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Book Review: To Outlive Eternity and Other Stories by Poul Anderson


# Genre: Anthology, Space Opera
# Mass Market Paperback: 720 pages
# Publisher: Baen
# Publication Date: April 28, 2009
# ISBN-10: 1416591648
# ISBN-13: 978-1416591641
# Author’s Bibliography

To Outlive Eternity and other Stories is a collection of seven tales by the Nebula Grandmaster Poul Anderson. The collection includes several short stories and novellas, as well as the complete novel After Doomsday. Thematically, the focus is on triumph born of tragedy, as many of the stories deal with some form or another of apocalypse or catastrophic event that then engenders new height of human endeavor. In his typically positive style, Anderson always manages to put the focus on humanity and the great things that we as a race can achieve. Anderson was a product of the time in which he lived, he had this sense of a great destiny awaiting humanity a theme that fins its way into much of his work, including this collection.

The anthology begins with the title story “To Outlive Eternity”. In it, a group of scientists is on its way to a planet Beta Virginis aboard the high-but-sublight-speed ship Leonora Christine to found a colony. A chance encounter with a rogue nebula makes it impossible for the ship to decrease its speed. Having no other solution, the ship continues on, gathering more and more speed, until time outside the ship almost stands still. There is a scientific explanation that Anderson inserts into the narrative for why the ship gains both mass and speed as it plows through the universe that will appeal to the scientifically inclined. For those not so inclined, the story highlights two of Anderson’s oft-reoccurring themes – human immortality and interpersonal relationships in confined settings. Although the inability to stop adds significant drama, it is the way the people stuck on this ship that is speeding up through infinite years react that gives this tale its power. It is a great story with which to open the collection and showcases the reasons Poul Anderson is still widely read today, almost 40 years after many of the stories in this collection were published.

“No Truce with Kings” was probably the least enjoyable narrative of the collection. In it, a nuclear war has decimated most of the United States and a new country has arisen on the Pacific Coast. But all is not well in the new government and political machinations between peaceful and war-based solutions for expansion lead to internecine strife and civil war. Anderson also inserts an alien presence that seeks to maneuver these events for their own purposes. Anderson’s inclusion of the alien is, in a way, a fist in the air towards God, though in this case, the aliens are much more fallible than the deity. While the story has interesting elements, and its mix of apocalyptic fiction and alien invasion SF is creative, but Anderson fails to make his characters interesting or empathetic to the reader. The minimal amount of action and tragic style ending make this tale less likable that the others in this collection.

“Progress” actually speaks well into our own time. In it, several spies from a country born out of nuclear war are spying on the remains of India. The Bheneghal people have begun to seek science as an end in itself with no regard for consequences. On the other hand, the spies hail from Maurai, a country in what are currently New Zealand and other Pacific Islands. The Maurai encourage progress, but at a careful and measured pace, seeking not to make the mistakes of their atomic forebears. The tale, though primarily about competing philosophies of scientific revolution, never lacks for action. “Progress” reads like a James Bond story, but without the machismo. One of the spies is a lady, and her character is no weak-willed lover, but strong and courageous in her own right. Though Anderson’s political bent is obvious in the narrative, he is not preachy, more questioning and perhaps providing a bit of caution for the people reading the story in 1962. Strangely, or perhaps prophetically, many of the arguments the story portrays are still going on today, though our arguments have their basis more in philosophy than politics.

Anderson wrote a series of stories in which Un-men, a group of genetically identical men, serve a future United Nations as assassins and spies. “Un-Man” like “Progress” again sets two political philosophies against one another. Nationalists in America want to take for themselves the power which the United Nations has consolidated worldwide. First one, then another Un-man is sent to ferret out these nationalists and learn as much about them as they can, so that if necessary, they can be stopped. The story has a very pro-world government attitude, and highlights the “nationalists” as power-hungry misfits. So on the one side, the story is pro-world government, and on another, it seems to be derogatory depiction of those people who seek to overthrow existing government for their own selfish ends. (This is likely a hidden portrayal of the birth of Soviet Union.) The story has lots of cloak and dagger action, and the strange nature of the Un-men is a small look into the nature vs., nurture debate of the time in which this story was first published.

“The Big Rain” is another Un-man story. This one takes place on Venus, a world that recently declared its independence from the nations that seeded it, and has placed all authority into the hands of a ruling oligarchy. The Un-man sent to Venus was primarily on a fact-finding mission, but when his identity is compromised, he stages a revolt in order to get offworld. The harsh environment of a world being terraformed and the constant threat of discovery keep the drama and tension high in this story. Anderson, with his characteristic focus on politics, points out the flaws in such a system of government. It is interesting that the concept that Anderson explored in this narrative is something that has become a news item today among some, who have been heard to say that the Supreme Court of the United States is just such an oligarchy as they “legislate from the bench.” Anderson had a prophetic pen. His thorough understanding of anthropology and psychology as well as science gives his stories an enduring quality that make them applicable to almost any historical situation.

The full-length novel After Doomsday is one of those tales that highlights the triumph of the human spirit. Like many of its contemporaries, this novel uses aliens as a foil to look into the nature of man, rather than to explore the “other” as is so often in the case in more modern SF. In this novel, an American spaceship crewed entirely by men returns from a three year mission of exploring the galaxy to find the earth a volcanic ruin. The world is uninhabitable and will be for millennia to come. The crewmembers fins some small hope in the knowledge that other manned space missions, some including women, may have made it off of Earth before the end. With the help of the very beings who gave them space flight, the Monwaingi, Carl Donnan and crew must find these other ships in the vast galaxy, while also discovering what it was that destroyed an Earth that had been moving towards peace between its nations. Donnan decides the easiest way is to find other humans in the galaxy is to make a big news splash, so he gets his crew to join a war. Meanwhile, a European ship crewed entirely by women takes the long view and begins a mercantile business to find their fellow humans. The focus of the story is on the unique characteristics of humans to adapt to circumstance, to never give up, and to always seek the truth. Anderson really goes full bore with this story, and he emotionally brings the reader from great lows to great heights and back again with a fast moving plot. It is a wonderful novel to have in the collection, and again brings to the fore Anderson’s use of tragedy to highlight the great and positive things about human nature.

The aptly named “Epilogue” ends the collection. Earth’s first interstellar spaceship returns to Earth after it was propelled millennia into the future. But the Earth to which they return is vastly changed. Again the world has fallen prey to nuclear holocaust, but rather than organic life returning to the world, a strange metallic world has grown up instead. Anderson does have some of the narrative told through the eyes of the humans who return, but the primary protagonist on of the sentient beings who now live on Earth. The humans, captured by Zero, the robot protagonist, must escape from the monster who now rules their former home. “Epilogue” is a great tale of new beginnings in apparent endings.

To Outlive Eternity and Other Stories is a wonderful collection from master story teller Poul Anderson. Each and every story is a delight, and the publisher has done a good job of giving the entire collection a theme of triumph born of tragedy and humanity as its own savior. Anderson’s stories never become dated or tired, and the concepts that comprise their themes are universal in time. Poul Anderson was a unique storyteller, a writer whose pen could turn science into poetry.