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

(Cover by Martinez. Astounding, September 1958.)

Who Goes There?

Poul Anderson is a semi-obscure name in the field nowadays, which is weird because there was a time when, evidently, he was considered a big fucking deal. From his genre debut in 1947 to his death in 2001, Anderson was one of the real vanguards of 20th century American SF, though unlike contemporaries like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein he showed himself to be about as proficient writing fantasy as SF. He was also alarmingly prolific, writing non-stop for a good half-century, and as such he doesn’t already hit it out of the park, as it were; the good news is that if you don’t like one Anderson story, there’s at least another that will appeal to you. One possible (read: probable) reason why Anderson’s stature has faded somewhat since his death is that not only did he write a lot, but he also wrote several vast continuities, none of which seemed to be published in internal chronological order. A seemingly standalone short story can turn out to be part of an overarching cycle that Anderson worked on for decades, and the result is that to this day it’s hard to organize his work.

Anderson won seven Hugos and three Nebulas, and he was made an SFWA Grand Master in 1998. His fantasy novels The Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions are intriguing and often thrilling examples of “modern” fantasy which were written parallel to The Lord of the Rings. Despite their politics being very much different, Michael Moorcock was apparently inspired by Anderson’s fantasy. The subject of today’s review, We Have Fed Our Sea, however, is decidedly hard SF, and was the first work of Anderson’s to garner a Hugo nomination.

Placing Coordinates

Part 2 was published in the September 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. Despite the Hugo nomination and despite being well-liked by Anderson fans, time has not been very kind to We Have Fed Our Sea—by that I mean that this shit has not been in paperback since the ’80s. Oh sure, you could snag a copy, under its book title The Enemy Stars, as an ebook, but 1) it’s an ebook, and 2) it’s published by Open Road Media, the coal in the stockings of naughty children on Christmas morning. Unlike some other Anderson titles, The Enemy Stars doesn’t even have paperback edition from Open Road Media, which may well be for the best, since their paperbacks tend to be depressingly mediocre. Still, I imagine it’s not hard at all to find used copies of The Enemy Stars on eBay for such low prices that the shipping might cost more than the book itself.

Enhancing Image

At the beginning of Part 2, our four crewmen of the Southern Cross have found themselves in quite the pickle. For one, the ship’s ion drive is damaged such that they won’t be able to get into a stable orbit around the black star, and another is that the mattercaster’s web is also damaged enough to be unusable; the second problem is the big one, because if they can’t mattercast then there’s no way of getting back to civilization. The nearest human outpost is tens of lightyears away and the Southern Cross can only travel at a fraction of the speed of light. No FTL ships here! I said this jokingly in my review of Part 1, but I do have to wonder if mattercasting influenced how teleportation works in Star Trek. We even get the “Do we die when we’re teleported?” meme. In the case of We Have Fed Our Sea the answer is actually YES, believe it or not: the main characters are technically clones—not that being clones matters much to them.

The ion drive can be repaired with onboard tools, but the mattercaster will be a tougher nut to crack. The mattercaster web requires a specific metal, germanium, which is not on the ship, but the good news is that the Southern Cross has basic mining equipment and the crew will be able to extract enough germanium from a nearby smoldered planet (a dead planet near a dead sun) to repair the web; the bad news is that they would have to land on said planet, and the Southern Cross was not built to land directly on anything. Some improvisation will be required. Chang Sverdlov, would-be revolutionary and the ship’s engineer, will have to head out into the vacuum of space and see what the deal is, and Seiichi Nakamura, the pilot, will have to maneuver around the black star and find some way to land on a planet containing the germanium they need.

I like how Sverdlov’s rebellious attitude toward the Protectorate comes to nothing, both because of the existential situation the men find themselves in and also because of what happens to Sverdlov.

What starts as a four-man group becomes a dwindling party, and Sverdlov is the first to bite the big bazooka; this happens early enough in Part 2 that I don’t consider it much of a spoiler, at least if you’ve made it this far. Sverdlov suffers a freak accident during his inspection of the ship and dies in the vacuum of space, alone, with only the voices of his fellows as his last connection to humanity. “He stood with ten thousand bitter suns around him; but none were Sol or Tau Ceti. O Polaris, death’s lodestar, are we as little as all that?” The bright side is that Sverdlov’s death is not meaningless, since it’s through his efforts that the other crewmen are able to correct the ship’s trajectory. Sverdlov has the misfortune of being the least developed of the four crewmen, but the arc of his development and his fate are fine encapsulations of the book’s main theme: the insignificance of man when compared to the vast indifference of space.

