Serial Review: We Have Fed Our Sea by Poul Anderson (Part 1/2)

(Cover by H. R. Van Dongen. Astounding, August 1958.)

Who Goes There?

A big deal within the field from the ’50s until his death in 2001, Poul Anderson was a giant whose star power has lessened somewhat in recent years. You can easily find Anderson books (a seemingly endless supply of them) in used bookstores, but much of his work is currently out of print. This is all a little mystifying. Anderson has his quirks, but his range and productivity are impeccable, being one of those authors who, while he did write a lot more science fiction than fantasy, was comfortable with both. There is an Anderson book or series for every season; if you don’t like, say, the Nicholas van Rijin stories, then you might like the Time Patrol series. If you told me that Brain Wave and The Broken Sword, novels which came out the same year, were written by THE SAME GUY, I would shit myself. Curiosly, while he wrote many novels, many of which are acclaimed (I really like The High Crusade and Tau Zero myself), all of Anderson’s seven Hugos and three Nebulas belong to his short fiction.

We Have Fed Our Sea will strike a few people as familiar under its book title, The Enemy Stars. I picked this up for review because a) I’d been meaning to read it, and b) from what I could tell it sounded like a fitting counterpart to our previous serial, Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To…, both literarily and philosophically. Not only is Anderson a generation older than Russ, but he’s also… well, a lot more conservative. Whereas Russ’s novel has an implicit but persistent layer of feminism in its thematic makeup, Anderson’s novel is much more typical of the hard-headed facts-and-figures SF that would’ve made the rounds in Astounding and later Analog.

Placing Coordinates

Part 1 was published in the August 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. Anderson’s estate has been stingy about looking the other way for online reprints, so when seeing if an Anderson story has been archived it’s a real flip of the coin. I have to assume that something nefarious is going on since Anderson wrote a lot and a lot of it is out of print, and his estate isn’t keen on letting people actually discover his work without bending over backwards. Anyway, it looks like The Enemy Stars has not been in paperback since the ’80s; it has an ebook edition from Open Road Media, but Open Road Media is dogshit and I wouldn’t recommend giving them money unless you really have to. A reprint of particular interest would have to be The Best of Astounding: Classic Short Novels from the Golden Age of Science Fiction, edited by James E. Gunn (not to be confused with the other James Gunn), which collects The Enemy Stars along with a few other novels and novellas.

Enhancing Image

The opening passage of We Have Fed Our Sea is also perhaps the most memorable in Part 1, which is really unfair, because Anderson sets a standard for himself that he proceeds to not meet again; to be fair to him, that standard is pretty high. The launching and flight of the Southern Cross, the farthest traveling spaceship in human history, is described in almost Biblical terms, and Anderson wants us to know two things right away: that the universe is unfathonably big, and that the Southern Cross is nothing short of ancient. With this ship we’re not talking years but centuries, and while my gut reaction is to think that a spaceship would become outdated long before then, rendering the Southern Cross a metal coffin, this is a ship that seems specifically designed to be able to go the distance. Even so, its placement as a sort of generation ship where many people have died and even been killed gives the Southern Cross a slight haunted house vibe.

The effect is grand, yet ominous. Or maybe the other way around.

Get this:

After ten generations, the Southern Cross was not quite halfway to her own goal, though she was the farthest from Earth of any human work. She was showing a little wear, here a scratch, there a patch, and not all the graffiti of bored and lonely men rubbed out by their successors. But those fields and particles which served her for eye, brain, nerve still swept heaven; each man at the end of his watch took a box of microplates with him as he made the hundred light-year stride to Earth’s Moon. Much of this was lost, or gathered dust, in the century when Earthmen were busy surviving. But there came a time when a patient electrically seeing machine ran through many such plates from many ships. And so it condemned certain people to death.

