patinaed bronze roof above most of its neighbors; otherwise its corkscrew ramps and twisted buttresses were typical Eyzka architecture. The operations within, however, resembled none which had yet been seen on Zatlokopa, or in this entire civilization-cluster. Terran Traders, Inc. had leased the whole building.
Their success brings them substantial wealth over time, but then a less sophisticated alien race attempts to undermine them. This leads to one of the Europa’s leaders being kidnapped for torture (like in many cases in history, the economically ignorant associate the success of an ethnic minority with some sort of forbidden knowledge), but she escapes in a particularly unrealistic action sequence. Like Donnan, Sigrid initially outsmarts her captors before turning the scene into one of brutal mayhem. These escape episodes may have been inspired by stories of WWII-era heroism, but they do suffer from implausibility.
The other principal weakness, a consequence of having so much action in a compact (128 pages) novel, is the scarcity of interesting characters. Donnan is the practical everyman who, through his grounded and analytical response to crisis, becomes the leader of the men. We could have seen his leadership tested more, as the Franklin crew move between employers and planetary systems. The Europa crew’s story could also have been enriched with more interactions among the characters, but perhaps Anderson was not ready to tackle intellectual fatalism at this point; he definitely was by the time he wrote Tau Zero.
NOTE: I should mention that a ballad written by the Franklin’s men appears inspired by “MacDonough’s Song,” a fictitious song of rebellion included in Rudyard Kipling’s “As Easy As A.B.C.” Anderson was clearly a fan of this story, since he suggested “MacDonough’s Song” for Jerry Pournelle’s 1981 anthology The Survival of Freedom.