Short story anthologies tend to be difficult to review, mostly because it’s hard to come up with a cohesive theme to discuss when the stories can be so diverse in quality and in tone. Fortunately for me, Poul Anderson seems to have gone out of his way in this little collection to ensure that any reviewer had no such problems here. The stories are actually remarkably similar in setting, tone, and theme. They also share much the same flaws. So while I will deal with the stories individually, I can also discuss them in general.
Each story in the collection is planetary romance of some description. Anderson apparently doesn’t buy into warp drives or wormholes, so voyages across the stars are always slow and expensive. In each story, humans establish colonies on some alien planet or another and then — in most cases — confront the difficulty of what it means to be aliens far from their original world, sometimes through encounters with indigenous populations (in every shade of that complicated term — all extraterrestrials are comparative primitives). Anderson isn’t a Gene Roddenberry or an Isaac Asimov: he appears to have very little interest in the wonders of the cosmos or the glories of potential human achievement. Instead, he uses the science fiction setting (which is, once again, so remarkably similar from story to story that they could easily have been set in the same universe if Anderson had wanted to bother with it) as a magnifying lens on colonialism and the ultimately troubling nature of humanity’s recent preoccupation with the notion of progress. He suggests — at least in the majority of the stories — that the idea of a human golden age or galaxy-spanning empire (all hallmarks of other, more optimistic sci/fi) is both unfeasible and unfulfilling, a hollow ambition and a false idol, though he also seems to imply that the collapse of this romantic ideal in the human spirit is really the beginning of the end for humanity as a species. If these positions seem contradictory, well, they often are. Anderson espouses both viewpoints through various mouthpieces, and his presentations of progress versus nature (human and otherwise) allow for a broad range of interpretation.
It’s quite interesting stuff, and though the thematic ground has been well-trodden by now, Anderson was not writing at a time when that was necessarily the case. There’s a lot of interesting speculation in Anderson’s speculative fiction, and on a purely cerebral level it succeeds (at least in most instances — one story stands out as undercooked, but I’ll explain further below). On a more artistic level, however, the collection’s entries show signs of clutter and poor pacing. This is something one tends to see in habitual novelists who aren’t well-versed in plotting out short stories, and I’d hazard a guess that a large part of Anderson’s problem came in the drawing board phase. His prose is fine (often better than fine, particularly in the first story), but many of the individual pieces tend to feel as though there’s too much going on and too many balls in the air at any given time. Reading through most of these is like watching someone buy tickets for twelve different events on the same weekend: one has the suspicion that — while all of those events might certainly have been fun given a weeklong vacation — trying to squash them all into two days is going to turn into a bit of a mess. It’s not a deal-breaker necessarily, but there is the lingering sensation over the course of this anthology that a lot of the stories are unfocused and for that reason perhaps a bit less gripping than they might have been.
Now, as threatened, I should probably commence the individual story reviews.
“The Queen of Air and Darkness:” Our Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award winner has a great opening scene that the remainder of the story can never quite match. It also has a hilariously geek-friendly premise that I can best describe as “Space Sherlock Holmes versus the Alien Fairies” (no really, the detective is called “Sherrinford” and everything), which already seems enough to be going on with, but Anderson is also keen to do some world-building and a romantic subplot. It works, more or less, but the ending in particular feels oddly disjointed, and apart from the geeky pleasure of “Sherlock Holmes… in Space!” I can’t really figure out what Sherrinford is doing here or how the various elements were meant to fit into some cohesive whole, tonally as much as anything else. I like the prose and the focus on fairies (or space fairies, or whatever) as representatives of human superstition carried into a grand technological era, but this is the first example of an overstuffed narrative for me.
“Home:” This one appealed to me more. There are fewer pieces to the puzzle, and while Anderson plays with an alien subplot that goes nowhere worth the effort, the rest of it feels much tighter and better-planned. Essentially, this is another human colony where things have worked out, and the humans and aliens are peacefully coexisting until a ship arrives from Earth to announce the effective cancellation of the space program and the recall of all extraterrestrial humans. The settlers don’t want to leave their colony, and the ensuing argument turns into a meditation on the nature of home and the potential of the human species for development beyond their origins. The ending feels a bit rushed, and of course there’s that clumsy subplot, but otherwise I have few complaints.
“The Alien Enemy:” A decent if unmemorable little story that basically looks at the “Home” problem from an opposite viewpoint. A colony on a relatively inhospitable planet is attacked by some sort of mysterious alien race, and the government of Earth must figure out what to do with the colonists involved. The storyline largely relies on a twist that’s fairly easy to see coming (some readers may already be getting the picture just from my brief description), but to Anderson’s credit, he pushes the climax beyond expectations.
“The Faun:” A very short piece, rich in imagery but low on most everything else. Most anthologies have those one or two stories that just seem to have been included to bring up the numbers and not necessarily because they “fit” with the rest. That’s “The Faun.” It’s not awful, but the cerebral aspect just isn’t there and the ending arrives with corny “this is the moral of our story” material that makes the whole piece feel overly twee. I have a feeling this was originally written as a young adult piece and included in the collection more because it sort of suited Anderson’s theme than because of any other merits.
“In the Shadow:” Probably the most classically “sci/fi” of the stories in the collection, “In the Shadow” deals with a group of explorers that unexpectedly makes contact with other intelligent life. The premise is great, but again there seems to be too much story here for Anderson’s fairly limited page space. I liked it well enough, but like “The Queen of Air and Darkness” and (to a lesser extent) “The Alien Enemy,” it feels like it might have benefited from being a longer piece with more time to explore the various ideas. As it is, the story feels a bit rushed and ends with a few guns still hanging on the wall, so to speak.
“Time Lag:” The final story in the collection deals with an interstellar war. It shares the issue common to the other stories (the story just feels a bit too big for the page space, so that some plot points inevitably feel glossed over too quickly), but it’s exciting and features some good characterization. I’d regard “Time Lag” and “Home” as the best in the collection, and the ones I’d be comfortable giving out to most speculative fiction readers.
So there we have it: six stories on interstellar travel and human nature. The Queen of Air and Darkness and Other Stories is not perfect, but for the fan of this particular subgenre, it probably has something for them to enjoy. Due to Anderson’s relative restraint with the technology involved, the stories have aged fairly well, though the reader who’s more concerned with ideas than with narrative structure will probably find the anthology more accessible than will his/her opposite number. Overall, recommended with some reservations.