Escape from Earth
Harvest of Stars, by Poul Anderson, New York: Tor Books, 448 pages, $22.95
One difficulty the writer of science fiction faces is that it seems quite likely that the world will be largely incomprehensible to us 100 years from now. There may well be self-aware computers a good deal smarter than any of us carbon-based life forms, and even mere human folks may be able to plug their brains directly into networks, giving them complete access to the sum total of human knowledge. If, when plugged in, you can recall anything from the gist of Joyce's Ulysses to historical trends in peanut production from 1941 to 1957 as easily as you remember your mother's maiden name, will you ever want to unplug and feel drastic intellectual diminishment? And what does society look like if everyone has this kind of access to information all of the time? We may well be approaching a cusp in history that changes things as drastically as the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
In Harvest of Stars, Poul Anderson takes a look at the human future and doesn't like what he sees. He likes individual freedom, open skies, wilderness, and challenge to the human spirit; and he doesn't think the future offers much opportunity for any of them.
To support the teeming billions, the environment will be carefully regulated, every square inch of arable land exploited, and the few remnants of wilderness kept alive through active human intervention. Just as machines have largely supplanted physical labor, computers will largely supplant intellectual work; jobs will be fewer and generally meaningless. Life from cradle to grave will be regulated and planned. Even resources from space will only stave off the day when initiative becomes meaningless, when machine intelligences function in a realm beyond our understanding and only those humans willing to become half-machine themselves have any real role to play in civilization.
Note that Anderson isn't a doomster: Hey, humanity has a future, ecocatastrophe won't do us in, and we'll learn to manage the planet sustainably. And Anderson thinks his likes are a minority taste; probably most people would be happy to live in a stable, controlled society that doesn't demand that people work.
If this were all there were to Harvest of Stars, we wouldn't have much of a story, merely a gloomy portrait of the future. It's just the backdrop, though. Anderson's real story is about the few obsessive folks who cross the gulf of stars to found a new society on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. First, they have to survive upheaval in North America, currently dominated by totalitarians—Anderson evidently doesn't think the death of communism has brought an end to the age of ideology just yet—and then persuade the rest of humanity to spend resources on a quest that can't ever benefit them directly. You're never going to ship goods or people across light years cost-effectively, after all; the solar system will never see tangible benefit from the settlement of other stars.
It's that struggle—on the one side, Fireball Enterprises and its chief, Anson Guthrie, a dead man whose mind has been downloaded into a computer, and on the other, the North American Union and the World Federation—that makes the story a taut, political thriller in a regimented and entirely believable future world. And we get some very nice bits along the way: a rather fey Lunarian culture, how espionage works in the computer era, lyrical passages on the glories of nature. We also get some bits that don't work so well: Anderson's patented archaic diction makes a lot more sense in his high-fantasy stories than it does here in the world of the technofuture. And those of us who aren't Randians may get impatient, early in the book, with the quantity of political speechifying. No, it's not as bad as that endless speech in Atlas Shrugged, but there are pages at a time that can easily be skipped.
There's a lot of Rand and a lot of Heinlein in this book—no surprise, since both wrote about small groups of capable people pitted against oppressive societies, and that's what Anderson is after. Writing like either Rand or Heinlein, and doing it well, is no mean trick—after all, the originals didn't always manage it. Anderson succeeds gloriously, and that is not to say he is being imitative. He is drawing on techniques those authors used, but in his language, his sense of transcendence, and his Scandinavian dourness, Anderson is ever his own man.
Most writers of Anderson's age are past the peak of their authorial powers, content to rehash old themes or rest on their laurels. With Harvest of Stars, Anderson shows that not only has he still got the spark that made masterpieces of No Truce with Kings, Brain Wave, and Orion Shall Rise—he's getting better. Anyone looking for the best of contemporary science fiction—or of the literature of liberty, for that matter—need search no further.
Greg Costikyan is a science-fiction writer and game designer.