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Starfarers
Poul Anderson
Tor Books, 383 pages

Starfarers
Poul Anderson
Poul Anderson was born in 1926 in Bristol, Pennsylvania. His first publication was "Tomorrow's Children" (with F.N. Waldrop) in the March 1947 issue of Astounding, and his first novel was Vault of the Ages (1952). Since then, he has won 7 Hugo Awards (2 for short stories, 3 for novelettes and 2 for novellas) and 3 Nebula Awards (2 for novelettes and the other for a novella). From 1972-3, he presided as SFWA President. He and his wife Karen are the proud parents of a daughter, Astrid Anderson Bear (Greg's wife).

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Robert Francis

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Imagine the excitement that would hopefully grip our world if astronomers announced that they had proof of the existence of alien spacecraft. Not just spacecraft, too, but spacecraft moving almost as fast as the speed of light. And, answering that challenge like the U.S. answered the challenge offered by Sputnik's steady "beep... beep... beep" as it orbited the Earth in 1957, if physicists, confronting the fact that relativistic travel was real, figured out how it could be done. Then, just as mankind's fledgling flights from the nest were occurring, and a few nearby terrestrial planets were being discovered and colonized, sightings of the wakes of alien spacecraft were observed closer than ever before. Sounds interesting? If you like the "science" side of science fiction, then Starfarers is for you.

Anderson's Starfarers is an exciting meld of hard science fiction and social speculation. It is a novel of first contact, not only between humans and aliens, but between humans and their future, thanks to the dictates of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. Too often it seems, in the interest of producing a story which takes place over a time span we can relate to, authors invent some sort of faster-than-light drive to allow things to happen at a comfortable pace (my favorite, and actually a parody of this trend, is Harry Harrison's "Bloater Drive" -- as described in his book Bill the Galactic Hero). Anderson shows that this is not necessary. He has created a reasonable, nearly-light-speed drive, and has made the physics-dictated enormous amount of time needed to make such a trip into the foundation for the second layer of the story. Not only are our adventurers voyaging out to make first contact with an alien race, but given that their trip will last 10,000 years from Earth's frame of reference, they will return to a human culture potentially as alien as, well, the aliens'.

The science in this work of science fiction is great. Anderson's future technology is well founded in physics, and therefore very believable. In fact, buried near the end of the book is a brief speculation on how the principle of quantum entanglement could be used to manipulate small atomic particles, such as electrons, from a great distance. Well, for all of you who've been keeping up with events through publications like Physics Today, you'll know that real-life researchers very recently announced using quantum entanglement in a very similar fashion to actually "transport" (as in "Beam me up, Scotty") a photon from one side of a laboratory to another. Makes me wonder if Anderson had an inside line to the laboratory on this one, or if it was just one more of the many examples of a well-grounded science fiction writer anticipating real scientific breakthroughs.

I'm afraid that some of the social fiction in the story is seems a little flat. One of the premises, familiar to those who have read Dickson's Dorsai books or Cherryh's Union-Alliance books, is that once given the outlet of space travel, mankind will self-segregate. In this instance, those with a genetic predisposition to be explorers will head off to the stars, and the rest of humanity, the stay-at-homers, will lose interest in the wide new frontier and develop an introspective society. Another of Anderson's sociological premises is that the Western hegemony on culture and power has been violently and irrevocably broken, leaving the US, Canada, Australia and the likes full of beaten and bitter people This premise provides the background for the author to assemble a truly multicultural first contact mission to the stars. However, this premise may have been carried a bit too far, in that the two representatives from North America on the ten person crew are fairly pathetic losers. This turns out to be necessary for some fairly critical plot developments. but, if you are the kind of reader who occasionally finds themselves stepping back from the plot and giving it a "reality check," you might find yourselves wondering how the heck these two could have made it onto a crew supposedly selected from the best the Earth could offer. Or how the captain, who made a point of hand-picking his crew, could have missed the almost Hitler-esque fervor with which the character Alvin Brent talked about raising "his people" (the Americans) back to their "rightful place" in the world.

I admit, I haven't read much Anderson recently. I was almost tempted to generalize about how Anderson always does great with the science aspect of his story, but always has problems making truly three-dimensional, well-rounded characters. Then I remembered Dominick Flandry in A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows, or Nick van Rijn from The Man Who Counts, or any of the other Polesotechnic League books (or David Falkayn, Chee Lan, or Adzel for that matter). Call them "space opera," "juvenile sci-fi," or whatever. All I know is that these characters, created by Anderson, and their stories have stayed with me for 20 years, and will stay with me for many more. So, if you're a long-time Anderson fan, Starfarers delivers a good hard-science fiction tale with some thought-provoking sociology. If you're new to Anderson, read Starfarers and see how a master handles "real science" science fiction. Then, read The Man Who Counts, or The Trouble Twisters, or Ensign Flandry, and get introduced to some great adventure science fiction series.

Copyright © 1998 by Robert Francis

Robert Francis is by profession a geologist, and, perhaps due to some hidden need for symmetry, spends his spare time looking at the stars. He is married, has a son, and is proud that the entire family would rather read anything remotely resembling literature than watch Jerry Springer.


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