Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Beyond the Beyond

Poul Anderson Beyond the Beyond (1969)
Darn it! I thought I had Poul Anderson more or less figured out - perhaps not the greatest writer of all time but at least more or less reliable, a guy who could pull together a functioning sentence and usually toss something interesting in the general direction of his readers. I can tell why The Queen of Air and Darkness won a Hugo, and the rest of the stories that came in the collection of the same name were decent, as were the novels World Without Stars and The High Crusade, and although Genesis was kind of dull, they can't all be Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison; but this...

Beyond the Beyond collects six short stories written between 1954 and 1967, specifically six fairly long short stories which really could have stood to be a lot shorter. Working on the assumption that it isn't simply me reaching my science-fiction saturation point, the problem may not even be the length of these efforts. It's quite difficult to really pin it down to any one thing, or unfortunately even to care that much. Some of the ideas are natty enough, and so the likes of Memory and er... one of the others but I can't even remember which one and flicking through the book rings no bells - they at least seem to have potential; and yet still I was bored throughout, a little flurry of intrigue at the beginning of each tale settling into an undifferentiated route march through the rest, struggling to remember who was who, what was happening, and why any of it should matter. The closest I can come to an analysis of the problem is too little detail at the beginning of each story, giving us only sketchy impressions of setting, character, and purpose, with this deficit further unbalanced by great lumps of exposition, material which really should have stayed in the outline, why the Quanions of Zargo should have such strong feelings about their trade embargo against the Zobulan Bongo-men, and so on, stuff about which no reader should really be required to give a shit.

On the other hand, this only seems to apply to some of the stories here, so I'm not exactly sure why they should all blend into an anonymously droning whole. Anderson's libertarian politics seem to be of the mostly humanitarian rather than toxic variety, and in any case don't seem to intrude on his storytelling, unless it occurred during one of the passages where I was thinking about something else. The Sensitive Man can probably be safely categorised as pure arseache, it being a van Vogt style superhuman spy thriller without any of the weirdness which makes van Vogt readable, and additionally burdened with the sort of ham-fisted sexism which makes it impossible to read without visualising the main characters as Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse.

With those tilted gray eyes, that delicately curved nose and a wide sullen mouth, she could have been a beauty had she wanted to be.

One of the modern type, thought Dalgetty. A flesh-and-blood machine, trying to outmale men, frustrated and unhappy without knowing it, and all the more bitter for that.

Obviously a lezzer. Don't worry yourself about it, mate.

Even this sort of thing doesn't really occur with enough force or frequency to spoil the whole, so I'm at a loss. I know even the best writers have a few duds, but Beyond the Beyond really feels like the publisher had already printed all of the good stuff and was left with just these. I managed to read right through to the last page, which I suppose must be something, but I can't say that it was fun.

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