So, that leaves three men. And it does not take merely a day or two to find the planet for the job, but weeks. Without an endless supply of provisions and without backup. Fortunately for Our Heroes™, water can be recycled on the ship, but unfortunnately food cannot; it’s pointed out, rather morbidly, that at the rate it’s taking to find the planet to mine the geranium, everyone would’ve starved to death had Sverdlov not died first. In this context the individual’s life means next to nothing, and even the collective is overwhelmed by an endless natural world which does give a single shit about human endeavor.

Something you have to understand about Anderson is that, as a rule of thumb, he’s more interested in things that aren’t human than things that are; We Have Fed Our Sea is a human drama, but it would not exist if not for everything surrounding the humans. None of the four crewmen is developed that much outside of the role he plays in relation to The Big Picture™, that being the grand conflict between mankind and space. Take Terangi Maclaren, for instance, who takes on a more active role in Part 2: last we checked he had started to turn toward the solemn and self-loathing, and by now he has become thoroughly emo. But why? What do we know about Maclaren? Mostly that he is, by his own admission, a playboy astrophysicist who has up to this point not taken life very seriously, and now that he’s in a life-or-death situation he’s not taking shit very well. We know very little about Maclaren’s personal relationships, or his philosophy on life, but we do see how his ego crumbles at the prospect of dying next to a black star and lightyears from home.

If you’re into hard SF then you’ve probably been here before, and you’re also very much into this sort of thing. The ’50s was arguably the first big decade for hard SF, with Anderson as one of its biggest practicioners, but since this is a facts-and-figures kind of story and since it’s from that period, there are a couple things to consider: the first is that there is ONE female character worth anything, and we’ll get to her in a minute. Another thing is that I have to be honest here and admit that after reading the whole serial, I did read the synopsis on Wikipedia to make sure I got the details sort out, because there’s stuff that I just did not understand on an initial read. It probably doesn’t help also that the science is dated, though it’s not that obvious. Apparently Anderson went back and revised the text slightly for later book versions since the serial and the initial book publication came out prior to the “discovery” of tachyon particles, which given the nature of mattercasting is definitely something you’d be justified in including.

What I’m saying is that I may be too stupid to get everything that Anderson is talking about here, although something that did not escape my notice is the social and political aspects of the story, which surprisingly are very much there, despite the fight for suvival at the core of it. While Anderson was almost certainly turning conservative at this point in his career, he does some things with We Have Fed Our Sea that have aged better than one would expect, and he also gives us an ending that, while it does threaten to venture beyond the realm of plausibility, I think is thematically appropriate and even a little unexpected in a good way.

There Be Spoilers Here

After Sverdlov’s death we suddenly jump to a very different scene. Remember that David Ryerson was recently married? His wife Tamara is stuck with Magnus, David’s old man, now her father-in-law, with Magnus being convinced that David is dead (it’s been months at this point since anyone has heard from the crew) while Tamara is still hoping. Oh, and she’s pregnant with David’s kid, naturally. Normally I don’t like it when anything, let alone hard SF, veers toward melodrama, but I actually think this novel could’ve used some flesh-and-blood conflict even if it was somewhat cliched and overwrought. Anyway, Tamara is the only female character here who matters at all, and while she is a satellite character (she does not exist outside of her relationships with the men in her life), she’s at least given more attitude than the average Anderson woman.

It’s also during this scene that I realized Anderson’s playing with race was very much intentional. Three of the four crewmen are at least implied to be POC, and even David, the resident white boy, is part of an interracial marriage. Tamara is said to be Malay, and apparently learning English is akin to learning Latin, or some other language that would now only be used in rituals. Magnus is a proud white man, maybe not a racist but certainly a bit of a jingoist—one who, perhaps unsurprisingly, is into Rudyard Kipling. The novel’s magazine title is taken from a Kipling poem titled “The Song of the Dead” (not the last time Anderson gets on his Kipling shit), and not only does it sound better than the book title (even if The Enemy Stars is more direct), but it feeds more into the conflict between the unstoppable force of humanity and the immovable object that is space. Magnus even quotes part of the poem at the end of the novel, which I’ll also quote here:

“We have fed our sea for a thousand years
And she calls us, still unfed,
Though there’s never a wave of all her waves
But marks our English dead:
We have strawed our best to the weed’s unrest,
To the shark and the sheering gull,
If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, we ha’ paid it in full!—”

Magnus is shown to be stuck in his ways, but at least he has the decency to like Kipling, and at least it’s implied he will treat Tamara better after the story’s end.

