Going for Infinity: A Literary Journey is a brilliant posthumous gift from Poul Anderson to his fans and an excellent introduction to his work for new readers. One of the best speculative fiction writers of the 20th Century, Anderson published over 100 novels and story collections, won every science fiction and fantasy award known to humankind multiple times, and never published a memoir. Going for Infinity is as close as we'll come to knowing the man behind the stories.
Anderson introduces his retrospective anthology with some personal background on his youth and education and how those experiences shaped his writing. Losing his father early, living in Denmark, working a failing farm, studying physics -- all are grist for his imagination's mill. The themes of loss, Scandinavian culture, and working the land permeate his writing. In addition to personal background, Anderson also offers tantalizing glimpses into the science fiction community. He introduces each story, puts it in the context of his life and the times, and tells anecdotes about fellow writers and editors.
The eighteen stories range over the length of Anderson's writing career from 1947 to his death in 2001. He begins and ends the collection with two of his best-known and most honored novellas, both of which won both the Nebula and Hugo awards. "The Saturn Game" shows with vivid detail and chilling psychology how fantasy can invade reality. A fantasy role-playing game becomes deadly dangerous as it distracts a scientific mission on the Saturnian moon of Iapetus, but it also provides its players with the strength to survive. A high-concept promoter might pitch "The Queen of Air and Darkness" as "Sherlock Holmes meets the Queen of Faerie." Although neither is mentioned by name, the roots are obvious in this story of human and alien first contact gone horribly wrong.
A Literary Journey -- the subtitle of this collection -- reflects not only the length of Anderson's career, but the breadth and depth of his talent. Sometimes, Anderson writes for his moment in time. "The Shrine for Lost Children," a gentle ghostly tale, is told in reverse flashbacks: Anderson wrote it a year before the movie Momento popularized the same technique. "Sam Hall," written during the McCarthy era, smacks as much of social commentary as science fiction when an insider sparks a revolution against an oppressive system with random acts of rebellion. Sometimes Anderson writes from literary tradition. "A Midsummer Tempest" is a beautiful and loving homage to Shakespeare. The poor monster Caliban has grown old waiting for his Miranda to return to Prospero's island. Anderson draws on another classic source -- the Orpheus myth -- for the multiple-award-winning novella "The Goat Song." The language is lush and lyrical, harking back to myth and ballad, while telling a tale of one man's fight against a sterile computer-controlled society. Anderson's writing in a more purely science fiction vein is showcased in one of my favorite science fiction stories, "Epilog." A haunting tale of evolution, it challenges us to examine what it means to be human. Anderson turns to high fantasy when treats us to the full-length version of two chapters of his novel Three Hearts and Three Lions. This tale has not only the requisite hero, dwarf, and shape changer but also a mystery -- who is the werewolf threatening a village? Speaking of mysteries, Trygve Yamamura, the detective with a Japanese-American father and Norwegian mother returns to solve the murder of a client in "Dead Phone."
Anderson fans will meet other old friends here as well. The merchant prince Nicholas van Rijn, hero of the Trader to the Stars stories and several novels in Anderson's Technic History series, appears in another first contact story "The Master Key." The Time Patrol series is represented by a recent story "Death and the Knight" with a familiar theme -- how to rescue an errant time agent without changing history. "The Problem of Pain" is a prequel to the novel The People of the Wind, The Ythrians -- an intelligent avian race -- cooperate with humans to colonize a world. Anderson explores human and alien loss with sharp insight. The wonderfully inventive world of The High Crusade is represented by the humorous "Quest." The medieval English knights (who conquered several alien species in Crusade) now search for the Holy Grail and outwit those shifty aliens -- again. In the introductions to the stories, we learn about Jerry Pournelle's efforts with the Citizens' Advisory Committee on National Space Policy, how Poul met his wife Karen at a science fiction convention, John Campbell's gout, building a houseboat with Frank Herbert and Jack Vance, repairing it after it sank during a storm, and so much more.
Going for Infinity: A Literary Journey provides fans and new readers with a wide-ranging sampler of the best of Poul Anderson. That alone would make this collection special. With the addition of his reflections on his life, art, and the people he loved and worked with, this is a "must read."
Anderson's last novel, For Love and Glory, will probably satisfy fans more than new readers. This book is a prime example of Anderson's ability to tell a tale with depth and integrity. In the far future, the adventurous have left Earth, and the last inhabitants turn increasingly to a machine-maintained mental community. Far-flung human colonies build homogenous and increasingly divergent societies. Lissa Davysdaughter Windholm, from a ruling merchant house on the planet of Asborg, meets "freelancer" Torben Hebo (a man so old he was born on Earth) when they both explore an important artifact left by the mysterious Forerunners.
In another's hands this story might degenerate into the clichéd Beauty and the Beastly Man, but Anderson sends them on separate adventures, deftly weaving back and forth between them. In a time when information is power, Lissa steals a march on the Susaians, a paranoid military race hoarding a secret. Torben takes a necessary, but nostalgic, trip to Earth. Rejuvenation has extended human life indefinitely, but has not provided a system for handling the increasing memories. Torben needs his memories "edited," but what to discard and what to keep? The two eventually meet up again to squabble and foil another plot by the Susaians, but this time at a deadly cost.
For Love and Glory is not among my favorite books from Poul Anderson. Its fragmented nature betrays the inspiration for the novel -- two short stories reworked and expanded. But Anderson doesn't take the easy way out, doing the clichéd or expected in his story telling. The characters are true to themselves. They don't have any sudden or inexplicable changes in behavior or personality to suit the plot. For Love and Glory may be an "average" Anderson novel, but his "average" is better than most people's best.
Copyright © 2003 Faith L. Justice
Faith L. Justice is a freelance writer and Features Editor for Space & Time Magazine. She lives in New York City with her husband, daughter, and cat. Her previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.