Saturday, July 15, 2006


[I wrote the following book review for the out of step newsletter in September 1993. And now I've got a hankering to read Poul Anderson’s Harvest of Stars again. Time for a trip to Nan’s Used Books!]

Three years ago, Poul Anderson’s The Boat of a Million Years raised its lone head from the glut of dystopian science fiction that dominated the book market. It was a life-affirming, speculative history of humankind, spanning not centuries but millennia. It was probably the last classic sf epic we’d see, I told one friend, because: 1) the sf market seemed hopelessly swamped by cyberpunk nightmares and yarns of lute-wielding dragons, and 2) I couldn’t imagine even an old master like Poul Anderson having another such novel in him. Then last month, I read Anderson’s latest, Harvest of Stars.

Harvest of Stars doesn’t encompass quite the massive timeframe that Boat of a Million Years did but, as Shawna McCarthy wrote recently in Science Fiction Age, “It’s got pounds of scope. It has scope hanging out of its pockets and stuck in its hair.” Harvest is packed with good ideas. Its characters are Heinleinian and memorable, principled but flawed. And its events are big. Real big.

Anderson details a rapidly deteriorating North America ruled by the “benevolent” Avantists, a Hubbard-like theocracy intent on crushing liberty and dissent for the “public good.” All that stands in the government’s way is Fireball, a Japanese-style interplanetary corporation dedicated to non-coercive conduct and exploring the stars. Fireball’s founder and leader is tough individualist Anson Guthrie, whose mind and personality now “live” as a download in a black metal box. But to terminate Fireball, the Avantists have captured a copy of the Guthrie download and reprogrammed it to serve them.

This struggle between the Avantists and Fireball, each led by a Guthrie “electronic ghost,” makes an exciting adventure story that’s pretty much resolved after 288 pages. Most writers might have ended the novel there, but Anderson has 106 pages left in him, and it’s in this third and final section that Harvest of Stars really sings. I believe this hundred pages ranks among the most breath-catching stretches of great science fiction writing ever, dealing with nothing less than humanity’s cosmic destiny.

Harvest of Stars is a tonic for all the anti-life pessimism that’s permeated the sf genre for the past decade.


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