Sue Burke's Reviews > The Best of Poul Anderson

The Best of Poul Anderson by Poul Anderson
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Poul Anderson (1926–2001) won multiple awards and much acclaim during his career. His story “Eutopia” in the Dangerous Vision anthology (1967) remains one of my favorites for the way the plot hinges on the final word. This is typical of Anderson. His plots were genius.

Likewise, all nine of the stories in the collection The Best of Poul Anderson are impeccably told – and yet this book left me troubled. A quick summary of the stories might offer a clue about why.

“The Longest Voyage” (1960): Explorers (men) rather like 1700s sailors on Earth are circumnavigating their planet, and they find a high-tech artifact. Won the 1961 Hugo Award for short story.
“The Barbarian” (1956): A spoof of Conan the Barbarian.
“The Last of the Deliverers” (1958): A man arrives in a future Ohio town and debates politics in a satire of the Cold War.
“My Object All Sublime” (1961): A couple of men meet over time travel and crime – to say more would be a spoiler, and there’s a nice twist.
“Sam Hall” (1953): A man fights an oppressive government. Nominated for a Prometheus Award and Retro Hugo Award.
“Kyrie” (1968): A woman falls in love with a doomed alien. Nominated for a Nebula Award.
“The Fatal Fulfillment” (1970): A man falls afoul of a repressive system of psychological control.
“Hiding Place” (1961): A space opera story involving Nicholas Van Rijn, one of Anderson’s recurring characters.
“The Sky People” (1959): In the future on a resource-depleted Earth, a savage attack falls on a peaceful city, and a brave captain (male) saves it.

You may have noticed a certain dearth of women in significant roles. And consider the description of the only woman who is a protagonist: Her ship’s captain regards her as “gauche” and “inhibited,” and he tries to suppress his “distaste” – “but her looks! Scrawny, big-footed, big-nosed, pop eyes and stringy, dust-colored hair....”

When women are introduced in these stories, they often lead with their breasts and sex appeal: “her build left no doubt [of her mammalian life form],” “the rich black dress caressed a figure as good as any in the world,” “blond, big-eyed, and thoroughly three-dimensional,” “her gown was of shimmerite and shameless in cut,” “young and comely, and you didn’t often see that much exposed female flesh anymore,” “a stunning blonde,” “she was nice-looking ... and he thought he could get her into bed.”

In “The Hiding Place,” Nicholas Van Rijn has brought a female paid sex companion on his trip whom he keeps underclad and verbally and physically mistreats. In fairness, he’s an ass to everyone, but her abuse has a rapey edge – and he’s the hero of the story. In “The Sky People,” the rescuing fleet has bare-chested woman aboard who “comfort” the men as their only means to join a exciting mission of discovery. Couldn’t they be full members of the crew and share in the adventure without prostituting themselves?

I was born in 1955. I grew up in a time when girls could only wear skirts to school – among many other arbitrary, humiliating, harmful rules, such as no competitive sports; women could legally be paid less than men for the same work if they could even get the same work; reproductive rights didn’t exist. As a headstrong girl, I chafed at the restrictions, stereotypes, and peremptory limited horizons. Reading these stories is a return to the nightmare time when I was legally a second-class citizen.

Poul Anderson can’t be held too much at fault for not seeing that, though. Second-wave feminism didn’t begin in the United States until after most of these stories were published, and progress toward equality was (and still is) slow. Other authors of that time, in and out of science fiction, were equally blind to what we can easily see now.

My question is this: What are we blind to now? What in today’s fiction will future readers point at and wonder how we could have missed something so utterly glaring?

We’re all idiots, we just don’t know what kind of idiot. Reading this book with its painful flaws ought to keep us humble.


(An essay with a related theme is at The Sad But Inevitable Trend Toward Forgotten SF.)
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Started Reading
May 1, 2019 – Finished Reading
May 29, 2019 – Shelved

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message 1: by Ernest (new)

Ernest That's all true, Sue. Van Rijn was over the line even for the 50s, as far as I'm concerned. David Falkyn, on the other hand, was a much more moderate character, and Chee, the feline alien in Muddlin Through's crew, was probably the brightest member of the crew. Of course, she was also sarcastic and unlikable, so she was set up as a special case, much as Clarissa McDougal, the Red Lensman. "What a gal!" they might say, but one of a kind.

I've always felt that the lack of female leads in early SF was primarily because the target audience was teenage boys, and like my old friend Pooh-ther-bear, they like to read stories about themselves. I think there are a fair number of instances in classic SF where female secondary characters are regarded as smart, brave, and capable in their own right. Several in Heinlein, believe it or don't. LeGuin lamented that she felt she had to write male characters in her early work to get it sold, and I expect she was right.

On the other hand, I've been thinking about writing a story in which an author is arrested for the crime of writing a POV character that does not conform to their gender declaration and ethnicity, cause that pushback is real too.

Nowadays, the pendulum has swung, and it's hard to find a male protagonist in SF, at least from publishers like Tor or Orbit. That doesn't keep me from enjoying the stories. but it's notable. Also, it's not true of Semiosis, where there's a good balance between male and female protagonists. Oh, and plants.

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