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Poul Anderson
Tor Books hardcover
383 pages
Publication date, November 1998
Cover art by John Harris

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Who was it, Damon Knight? who said, when asked how to define science fiction, said, "Science fiction is what I point at and say, 'this is science fiction.'"

Let me amend that. [Goes over and picks up any convenient Poul Anderson novel and points at it.] This is science fiction.

Anderson has been with us for a long time. I wonder if, despite the seven Hugos and three Nebulas (uh, Neubulae?) conferred on him over the course of a remarkable writing career, we appreciate how much of a benchmark he has established. (I suspect the writers do, more than the readers.) Not only is Poul Anderson a splendid writer capable of moving passages, sly humor and clever plotting, but he also knows how to weave intelligent speculations into his work. I learn a little something about science and synthesis every time I read one of his books.

Starfarers is no different.

Anderson is no longer young, but unlike Robert Heinlein, whose work grew sprawly and gaseous as he aged, Anderson's books remain tight and economical. He is a less self-referential writer (and probably person) than Robert Heinlein. And, dare I say it, more cutting edge.

After an appealing opening scene in which the grandfather of one of the book's central characters, Captain Ricardo Aguilar, is inspired to look to the stars for humanity's future by his father, the book proper begins with the detection of unambiguous signals from deep space. Research proves that these can only be the signatures of starships traveling just under the speed of light. With unassailable proof of intelligent, technological extraterrestrial life staring humanity in the face, before very long the means of practical, interstellar sub-c travel is deduced and Terran ships begin plying the stars.

This being an Einsteinian universe, however, time dilation is in force. A few weeks of ship time translates into hundreds of years of planetside time. The result of this is the growth of a class of space-faring people who have less and less in common with the people left behind on Earth.

The problem will be extreme for the crew of Envoy, the starship that is dispatched to the source of the x-ray "trails" thousands of lightyears away. Using what is called a "zero-zero" drive, shipboard time for the round trip will be five years.

But on Earth, six thousand years will have passed.

Anderson posits a crew of volunteers. One is a refugee from political terrorists, one goes because the woman he (unrequitedly) loves is going; others have their reasons, altruistic to one degree or another.

The interesting thing, the "nineties" thing, about this book is that it has a very strong political subtext. Perhaps this is an indication of how much science fiction has grown up over the past two or three decades. Anderson's voyagers don't exist in a vacuum, like Van Vogt's "Space Beagle" crew. As the book progresses, we are occasionally taken, via interludes (two published as stories in F&SF and Analog) back to Earth or an Earth colony to see how humanity is doing while Envoy schelps onward to the stars. Most of these scenes revolve around one or another descendants of Mike Shaunessy, a fellow spaceman who Captain Aguilar has saved from death in an early chapter.

Humanity, it develops, does not do too well, politically, socially or economically, for quite a long time. Envoy herself runs into some interesting Van Vogtian perils on her voyage, but she eventually does contact the Yonderfolk - who, it develops, have given up star travel. This mystery, which makes up the central part of the plot, is explored and resolved, and when Envoy leaves her crew may well have helped to revive the Yonderfolk's flagging interest in space travel.

But on the way home, readings indicate that terrestrial interest in star travel has likewise waned over the ensuing thousands of years….

There are some interesting diversions along the way, including a fascinating sequence detailing contact with an enigmatic intelligence inside a black hole and a Stanislaw Lem-like encounter with a mechanized civilization gone haywire. However, Anderson never shifts the focus far from the people crewing Envoy. There is plenty of action, some poignant bits of romance and, in a particularly nice piece of plotting, one last adventure in which Captain Aguilar rescues another Shaunnesy, a distant descendant of the man whose life he saved early in the book.

It seems that fads come and go in sf; we've had the New Wave, cyberpunk, et al. Through it all, Poul Anderson has kept his eyes on the prize. That prize would seem to be the "sense of wonder" that brings so many of us in. His combination of technical expertise, clever scientific and social speculation and sharp writing has kept him at the forefront of sf writers. This book won't do anything to put that position in jeopardy.

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