The Southern Cross is on a voyage to rendezvous with a black star, what Part 1’s blurb calls a “burned-out supernova,” a thing blacker than space itself and which is possibly as old as the universe. The black star is the novel’s Big Dumb Object, although unlike most Big Dumb Objects it’s not an alien construction (as far as we know) but something completely natural. It’s just that the black hole is massive and, like the ship studying it, so old as to be practically ageless. Anderson is hunting big game with regards to visuals and a sense of wonder with this one, and he puts his best foot forward here. If the spectacle is spoiled by anything it’s the inevitability of human characters.

Speaking of which…

Before I started reading We Have Fed Our Sea I suspected that we would basically start on the ship with our principal characters already gathered together, and if not then there would be minimum setup. To my surprise, though, a good chunk of Part 1 is dedicated to seeing our main characters in their natural habitat before they get teleported aboard the ghost ship. I say “teleport” because teleporting is a central factor in the novel’s world; it’s called mattercasting, and it very well anticipates beaming individuals as seen in Star Trek. With modern technology teleporting Our Heroes™ onto the Southern Cross, despite it being light-years away from the closest human colony, is not a big deal, but teleporting off the ship may prove a problem.

Now for the players: We have Terangi Maclaren, a brilliant but lazy playboy scientist who signs up for the expedition as a way to prove his continuing worth in his field; David Ryerson, a dilligent and recently married young man who joins to appease his Christmongering father who happens to hold a death grip on his allowance; Seiichi Nakamura, a melancholy martial artist and devout Buddhist who joins because he wants to get away from the suffocating colony planet where he lives; and Chang Sverdlov, a would-be revolutionary who’s not very good at hiding the fact that he hates Earthlings and wants colonial independence.

Be aware that while Anderson’s novel is big on wonder, it’s not so big on women. There are two women in Part 1, one of whom I don’t even think is named, with both being satellites to two of our main characters. Ryerson’s wife exists to see him off and hope he comes back in one piece. At least the women are simply guided offstage quietly and aren’t stuffed in a fridge. Sexism is a bit of a problem with Anderson; he fairs a good deal better with regards to race. Unless I’m mistaken, Ryerson is the only white man in the crew, with the others being at least implied to be POC. There is a bit of a caviat with Nakamura, since he is, let’s face it, somewhat stereotyped: as said before, he’s into martial arts, he’s fixated on honorable behavior, and he’s the most timid of the crewmen. Yet Nakamura’s speech is not caricatured, he’s allowed to talk and act like a normal person, and as I’ll explain in the spoilers section, he’s arguably the most human of the bunch.

This is not to say that these introductory scenes with each of the characters gives us Henry James levels of psychological depth; the men are meant to fill roles, rather than act as individuals with inner lives. With maybe an exception or two every inner monologue anyone has has to do with either the plot or the worldbuilding, which is not necessarily a bad thing since worldbuilding is where We Have Fed Our Sea excels the most—not just the literal worldbuilding of the black star but a galaxy-spanning mankind. Since the days when Southern Cross flew into the depths of space, mankind has conquered quite a few colony worlds, united under the Protectorate (totally not the Federation from Star Trek), with Earth at the center. At it turns out, though, not everyone is happy to be living in a hostile environment, all while being farmed for resources by the heart of the Protectorate, hence the existence of rebels like Sverdlov.

Just going off of what has happened in the novel, I’m not sure where Anderson stands on the relationship Earth has with the colonies, which he depicts as being at least somewhat parasitic, while at the same time painting people like Sverdlov in a villainous light—not that this novel has (at least so far) an outright human villain. Anderson’s worldview changed considerably during the ’50s; he went from being a liberal who staunchly supported the UN to a hawkish Goldwater-era libertarian type. Actually, if anything, the reference to Rudyard Kipling with its magazine title (which, in my opinion, is easily superior to the oddly pulpier book title) suggests that by this point Anderson had become a Kiplingesque conservative. I wouldn’t be surprised, then, if he turns out to sympathize with the colonists while also thinking the Protectorate to be a necessary evil, if not benign.

