Critic John Clute looks back on a lifetime of Poul Anderson's magic in Call Me Joe

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

He was much too good a storyteller not to know he was talking magic. And I think he was far too clever a man not to understand that his stagecraft was more than entrancing: that it was also a kind of trance.

Poul Anderson lived for half a century in the trance of SF, and created his vast oeuvre as an advocacy of (and memorial to) the habitable plenitude of the field as both argument and bolt-hole: a field which for him also included fantasy and horror and Wonderland tales: everything, in other words, that I've recently been using the shorthand term fantastika to describe.

Although his bag of tricks was enormous, it was always deployed with reverence, even in the filksongs sprinkled through this volume: as befits a mage.

Anderson's mastery of his humble/arrogant craft is clear in the "undue coherence"—which is to say "deeply satisfying clarity"—of every story Rick Katze and Lis Carey have assembled in The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson, Volume One: Call Me Joe (NESFA Press, $29). His mastery is clear in the huge range of story types he found congenial, and in his magicianly obedience to the SF conversation, the "genome" whose iteration during the years of his childhood and adolescence (say, 1936-1946) became consumingly intense for many of its inhabitants.

His mastery is also clear, I think, in the apparent ease of the fealty he maintained to his prewar roots: he seems never to have betrayed that world, or to have renounced the advocacy of attainable futures that threaded First SF, though his darker tales (not all of them late) are told in a tone almost of bereavement: that the world is by its nature lost long ago; that the heroes of the world (see comment on "Kings Who Die" below) are inherently sacrificial. His darker work feels like Club Stories incanted around a camp fire at the end of things.

We need to start at the beginning of his long career (1947-2001) to get a sense of its consistency throughout, and also of the growth of his skills. To do so, however, we need to do some resorting work on Call Me Joe, whose principles of selection and presentation Katze demurely declines to elucidate: "The stories," he tells us, "are not in any discernible pattern." Which is not exactly true: that three Wing Alak stories are included is perfectly discernible. What is perhaps less discernible is the motive for publishing them out of order, without any identifying tags (except a passing phrase in the "Editor's Introduction") to link them for readers' convenience; and for not including the fourth and final story about interstellar interferer-for-good Wing Alak of the Patrol, "Loser's Night" (1991 Pulphouse). I don't myself remember this last tale, but I suspect it may have shone some light on a sequence Anderson seems to have lost interest in fairly soon.

My own sense is that the Patrol's First Law—that "the Patrol may under no circumstances take life"—jibes ill with Alak's utter ruthlessness in arranging for others to kill each other in large numbers; and that Anderson found the logic-chopping ingenuities required to keep within the rules unduly taxing (Isaac Asimov's later Robot stories show the costs of adhering to game-like strictures: that stories so structured usually end up concerning themselves with little more than how to interpret the rules, puzzles for lawyers). What the Wing Alak tales do demonstrate, all the same, is Anderson's remarkable and sustained disinclination to extol (or indeed make much use of) force, even in the galaxy-spanning settings where he set much of his work.

Insofar as Call Me Joe tends to focus on Anderson's earlier work, the omission of the lateish "Loser's Night" is thinly arguable; and certainly the inclusion of the other tales—the first of them, "The Double-Dyed Villains" (1949 Astounding), is his fourth published story—seems to fit a rough remit to select mainly from earlier work. Indeed, the first reward of this particular collection derives exactly from that focus, though some work is required to make use of the material included here. For instance, Anderson's first story—the rather remarkable "Tomorrow's Children" (1947 Astounding), not here credited as being co-written with F.N. Waldrop)—and his second, "Logic" (1947 Astounding), are in fact connected, though Kitze and Carey don't tag this, and in fact insert six other pieces between the two.

Assembled in the mind's eye, the two together constitute a kind of Kiplingesque Recessional vision of balkanized America soon After the Bomb. The first—almost plotless—ingeniously surveys the remnants of civilization through its protagonist's airborne surveillance of much of America. Hamlets struggle in the ruins; mutants haunt the purlieux (as was typical of late 1940s SF, Anderson's stories were full of implausible mutants breeding like fast food from the ashes overnight); but there are no villains in particular (even the savage brigand who attempts to take over a small slowly recovering town in "Logic" dreams intensely of creating an Eden in the desolation), nor will we find dyed-in-the-wool villains anywhere in Call Me Joe; and even this 1947 debut we learn that correct thinking entails correct action: that a protagonist who understands the story he's in does the right thing to complete it.

Anderson does in fact cite Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics more than once in his early work; its underlying premise that language must not falsify the world would soon become, under the heavy hand of John W. Campbell Jr., joined in the minds of many with the fix-it psychologizing of L. Ron Hubbard and the Dianetics toons. What is notable about Anderson's use of this and other Astounding panaceas is their moderation, their integration into stories whose fealty to SF seems—even when its arguments are dated—humane.

