Immortal Questions


The Boat of a Million Years, by Poul Anderson, New York: Tor Books, 470 pages, $19.95

Poul Anderson is one of the most interesting talents in science fiction—and in some ways one of the hardest to pin down. His fiction can be read on one level as pure Campbellian action adventure, yet it is also concerned with serious philosophical issues. This is clearly how Anderson wants it; he will not allow his work to turn into a set of talking heads debating ideas. Instead, he wants well-drawn characters, interesting language, motion, and plot. The challenge, to which Anderson rises, is to show philosophical issues in action, not to yak about them—no 100-page political diatribes here.

And there is a third dimension to Anderson's work: an astounding breadth of scholarship. Anderson takes history and science quite as seriously as he takes his philosophy and his story-telling skills. When he says that a man in synchronous orbit around Jupiter must turn his head a little if he wants to look from one edge of the planet to another, you know that Anderson has done the calculation. When he says that a 13th-century Japanese nobleman would consider an ox-drawn carriage the only suitable means of transportation, you know that Anderson has researched the subject.

In consequence, the careful reader can draw many pleasures from Anderson's work: of a story well told, of ideas explored, of a fine attention to detail. There may be writers who write better, philosophers who speculate more deeply, historians and scientists with more comprehensive knowledge, but Anderson is a polymath; he brings it all together.

The Boat of a Million Years, like Anderson's other work, can be enjoyed as much for its idea content as for its story. Though many of Anderson's works are concerned with the philosophy of freedom, here his speculations deal instead with the long-term history of humanity. The book's ostensible theme is immortality. It traces through human history a group of immortals—men and women who simply do not die. There is no real explanation for this longevity; Anderson merely assumes that some small number of human beings are born without the built-in tendency to age and die.

The first three-quarters of the novel is straightforward "what-if": What if immortals had existed in history? How would they have survived? It is a reasonable question; in certain periods, someone who lived too long without growing old would be likely to find himself burned as a sorceror. Anderson's immortals adopt a number of survival strategies: One becomes a seaman, able to pull up stakes and sail away at a moment's notice; another becomes a prostitute, with an easy source of income and plenty of excuses for disappearing; a third becomes a middle-level bureaucrat, able to fake credentials for his new identities and always able to find work. Each of these immortals is born to a different civilization in a different era, allowing Anderson to display the variety of human culture.

But as technology advances, it becomes clear that Anderson is not simply exploring the problems of immortals. He is, instead, showing how technology makes fundamental changes not only in human culture but in human beings themselves. Before the rise of technology, human life is truly nasty, brutish, and short. As technology advances, people no longer worry about mere survival, but about… what?

In Anderson's final chapter, which takes up the last quarter of the novel, he shows a human society in which every want, every need is satisfied, one in which immortality is no longer the secret of a few, but available to all. When people need no longer strive to feed themselves, when the prospect of death no longer weighs on the human soul, what does humanity become?

This is Anderson's true concern. We now, after all, have the knowledge and ability to make it possible for every human on the planet to live free of hunger and privation; only cultural and governmental barriers stand in the way. The real problem we face is no longer mere survival; it is, rather, the danger our own technology poses. But the danger technology poses to the environment can only be solved by technology itself. Anderson's question is not far-fetched. Barring the collapse of civilization, the day will come when technology's triumph is complete, when there is no longer a need to strive.

To this prospect, Anderson adds a question: Where are the aliens?

It is a question that scientists ask very seriously. We have every reason to believe that life, including intelligent life, must have arisen within our galaxy many, many times. It is logical to think that at least one intelligent species would have developed interstellar travel. In the history of the universe, there has been plenty of time for interstellar civilization to expand throughout the galaxy. And yet our radio dishes receive no intelligent signals, we have found no trace of alien visitation on our world, and our explorations of the solar system have uncovered no evidence of previous exploration.

Anderson asks, Is there a connection between the problems of immortality and the apparent absence of extraterrestrial civilizations? Mature planetary civilizations have no wants, no needs, no fears of death. And only such civilizations have the technology to explore the galaxy. Available evidence says the galaxy has not been explored. What, then, does this tell us about mature planetary civilizations—and humanity's own future?

This is heady stuff. And, in retrospect, it becomes clear why Anderson spends so much of the novel introducing his immortals: They become proxies for ourselves. Anderson wants to portray a future civilization very different from any we have known. To make it comprehensible, he gives us characters we can comprehend, characters who grew up in eras when strife was still the norm. Through them he shows that humanity may well become something we might not consider truly human.

If this sounds like heavy slogging, recall the character of Anderson's fiction. His first concern, as always, is with story; this is no deadly philosophical tome, but a well-written novel by a master of the field. Indeed, I suspect that most of the novel's readers will see only the story, never recognizing the philosophical speculation that underpins it, just as they will never realize the depth of historical and scientific scholarship behind the work. And that, perhaps, is the book's best virtue: that anyone can enjoy it; that some can learn from it; and that a few may be fascinated by it.

Serious, speculative science fiction is increasingly rare in a field overrun with elfy-welfies and literary pretension. But as long as work of this caliber is still being written, hard science fiction must be considered a vibrant form.

Greg Costikyan is a writer of fiction and nonfiction who has designed 23 commercially published games.