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.
I wouldn’t claim AD to be a high point in Anderson’s early novel-writing, but it is a step forward from Star Ways and Virgin Planet. 6/10.
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.
This seems more in tune with the darker more fatalistic side of Anderson that I’m most familiar with, which certainly did find expression in the late 50’s (Sister Planet).
Stories about what earth people do after the destruction of earth are another mini-genre you can find myriad examples of.
James Tiptree Jr. (long before her outing as Alice Sheldon) wrote a short story called “Faithful to Thee, Terra, in Our Fashion” (a.k.a. “Parimutuel Planet”) that I feel certain Westlake would have enjoyed, if he happened across it.
Turns out nobody else in the galaxy had ever thought of betting on the races–and the only thing keeping what’s left of the human race from self-destruction is their dedicated and rigidly honest stewardship over an entire planet devoted to contests between extraterrestrial jockeys and their bizarre alien steeds. (But no races between machines!) This features a rather charming cameo by a small rodentine alien named Snedicor, named after one of Sheldon’s favorite lab rats in her days as a researcher in animal behavior.
This is a humorous story, but with a tragic core, since it’s been a relatively short time since earth was destroyed, and without the distraction of the races, the Terrans would be in a state of mental and spiritual collapse. But by sharing what’s best in them with the other races, they find a reason to keep going. For Tiptree, this is a very optimistic story. Even Anderson at his most dourly Calvinistic can’t match her inner darkness.
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If there is one prevailing theme in Anderson’s fiction (at least, of his fiction that I’ve read), it is mankind’s struggle against entropy. Anderson had a physics degree, so we know that in all cases entropy (or chaos, in his fantasy works) will eventually win. After Doomsday is focused on the events after entropy’s big victory, the heat-death of the world, so it’s more about the rebirth of the species. It’s definitely the most dark of the Anderson books I’ve covered so far, but it does end optimistically.
On the more speculative side, AD also features what looks to me like a major strength, and a major shortcoming of Anderson. The strength is his exploration of leadership; Donnan does not take charge in the heat of a space-battle with aliens, but in the relatively quiet time between alien encounters. The quote I used shows this reorganization from a hierarchy of title (inherited from a now-meaningless military system) to a hierarchy of competence (needed for the ragtag group of guerrilla survivors).
The weakness I’m seeing is Anderson’s apparent reticence to write flaws into his female characters; women are prominently featured in most of his longer works, but (compared to men) there’s not as much room for them to grow. Sigrid and Alexandra are okay secondary characters, but we see the same Sigrid and Alexandra in the first half of AD as the second half. This may merely be a function of how short the novel is, or point to another way Tiptree carries the baton from Anderson in her writing.
It’s interesting you should say that, because entropy is also a major theme in Tiptree’s fiction, and it’s a theme she developed to an exceptional degree. Her scientific work was in the life sciences, which in some ways is a more fruitful area for an SF writer–since all fiction is about life forms, by its nature.
I would suggest Anderson didn’t know enough about women to write their flaws believably, and was hesitant to try. He seems to have had a good marriage, but that in itself doesn’t mean a deep understanding of the opposite sex. He respects women, even worships them a bit (more than a bit), but has a hard time writing them well, because of the pedestal thing. I will say, The Merman’s Children does have one strong flawed female character–a tragic character. And only half-human, which may have helped. I think some of his later fiction did show progress on this front. We live and learn.
The reason people so readily fell for the lie of James Tiptree Jr. was that Alice Sheldon wrote so often and well from a man’s POV–even when the story was about women. I think she understood, better than most, that the differences between the sexes are much less important than the differences within them. She was probably more attracted to women than men (it’s debatable), but her closest relationships were with men–even while she yearned for her sisters to achieve their full potential.
You are going to get to her at some point, aren’t you? I mean, if the goal is to understand women better, might want to see what they have to say for themselves. 😉
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Yeah, I was going to point out that any assessment of Anderson’s shortcomings is qualified by my concentration on his early works. This is definitely an author who learned-by-doing, and by several accounts improved as he aged.
At random I picked up a copy of The House That Stood Still by A.E. van Vogt, an author whose quality peaked early. It’s interesting to see how far ahead Anderson was in pretty much all aspects of storytelling, including the portrayal of women, at the time.
I have a couple of Tiptree collections, so at some point I’ll get around to her stories. In fact, after this Anderson business I was going to start with all of the books and stories recommended to me in the comments, since the start of the blog. I have quite a backlog!
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Van Vogt was a great idea man–maybe the best SF has, after Verne and Wells (who got there much sooner. If he’d been paid for all his ideas that got ripped off, by other writers and Hollywood, he could have bought his own country.
But that being said, you’re right–he burned out early, and was never able to get past a certain point in terms of characterization. A great start, and then he flatlined.
Personally, I blame L. Ron Hubbard. 😉
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With regards to Tiptree, you basically divide her work into three categories:
1)Very early stuff where she’s just finding her style, writing to the market, imitating others–still pretty distinctive.
2)Her mature period, as Tiptree and (sometimes) Racoona Sheldon–I would assume the only SF pseudonym that only got published because she was endorsed by yet another pseudonym. Maybe her best private joke (and she had so many). She got the male editors to publish her more feminist stuff under a woman’s name, by having her manly alter ego endorse it. And they still never twigged to Tiptree and Racoona being two sides of the same multi-layered personality. 😀
3) Her stuff as Alice Sheldon, after she was outed by well-meaning amateur sleuths. More self-conscious, returning to old themes with increased fatalism–but often with horrifying emotional power.
And there are two novels, written in the present tense (rejected then, so lit-trendy today) which I think are underrated, but her best stuff is all shorts written for the pulps.
The hardest thing to take about her is that she wants to give up hope for us all, and somehow she can’t quite manage it.
If pain and self-conflict is the source of all great writing–well, read it yourself.
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