There are some authors who write so much that they seem to fade into the background. Frequently, as I’ve researched this column, I’ve referenced books that group authors together, either by the magazines they’ve published in, or with cohorts of similar writers. One name that pops up frequently is Poul Anderson, one of the sci-fi genre’s more popular and prolific authors in the second half of the 20th century.
Anderson was born on November 25th, 1926 in Bristol, Pennsylvania, and eventually moved as a child to Port Arthur, Texas. Following his father’s death when he was 11, his mother relocated the family to live with relatives in Denmark and eventually to resettle in Minnesota.
While in high school, he found himself a social outcast, and a friend introduced him to science fiction magazines; he quickly began spending his allowance on subscriptions to the major publications, and began to write his own stories.
Graduating from high school during the Second World War, Anderson was barred from military service due to health problems, and opted to attend the University of Minnesota, where he pursued a degree in Physics. He continued to write while in college, and sold his first story, ‘Tomorrow’s Children’, co-written with F. N. Waldrop, to John W. Campbell Jr. at Astounding Science Fiction, where it appeared in the March 1947 issue. Campbell followed up his purchase with ‘Chain of Logic’ (published in Astounding’s July 1947 issue), ‘Genius’ (December 1948, Astounding) and ‘Prophesy’ (May 1949, Astounding).
Anderson graduated from college in 1948, and became discouraged with the prospect of finding a job as a scientist. Instead, he turned to writing. He “published slowly at first, being helped and encouraged by John W. Campbell Jr.,” according to Sandra Miesel in Science Fiction Writers. “Apparently having served his apprenticeship and learned his craft, Anderson suddenly ‘took off’ in 1953, with nineteen published stories and magazine versions of three novels…”
In doing so, Anderson became one of the biggest writers to emerge in the post-World War 2 generation of authors. Like several of his colleagues in Campbell’s stable of writers, Anderson positioned his stories in the tradition of Robert Heinlein, telling Locus Magazine that “It's partly an emotional matter, a libertarian predilection, a prejudice in favor of individual freedom, and partly an intellectual distrust based on looking at the historical record and considering the theory of it, including matters like chaos theory. A distrust of large, encompassing systems...”
Anderson published his first novel, Vault of Ages in 1952, and followed up with a trio of novels in 1954: Planet of No Return, The Broken Sword, and Brain Wave, which The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction deems his “most famous single novel, remains very nearly his finest,” dealing with the unexpected rises in intelligent life after Earth moves out of a galactic field that inhibited brain activity.
As he emerged as a writer, he began writing in a growing science fiction tradition: a massive future history series, something Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction defines as “a chronology of the future, as realized in a series of stories seen in the same fictional universe.”
This was a literary device used by authors such as Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, and others, allowing them to explore a larger world through a series of shorter narratives. Anderson wove in influences from European history over the course of the series, which began with his novella Sargasso of Lost Starships, which appeared in the January 1952 issue of Planet Stories. Dozens of new stories, published between 1952 and 1978, continued to expand the series and would be some of Anderson’s best known works over the course of his career.
Anderson assembled two sequences for the series, the first of which followed Nicholas van Rijn, a merchant prince of an intergalactic trading league. “Anderson has been widely criticized for the conservative implications it is possible (though with some effort) to draw from these stories,” notes John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, “whose philosophical implications he modestly curtails, and whose clear recipes for the building of an interstellar corporatism he does not follow.”
The second sequence likewise underpins his conservative leanings: “The second sequence properly begins about 300 years later,” Clute describes, “after the first flowering of a post-League Terran Empire which, increasingly decadent and corrupt, is under constant threat from other empires.” Publishing throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Anderson’s works demonstrate the feelings shared by many authors writing in the same niche of science fiction. As the New Wave of science fiction appeared in the 1960s, prominent new authors such as J.G. Ballard explicitly pushed against the types of conservative, interstellar narratives Anderson and his fellow authors were writing.
But, as the New Wave crashed over science fiction, this style of SF—and the authors who produced it—remained popular with readers, particularly those who preferred the harder SF stylings of Analog Science Fact and Fiction. Anderson wasn’t alone here: other authors such as Gordon Dickson, Jerry Pournelle, Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, and others were reworking some of the genre’s oldest traditions: self-made heroes set amidst interstellar space. Unlike their predecessors, they had considerable scientific knowledge at their disposal.
With his background in physics and a propensity for research, Anderson established himself as one of the genre’s best hard SF authors. In June and August 1967, he published a novella titled To Outlive Eternity in Galaxy Science Fiction, which he later expanded into a novel called Tau Zero. The book has become one of the best known examples of hard science fiction, following the crew of a starship travelling to a planet 30 light years away. However, the ship’s Bussard ramjet engines are damaged, and the ship continues to accelerate towards light speed, all while the crew contends with the dilation of time onboard.
Anderson’s writings didn’t just include science fiction: he became a prolific fantasy author as well, with works such as 1954’s The Broken Sword and 1961’s Three Hearts and Three Lions. Nor did he stick with merely writing fantasy: In 1966, he helped found the Society for Creative Anachronism, an organization that promotes living history and medieval European costuming and fighting, which currently boasts over 30,000 members worldwide. He also helped to found the Swordsmen and Sorcerers’ Guild of America. He was also elected President of the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1972.
Clute noted that Anderson is “still not as well defined a figure in the pantheon of American SF as writers (like Isaac Asimov from the Golden Age of SF and Frank Herbert from a decade later) of about the same age and certainly no greater skill. Nonetheless he was repeatedly honoured by the SF community,” and would eventually earn seven Hugo Awards as well as several Nebula Awards, all for his short stories. In 1998, the Science Fiction Writers of America named Anderson the 16th SFWA Grandmaster, and he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2000. In 2001, his novel Genesis earned him the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.
Anderson continued his writing streak through the 1980s and into the 1990s, authoring over eighty novels and hundreds of short stories in all by his death on July 31st, 2001.
As Clute noted, Anderson’s stature in the science fiction community isn’t as visible as that of similar writers, such as Heinlein and Asimov, likely due to the sheer variety of his work. He crossed numerous genre lines such as hard SF, space opera, pulp, and fantasy fiction, and his fellow Grand Master Arthur C. Clarke noted that Anderson “was one of science fiction's giants and handled every conceivable theme in the genre.”