Straddling the border between Space Opera and Hard Science Fiction comes Poul Anderson’s Technic Civilization. This second volume is made up of five novellas, a novel, and a short story, each taking various characters and exploring aspects of Anderson’s future history. We’re introduced to David Falkayn, a lesser noble turned hired associate of Nicholas Van Rijn (imagine Shakespeare’s Falstaff written by Ayn Rand), the patron saint of Libertarianism.
Anderson can be frustrating to read. Sometimes it’s like he’s trying to have his cake and eat it too, with plot lines and characters that feel like they should be from some Pulpy, Flash Gordon adventure story, but then he’ll bog a scene down trying to explain it in terms of astrophysics. The mix of scientific accuracy and strange adventures just doesn’t quite gel, making it occasionally a slog to muscle through some stories or parts of stories. It reminds me a bit of Star Trek from The Next Generation on, where they could just show someone pressing a button and things happening, but instead they feel the need to explain it in super detail…using made-up technobabble. I don’t care if you have to reverse the polarity of the tachyon imitator. Just press the red button and make the next plot point happen.
Though this volume has David Falkayn’s name on it, it’s mostly more about Van Rijn, a character I just do not like. A little goes a long way with Van Rijn, and there’s a LOT of him here. Falkayn, conversely leaves little impression. It seems like he’s supposed to be a dashing, Han Solo-type of lovable rogue with a heart of gold…but honestly, he’s just a bland Chad. Only in the volume’s final story, Lodestar, does he show much actual character…and he’s barely in that one.
I don’t want to sound too down on the book, but it’s also kind of a hard sell. There’s some cool world building and some interesting aliens. A few of the stories have solid plots. Especially when it comes to Falkayn and his crew, I think there’s material ripe to adapt into a TV show or something (where the right actor, used sparingly, could make me not want to push Van Rijn’s fat ass out the first available airlock). A bland, Canadian-TV-handsome human, a tiny cat-woman, and a giant Buddhist dragon-centaur, flying around the galaxy in a semi-sentient spaceship? That sounds like it’s practically made for a three season run on NetFlix. Certainly, fans of Mid-Century, Golden Age Science Fiction will find plenty to enjoy. Yet, it’s hard to get over the misogyny, the sometimes threadbare character development, the occasional swamp of technical details and scientific justifications. It’s hard to get through the almost religious proselytizing for Libertarian magical thinking that is almost as childish as it is ham-fisted. Heck, even Anderson seems to recognize how rose-colored his glasses are in a few moments of reflection, but those are quickly squashed and Van Rijn pulls a Colombo, proving that he’s always right and everyone else is always wrong.
People who complain that contemporary Science Fiction has become political seem to miss one key thing. Science Fiction has always been political. Science Fiction is, by its nature, political (have you even seen the original Star Trek?!), philosophical, and moral. Anderson is absolutely pushing a specific economic and political ideology. He’s not subtle. Some subtlety or at the very least some nuance might have helped the overall work.