Sunday, 7 February 2010

Poul Anderson: Breaking the rules of fiction

Every now and then I dip into some classic science fiction. It's fun stuff, and despite its rather shoddy reputation there's quite a lot of good writing to be found, although Andy Warhol's maxim that "Ninety percent of everything is crap" definitely applies.

Poul Anderson's work is in the other ten percent.

SF fans will know Anderson as one of the Grand Old Men of the genre, having a career that spanned half a century and more than a hundred novels until his death in 2001. I just finished his 1961 novel Twilight World and found it entertaining and at times lyrical. I also found it incredibly frustrating. Anderson breaks many of the so-called rules of fiction, yet manages to pull it off.

Earth has gone through World War Three and humanity has to rebuild. The first part of the book is heavy on the expository dialog, with characters giving long monologues on things everyone knows, like just how little technology they have left and how many children are born mutated. This makes for tedious reading, and sometimes even the characters object and tell the speaker to shut up because they already know all this! Yet Anderson manages to pull it off because the scientific ideas in these lectures are sufficiently interesting that an SF reader will forge ahead.

Anderson also commits the crime known as "head hopping", where the POV shifts from one character to the next within the same page, sometimes within the same paragraph. Yet his characters are clearly enough drawn that the reader never gets lost.

A strange thing happened to me as I read this novel. About a third of the way through I realized I'd read it before, probably back in the nineties when I bought it at a bookstore where I worked. I never forget I've read a novel. A pleasant surprise was coming across a couple of poetic, almost transcendent passages that remain clearly stuck in my mind after all these years despite having the rest of the novel, indeed the very memory of reading it, drop away. Anderson was a true writer, who could create a scene that will stick with you for years, despite the outdated science, flat characters, and the narrative no-nos. He succeeds despite this, and that's where true greatness in writing lies.


Theodore Scott said...

"a career that spanned half a decade"

That isn't impressive. Perhaps you mean "half a century"?

Sean McLachlan said...

Doh! That's what I get for blogging past midnight. Actually, writing all those books in half a decade instead of half a century would be even more impressive!

Deborah Nagy said...

Oh I think I must check that one out then. I feel I should give science fiction a try, but my inner physicist always gets in the way and I just find myself critical of the science in it. I just don't really know what science fiction books would appeal to me since it's very hit and miss, and like you said - there is a lot of bad stuff out there. I think this one might have to go on the list of "to read", thanks for the recommendation!

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