Fire Time (1974) by Poul Anderson

Firetime1‘I’ve not gotten what news God or Ian Sparling now have.’ Her reference wasn’t theological; Goddard Hanshaw was the mayor (p. 28).

A sidesplitting line, not standard in this page-light, philosophically-laden extra-planetary romance, but deserving enough to get top-billing by me. Perhaps a sign of what Anderson could be if he ditched the political romance for more satire; maybe his slim novels would be better appreciated by new SF fans.

But Fire Time holds itself together better than the overreaching, underpaginated People of the Wind, or the galumphing The High Crusade (an ideal playground for satire, but the humor fails in its puerile simplicity). Another space yarn with parallels to Earthen conflicts, fodder for typical Andersonian commentary on ideological conflict, shared territory, and humanism.

Anderson takes us to the planet Ishtar, where the lands are blazed every thousand years by “the demon star,” one of its three suns. Fire time is coming to the two peoples who inhabit this world, including the long-lived, highly evolved Ishtarans, lion-like in appearance, but covered in plant growth instead of fur. Diplomats from Earth attempt to press their own will on the territorial conflicts of these peoples, and the planet falls into diplomatic instability and territorial uncertainty.

firetime2The back blurb is a gauntlet of its own, never fully resolved within the text, so readers must adapt to the unexplained star slang of this planet (or Google it, as I did). “The Demon Sun,” “The Red One,” “The Stormkindler,” “The True Sun,” and “The Invader” are all terms the reader is slapped with upon opening to the first pages, but all one needs to understand is that Fire Time is about to happen, and it sucks.

Commenter Randolph has pointed out Anderson’s conservative nature, which perhaps I’ve missed as I’ve only read his thinly-veiled allegories of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, where Anderson’s illustrative attempts at humanizing and rationalizing both sides of his alien conflicts feel more peacenik than warmongering.

But as I look again at my underlinings, I see a common theme:

Intellectuals hate to admit that beings who have wars and taboos and the rest can be further evolved than their own noble selves, who obviously have none (p. 25).

Barbarians—yes, barbarians—could win against civilization only by default, when it was breaking down (p. 9).

Nobody starves in the Backworld, as nobody does in Welfare. But aid is a mere stopgap, and still taxpayers feel drained…

…Birth control? You can’t ask entire peoples to make themselves extinct. Redistribution of wealth? The conservation laws hold as true in economics as in physics. Return to a simple and natural existence? A precondition is the death of 90 per cent of the human race.

(But the stars remain. And given an ideal, the capital necessary to make a new beginning will somehow come forth. If a man has no other capital, there are his two hands.) (p. 74).

The only security between peoples is common interest (p. 83).

So Anderson is a bootstraps kind of guy, with lots of conservative rhetoric. But that can’t be—this was nominated for a Hugo. Conservatives never get nominated for Hugos.

But conservative or not, it’s not the political romance but the personal romance that will hook readers. Ian and Jill, theirs is a love spurned by the generation gap and Ian’s stale marriage, but it’s not enough to dampen their chemistry. But, typical in all sensitive diplomatic conflicts, Ian and Jill wind up as hostages together, and the not-so-barbarian enemy combatants allow our age-crossed lovers to share their comfy, bedded prisons and take unsupervised walks in the jungle. Nothing sexier than a hostage crisis.

(I’m making fun of the romantic subplot, but it hooked me. This is also where more of Anderson’s less traditional social values shine through.)

*spoiler* *you’re not going to read this anyway* Ultimately, the Anderson I’m familiar with shines through, where diplomacy and cunning win out over brute force, although the characters do partake in some mild risk-taking and a quirky bit of double-crossing (then un-double-crossing) at the end. And maybe it ends with some threesome hand-holding among frenemies.

firetime3Interestingly, this novel is dedicated to Hal Clement, the man who brought us the Hard SF novel-that-should-really-be-a-textbook Mission of Gravity (1953), which may explain why this novel feels richer than the previous two Anderson’s I’ve read. MoG is quite dull, but perhaps the inspiration of Clement’s efforts to build a more scientifically-realized settings resulted in Anderson’s engagement of better detail to develop the experience of Ishtar. Combine that detail with Anderson’s penchant for humanist romance, and we get a story that’s slim and interesting, but I’d like to think there’s a better Anderson out there. Tau Zero (1970) may need to come next.

15 thoughts on “Fire Time (1974) by Poul Anderson

  1. Wow, with this and the various NivenPourn novels, you’re on a conservative, Hard SF reading binge! Anderson was very much in the right-leaning libertarian crowd (quite a few SF writers were, even some you may not expect, and they won quite a few awards… which is why sad revisionist historians are butthurt that conservative white men aren’t winning as many awards as they used to). Elements of his politics crop up in his works from time to time, though usually it’s pretty minor, eye roll and continue on.

