Retro Review: Fire Time by Poul Anderson

When I started reading Poul Anderson’s Fire Time, I did she because I thought it was on the Appendix N reading list. While Mr. Anderson makes that list twice, this was not one of those books. However, I’m quite happy I found this magnificent author through this work first, and would highly recommend anyone start here who has an interest in Anderson. 

Poul Anderson is one of those authors who, in our cult of the new modern era, has been somewhat erased from time. You won’t find many readers in my generation who have heard of him, nor will you find a lot of his work in Barnes and Noble. When I went to a used bookstore, however, I found that he was an extremely prolific author. As his wife commented in his obituary in 2001, “we stopped counting after 100”. 

How did an author so prolific, a seven time Hugo Award winner (when the award still meant something), leave the public consciousness? It serves as a further example of how far the science fiction field has strayed from its roots, and ignored anyone who doesn’t hold certain political views, even posthumously. And, after reading Fire Time, I find this a shame.

Fire Time is the grand science fiction sense of wonder at its finest. It has hard science fiction elements, dealing with real possibilities of what biologically, geologically and sociologically happens to a planet when it has three suns to contend with. It has space opera elements as humanity is dealing with a far off war with another alien species. It has fantasy elements, as the main alien species, the Ishtarans, are comprised of centaurs who act rather Roman-esque in their honor code and fighting, and are at typical fantasy level technology. Fire Time is a striking blend of different sub-genres that is refreshing to read on a lot of levels.

The story opens and closes as a “story within a story”, a trope that I find rather fun. Someone is in front of a tribunal for violating Federation laws of non-interference, just like we’d expect to see in latter Star Trek: The Next Generation if Picard violated the prime directive, and I have to think that given Gene Roddenberry’s love for science fiction and this book’s prominence in the 1970s, that he may have drawn from Fire Time as a source for the larger world building of Star Trek that occurred in the 1980s. 

Once into that framework, we’re thrown directly into an alien perspective. I found this jarring at first, and a bit difficult to read, which almost deterred me from reading the book. When it switched perspectives to a human again, a naval captain who was about to be stationed on this planet with three suns, I found that Mr. Anderson has an uncanny ability to separate his own voice from the voices of his characters, which, as this book unfolded with several viewpoints, made it all that much more intriguing. The aliens certainly had their own culture, and though they had a lot of humanity to them, felt like a truly distinct species, which I appreciated.

Mr. Anderson takes a lot of risks in the story as well. It doesn’t just stick in with our conflict, but tells us a lot of the goings on in human politics, especially with a war raging outside their space, of which this planet is deemed “strategic” for a base to service that war, even though it is remote and nothing of the sort. The perspective shifts are used to give us more of a global sense of the world around us, and it made me interested enough in this world that I would read other stories set in this larger world, which did originate from a different novel, The Star Fox. I had not read that, but enjoyed this book thoroughly without that backstory. It was very self-contained.

We see some perspective shifts that we wouldn’t encounter in a modern novel: a debate back on Earth over the war, formatted as a transcript and encyclopedia style history of Earth’s war with a starfarring alien race, a shift to a character in combat in the outer world for one chapter, another transcript style chapter of a couple of our main characters being recorded over an open line by the military on the planet Ishtar where this is set. As I said, Anderson took some risks, and they paid off in the way the reader connects to this story and sees a bigger world.

Thematically, Anderson does touch on some interesting human ideas. Every thousand years barbarians come and destroy civilization is a reflection of our own human culture in a lot of ways. There’s a strong anti-war sentiment which probably stems from this being written toward the end of the Vietnam war. The war outside Ishtar is often described as pointless, frivolous, with characters not understanding why we’re involved or putting our resources there. He doesn’t condemn all war in a hippie-pacifist manner, though, as the humans acknowledge that the fighting of the Ishtarans seems to have real purpose. A heavy theme of the individual defying government orders to do what’s right permeates through it, and what’s right isn’t necessarily what feels good or moral in the end either. 

There’s some interesting romance in the book which adds a sense of realism to it, also showing our characters as flawed and not the user-heroes of a lot of the work we’d read in fiction prior to the 1970s. This sort of moral experimentation was going on in a lot of books at the time, though Mr. Anderson doesn’t get preachy like Heinlein with bizarre relationship structures, instead presenting infidelity as things that just happen, and the characters’ feelings reflect that there is both good and bad in that. 

I tried not to spoil too much for people who would want to read this book. It’s a lot of fun to read, some of the best sci-fi out there, and Hugo nominated itself in the mid-70s. It should be on all the lists of must read sci-fi.

7 thoughts on “Retro Review: Fire Time by Poul Anderson

  1. how did you not know of this master of the ‘modern fantasy/technology mashup’?
    His Van Rijn/Falkayn (sp?) and Flannery stories/novels do map the rise and fall of a galactic empire that parallels Gibbons masterful examination of the Roman archetype.

    And his fantasy (Shield of Time, Odin the Goth, the queen of air and darkness) always ‘makes sense’ or has logical/tech underpinnings and real consequences (in the case of Time Patrol stories).

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  3. When it comes to SF, I rate Poul above everybody, including Heinlein. He also wrote some of the best fantasy ever. Quite simply. a master of his craft.

  4. “How did an author so prolific, a seven time Hugo Award winner (when the award still meant something), leave the public consciousness? It serves as a further example of how far the science fiction field has strayed from its roots, and ignored anyone who doesn’t hold certain political views, even posthumously.”

    I remember years ago, people on sci-fi discussion forums would talk about Anderson, if they talked about him at all, as an author who was once good until the “brain eater got him”. That was their term for any writer who used to be good and then somehow stopped being good. Being ignorant, I used to think, “Oh, I guess the guy just lost it or something, happens to a lot of artists,” but I’ve learned that when it comes to sci-fi, it usually means the writer’s politics changed. My understanding is that Anderson was a socialist in his youth and then became more conservative/individualistic as he aged, which caused the opinion leaders to turn on him and dismiss him as an also-ran.

    It’s a shame because every time I’ve read something by him, I’ve been totally gripped. I certainly get more enjoyment from his works than anything I’ve read from the “the Big 3”. The High Crusade is one of my favorite sci-fi novels ever.

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