"Tomorrow's Children" also introduces a story type that Anderson rang changes on throughout his career: a tale told through the point of view of a solitary male protagonist, somehow connected to the military or to some far-flung Special Branch, whose function is to survey, protect, trick, gimmick, save isolated communites, whether they were created after World War II or after the fall of a galactic Empire. Like Drummond in this story, these characters only seem freelance: ultimately, they are bound to Duty. (At times, a protagonist's dedication to his long Task, and Anderson's fidelity to the haunts of SF, can almost seem one thing: can seem magical: as though they were actually one thing: that the telling and the told are so visibly interlaced that we feel, as we read, that something uncanny is being performed.)

All of this may seem—to a later readership—the kind of thinking that exposes the soft belly of the kind of Libertarianism Anderson seemed to expound (or allow to manifest) through most of his life. His third published story, "Genius" (1948 Astounding), blows the gaffe at the get-go (it is unhelpfully placed almost halfway through this volume): two protagonists in a military ship debate the pros and cons of allowing a experiment in living to continue; the planet they are approaching was seeded with genius-level human stock 1,500 years earlier, and the debate concerns the high risk to a stable Empire of allowing an inherently destabilizing culture of geniuses to infect the galaxy. The word Foundation is used several times in the tale, which is conducted almost entirely through conversational give-and-take between the two talking heads, who disagree fundamentally; and the homage to (and parody of) Asimov's Foundation stories is only underlined by the ending, when it is revealed just who the real genius is who has been lurking in plain view all along. It is a kind of story which works best if Asimov is remembered throughout, but which only works at all if one can believe that human genius, when unfettered, are intrinsically immune to what one might call engrams: that a community of human geniuses would require no more governance than a Libertarian of Planet Earth might think appropriate. It is certainly the case that Anderson gets as close to a semblance of genuine happiness when, as in "Genius" or the later "Turning Point" (1963 Worlds of If), he can bestow upon his protagonists and their cultures a clarity so burning that it lights the trance. That it makes the cloister of SF glow redeemed.

One more early tale should be mentioned. "Flight to Forever" (1950 Super Science Stories) was published in one of the few surviving post-war pulp magazines, and there are indeed a few moments of violent E.E. Smith-scale action towards the end of the long movement of the narrative. (It should be noted that most of Anderson's stories—astonishingly, given our vivid memories of so many of them—are almost all talk, with short passages of exemplary action to prove points made earlier in debate form. He is a master of the comic insertion of the extended infodump. Not only do his stories inhabit advocated universes: they also advocate them out loud.) It is a time-travel story. The protagonists leave circa 1950 heading forward, and soon discover that travel backwards is asymptotically more and more expensive in terms of energy expenditure: the universe itself might not have sufficient energy to move them back more than a few years. So they travel onward, through a diorama of cultures and extrapolations that Anderson could have almost taken as his Cauldron of Story for the rest of his life, and maybe, sort of, did so. In passing on, the story invokes Asimov (again), Leigh Brackett, H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895) and Anderson's own Tau Zero (1970). And there is a mutedly happy ending. The tale is enthralling fun in its own right; but as a Cauldron brewed from the SF conversation, it is a minor miracle.

The rest of Call Me Joe is similarly scatty in its sorting (though stories are often so placed so as cunningly to echo one another), but cumulatively exhilarating. Though the last story in the volume—"Starfog" (1967 Analog)—is surprisingly creaky and jargon-filled, the penultimate tale is anything but. "Kings Who Die" (1962 Worlds of If) is a small masterpiece. It has one of the great closing lines in all SF. Along with "The Immortal Game" (1954 FSF), it sums up and ironizes and blesses Anderson's complex adherence to his chosen worlds of genre, those planetary scenarios he seems always (even as a young man) to be looking back upon in order to hold onto them for us. In both stories, he gives us heroes—a computer-aspect bishop in a vast game of chess; a booby-trapped military officer unable to prevent a continuance of pyrrhic slaughter in space—whose knowledge that the roles they play are involuntary and probably futile does not in the end cause them to abandon the game.

The incessant craft of Poul Anderson does make it all seem one interwoven metatext: to play the game as his protagonists do, half-blind, half-wise to entropy, somehow seems similar to the way we read First SF now. It is as though he were there before us; that he welcomes us at last to the entranced world he gave his career to in the knowledge that he was making it up. I will now exactly repeat the way Poul Anderson ended "Kings Who Die." I hope I'm doing so for something like the same reason: he was much too good a storyteller not to know he was talking magic.