    I’d say you started off with a bad run of Anderson, but Joachim gave People of the Wind a pretty decent score (though every review I’ve seen wished it had been better). High Crusade must be one that people look back at with rose-tinted glasses, because I found it a tedious waste.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      It happened because every fall I make my reading list for the year and, no matter how balanced I try to make it, somehow most of the fiction I’m least interested in winds up postponed until spring. Emergence has a conservative feel, as well, but it’s easier to overlook. But that’s why I keep hammering the “that’s impossible, conservative SF never gets recognized” line. I’m so sick of seeing that refrain. Even Bujold feels rather conservative to me and she’s all over the Hugo list– POST 1985!

      I know Joachim loved People of the Wind for its morally gray characters. I found them too underdeveloped to pick up on any complexities. (Other than the rape attempt from the bird people that everyone just sort of overlooks.)

      High Crusade- I can only imagine enjoying it as a read-out-loud for kids. I couldn’t enjoy it as an adult.

      I’ve got plenty more Anderson to read, so we’ll see what he’s like when I get out of the Israeli-Palestinian territory.


      • I’m so sick of seeing that refrain.
        You and me both. Don’t worry, they’ll move the goal-posts again sooner or later. This Hugo commotion was probably a conspiracy by Social Justice Scalzi to drum up attention right before his mega-book deal. Yeah, that sounds about right.

        somehow most of the fiction I’m least interested in winds up postponed until spring.
        This surprises me less than the fact they made your reading list in the first place. (I’d kinda wondered if this was your attempt to rub the puppies’ noses in it, as it were, given the “but conservatives never win SF awards y’know” refrain.) Though, reading through the award lists will turn up a very mixed and very odd list of picks.

        Liked by 1 person

        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          “A mixed and very odd” reading list is what I’m going for. And then I nnever have to give much thought about what I’m reading next.

          I have a decision problem when I have too many choices.

          Liked by 1 person

      • “High Crusade- I can only imagine enjoying it as a read-out-loud for kids.” FWIW, that’s exactly what I did with my then 11 year old son (along with showing him the Van Dongen illustrations from the 1960 serialization). But there is enough in High Crusade for grown ups to enjoy too – for instance when Brother Parvus (whom I mistranslated for my son as Brother Shorty) explicates to the surviving alien the cutting edge of 1345 science.


        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          I didn’t enjoy it that much when I read High Crusade on my own, but I kept thinking it might be fun to read if I had kids.


  2. So of course I’m most interested in the fact that this is a book about a society that experience an apocalypse, one that they know is coming, every however-long-you-said. Made me think of NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, which I have not read, but have heard also deals with a society that knows apocalypse happens every so-and-so long.

    How did that play out in the story? It kind of sounds like it didn’t much and the focus was elsewhere, but I gotta pick at the corners of my obsessions and see if they overlap with this. Like I think I may have mentioned before, I’ve only read Anderson’s After Doomsday, which wasn’t bad persay, but didn’t do a damn thing for me.

    That first quote made me laugh too. Heh. So one point for Anderson there.

    Then you made me laugh with your refrain of “but conservative fiction never wins Hugos” refrain because, yeah, like Chris said, revisionist history and such.

    I tend to associate titles with “time” as the second word with children’s books and programs. Which is also making me laugh over here imagining the children’s book that would have this title. Probably one that would be dark enough for me to enjoy and shelve next to Go the Fuck to Sleep.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      The apocalyptic element never really happens. The inhabitants have to adapt and (if I remember correctly) crowd into a smaller point on the globe to survive, but Earth (US) intervention, and cultural tensions, mess this up, so it’s really about the diplomacy.

      Funny this sounds like a kid book to you. I kept thinking there should be a children’s song: “It’s Fire Time! Fire Time! Yeah, it’s Fire Time!”


  3. Randolph says:

    Take a look at Operation Chaos, what we would now call urban fantasy, and A Midsummer’s Tempest, a Shakespearean pastiche (I hope I haven’t mentioned them here before); Anderson himself liked Tempest best of all his books.

    I get the impression that High Crusade is a kind of SCA fanfic (Anderson was one of the founders, IIRC) and also that it was one of these novellas written to make a bit of money. Anderson made a living at writing sf when one had to just churn it out to do it, and I think this was one of the things he churned out.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I read somewhere that he was involved in SCA, so I thought the same thing of High Crusade. It makes sense that it would also be a commercially-influenced book because it felt rushed. I’ll keep an eye out for Operation Chaos and A Midsummer’s Tempest..


  4. Anderson is someone I need to explore more, and not just because we share a last name. I’ve read a few shorter works and his first Flandry novel and have enjoyed them. The Flandry stories remind me a lot of what I liked growing up (and still enjoy) about Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series. They are light and fun.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      He’s a hard guy to avoid when reading through the old Hugo shortlists, so expect more reviews of him from me. He has a great last name, too 😉


  5. […] foray into Poul Anderson’s work, another of his planet-sharing, Israel-Palestine allegories, Fire Time (1974). Better than People of the Wind (1973) and The High Crusade (1960), this big plot is […]


  6. […] are delicious; I love them so much. Maybe they should tie. In comparison, Flow my Tears and Fire Time are pretty forgettable, with misplaced identity and Middle East allegory being the only things I […]


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