Rise of the Terran Empire is the third in a series of seven books collecting all of Poul Anderson’s writings in the Technic civilization setting. The stories are presented by internal chronology and in this book we have reached the boundary between the two eras Anderson set most of these stories in: the time of the Polesotechnic league (Nicolas van Rijn and David Falkayn) and the era of the Terran Empire (Dominic Flandry). The previous two books contained quite a few pieces of short fiction but this third tome includes two full novels with room left over for four shorter works. One of these, “Sargasso of Lost Starships,” originally published in Planet Stories, appears for the first time in book form, so if you are a completist this is a must have.
The collection opens with the 1977 novel Mirkheim. It features both Falkayn and van Rijn in what will be their last adventure. A war between a recently civilized alien species and the Commonwealth over a planet rich in rare metals Falkayn discovered earlier in his career, shows just how unprepared, weak and utterly divided the Commonwealth and the Polesotechnic league have become. Van Rijn decides to gather the crew of spaceship Muddlin’ Through for a mission of intelligence gathering before hostilities break out.
It features some peculiar monologues by van Rijn about the virtues of being an independent trader and the evils of government and regulations. Given the state of the league and van Rijn’s unmistakable dissatisfaction with it, I must say I have some trouble grasping his position at times. Anderson creates a very dark, gloomy atmosphere in this book, as if everybody is waiting for the end of an era, which I suppose is what this book heralds. I thought it was an interesting read but the second novel in this volume is more interesting.
Before we get to that, though, there are a few shorter pieces first. “Wingless” (originally published as “Wingless on Avalon” in the 1973 collection Children of Infinity) is the first of a number of stories in this collection featuring the birdlike Ythrians, and a joint human/Ythri colony on Avalon. A young descendant of Falkayn spends a lot of time in the company of a group of rather condescending Ythrian youths. They soon find out that being able to fly isn’t a benefit in all situations. This story was a bit too moralizing for my taste. It doesn’t help that the next one is a variation on this theme.
“Rescue on Avalon” (1973, Boy’s Life) is another story of Ythrian/human interaction on Avalon. A young human finds himself the only one close enough to assist a Ythrian in serious trouble after a big storm. He secretly holds a grudge against the Ythrians but rescues him anyway and learns there is strength in diversity. Same comment as the previous story, really.
In the next story, “The Starplunderer” (1952, Planet Stories), we meet the founder of the Terran Empire. The commonwealth has weakened to a point where human controlled space is being overrun by barely civilized alien races. During the second sack of Earth, John Henry Reeves is taken prisoner by the Gorzuni. On the ship carrying him away from Earth he meets Manuel, a man with designs to take over the ship who can use John’s help to achieve this aim. Manuel has quite a megalomaniac streak. It makes him a very interesting character. Given the pivotal moment in Technic history it describes, I am surprised this story never made it into one of the earlier collections of Technic history material. I quite liked it.
In “Sargasso of Lost Starships” (1951, Planet Stories) we see the empire several generations after Manuel founds it. It’s still expanding rapidly. Basil Donovan, former nobleman from a recent addition to the empire, is dragged away on a mission to explore a nearby nebula. The Terrans do not know what to expect, but he has been there before. It is not a place he particularly wants to return to. This 1950s story is a bit pulpy, which I generally do not like. Anderson creates a very alien and somewhat scary atmosphere in “Sargasso of Lost Starships” that made me overcome my usual feelings about pulp SF. It’s creepy but I liked it a lot.
The novel People of the Wind (1973, first serialized in Analog), which was nominated for Nebula, Hugo and Locus awards, closes this volume. In this novel a large Terran fleet sets out to readjust the border with the Ythrian dominated Dominion. The Dominion does not seem to stand a chance against the might of the Terran Empire but, especially on Avalon, people have decided to make conquest as expensive as possible. For such a short novel Anderson uses an awful lot of different points of view. On the one hand this gives us a very detailed idea of what is going on. On the other, I didn’t get attached to any of them. Anderson includes quite a bit of personal drama in this story. I think it could have had a bigger impact if he had focused the story on fewer characters. It is nonetheless the best piece in this collection, not at all hard to see why it got all those award nominations.
The two stories I did not like where the shortest of the bunch, so overall I liked Rise of the Terran Empire quite a lot. Without the focus on van Rijn and Falkayn it is a bit more varied than the previous volume, David Falkayn: Star Trader. The transition from the Commonwealth to the Empire is, despite the fact that these stories were written over a period of twenty-five years, a recognizable overarching theme in all of them. When you think about this, it certainly is an achievement to write such an impressive future history completely out of chronological order and end up with something that on most levels makes sense.