There are a few questions Anderson doesn’t answer, such as: Where are all the robots? What about androids? If you have teleportation then surely you would have androids equal to if not better than humans. Why send such a small crew to the Southern Cross? What about backup? I suspect, however, that the government would see it as more costly to risk sending highly advanced robots on what almost amounts to a suicide mission than a bunch of ultimately expendable meat sacks. This is also very much an old-fashioned space adventure in the sense that there’s a surprising lack of computer technology onboard, what with stuff like the microchip not having been invented in the real world yet; but then this is also justifable given how fucking old the ship is. A few scratches and patches will prove to be the least of the crew’s problems.

There Be Spoilers Here

Like I said, Nakamura strikes me as the most human of the crew, which does lead to me feeling conflicted about him. On the one hand, making Nakamura Japanese was very much deliberate; it’s not like Anderson picked his race out of a hat. Nakamura’s backstory is a pretty tragic one: his family was killed in a natural dissaster, and this was after he had already been transplanted as a child, having moved from Japan to a colony world. Undoubtedly there’s meant to be an evocation of Japanese wartime trauma, reminding me specifically of the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945, though Anderson was probably thinking of Hiroshima. Of the four cremen, Nakamura’s backstory is easily the most death-haunted, and his fascination with space is made more peculiar by his fear of it.

I have to admit that Anderson’s novel subverted a few of my exepectations. Aside from the racially diverse cast I was surprised by the stance it took on space exploration, which is nowhere near as blindingly optimistic as I had assumed, especially given other Anderson works I’ve read. Joanna Russ’s novel We Who Are About To… is obviously a deconstruction of narratives in which mankind should and does seek out the corners of space, overcoming every obstacle, but Anderson’s novel is actually not too far removed from that viewpoint. While not as pessimistic as Russ’s novel, We Have Fed Our Sea, regardless of its title, alludes to the vastness and grand indifference of space which in practice comes off as malevolence; these are not the friendly stars, or the neutral stars, but the enemy stars. The cold dead star around which the Southern Cross orbits is an almost Lovecraftian presence, like Moby Dick, a great titan of nature which rejects human understanding. Yet like Moby Dick, there is a godlike magnetism with the dark star, and the same thing applies to space itself. In Moby Dick, Ishmael tells us he joins a ship and heads out to sea whenever a particular terrible bout of melancholy hits him, and Nakamura’s situation is not so different.

Metaphysical elements are not unknown to Anderson; he strikes me as a Christian, albeit a highly pragnatic one. Indeed the religiosity of his fantasy novel Three Hearts and Three Lions, which is topped with the protagonist even converting to Catholicism at the end (it’s not as preachy as it sounds), suggests a recurring conflict for any great religious writer: the conflict between science and God. Not science and organized religion, mind you, but science and the idea of a grand designer—an otherworldly force whose intentions are mysterious. As the crewmen find themselves in a precarious position at the end of Part 1, between technical issues and wanting to tear each other to pieces despite needing each other, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say their conflict is both physical and metaphysical.

A Step Farther Out

I suppose I was expecting a metaphysical angle, but I was not also expecting the political angle. It’s hard to tell with Anderson because depending on when a given story was written he can be pretty subtle or pretty cane-waving about it. The Protectorate and the colonies are not on the best of terms, and I’m not sure which side Anderson sympathizes with more, though I can chock that up to the characters all being sympathetic enough, or rather none of them is totally evil. Maclaren is a bit of an asshole, and Sverdlov is treacherous, but their viewpoints are not inexplicable; from the colonists’ view the “Earthlings” are callous and exploitative, while from the Earthlings’ view the colonists are ungrateful and reckless when it comes to the sheer vastness of the universe. Even with ‘casting, the universe is unfathomably huge, and my mind keeps going back to that introductory section with the Southern Cross and how it instantly conveys a foreboding sense of scale. The technobabble can be a bit much (I don’t understand half of it, and I suspect Anderson does it partly to distract less discerning readers), but this is looking to be enjoyable hard SF yarn.

See you next time.


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