And indeed death becomes a bigger element as the novel reaches its climax. Nakamura, who in Part 1 was my favorite character, gets killed midway through Part 2 in trying to land the Southern Cross on the planet where the survivors can get their germanium; it was almost more of a crash than a real landing. Nakamura’s death is perhaps the most tragic of the bunch, but I have a mild qualm with how it’s written—specifically that it’s not told from Nakamura’s perspective in his final moments, but Maclaren recounting what happened after the fact. Nakamura’s sado-masochistic obsession with space reaches its conclusion here, and it’s a shame we don’t get a line to his thoughts about it in his final moments. Maclaren speculates that Nakamura had intentionally sacrificed himself since rations were running low and, hell, the Southern Cross no longer needed to be airborne, since there was no way to return it to civilization. “Or perhaps, simply, he found his dark bride.” We never find out, but that doesn’t matter anymore; the only goal now is stay alive long enough to fix the mattercaster.

At this point I’m not sure what I ought to say about the final twist—not Ryerson and Maclaren repairing the mattercaster, that’s not a twist. No, I’m talking about what happens when they find a resonance (i.e., somewhere they can teleport to) and they have no clue where it is or what could be on the other side. I’ve read a couple reviews of this novel and nobody that I’ve read has brought up the final twist, even when discussing spoilers, which is a little… conspicuous. Because the twist is really something, for better or worse; I’m not totally sure if it’s plausible, but it does reinforce the notion that space is fucking massive, and that we have not touched even 99.5% of it. I’ll also say that it’s not a deus ex machina—at least not entirely. You’ll have to read and form your own take on it, because I guess I’ll just continue the pseudo-tradition and refrain from talking about the final twist specifically.

A Step Farther Out

We Have Fed Our Sea is a bit unusual among the Anderson works I’ve read, in how simultaneously claustrophobic and epic it is; the epicness is rather characteristic of Anderson—the claustrophobia is not. Instead of exploring an alien culture, or in the case of his fantasy stories returning to Nordic mythology, we have a character-focused drama which especially leans into the “drama” part in its latter half. Not that the characters are the most nuanced ever, but they do play their roles well, and ultimately they feed into a much larger drama about the human race and its place among the stars. It’s not as romantic about space travel as what you’d see with a lot of hard SF—hell, it’s not as romantic as some of Anderson’s own later takes on the subject. Yet it’s a cautiously optimistic story, and while there were some parts that confused me (due to technobabble and not any “literary” difficulty), I feel like this is just the kind of novel to grow fonder in my memory. As of right now I’d say it’s B-tier Anderson: not his best but it’s pretty far from his worst.

I’m not totally sure what keeps bringing me back to Anderson. Rarely do I love his work, but I often find him compulsively readable. Hell, I had just finished rereading Brain Wave a couple weeks ago, right before starting We Have Fed Our Sea, and normally I don’t read two novels by the same author in such quick succession. Maybe it’s because at his best Anderson excels at certain things other SF authors don’t, namely his talent for world-building (both literally and in terms of writing lore), and also, like Kipling, he’s a conservative writer whose faults and virtues, the very things that make him tick, make him a chronicler of empire—only with Anderson it’s the American empire. And of course, I have to admit, Anderson can write a pretty entertaining yarn when he chooses.

See you next time.


2 responses to “Serial Review: We Have Fed Our Sea by Poul Anderson (Part 2/2)”

  1. I also find myself returning to Anderson — although far less than in the past when he was very much my bread and butter.

    Unfortunately, I don’t remember enough to engage in a substantive way with your review although I too remember how claustrophobic the story was (which I also found unusual and refreshing for Anderson) and that there was a twist (but not what it is).


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