Young People Read Old SFF

The Longest Voyage

Poul Anderson

Young People Read Old SFF

30 May, 2021

Now we reach Poul Anderson, whose The Longest Voyage won the Hugo Award for Best Short Fiction in 1961. It happens that Anderson was for a time my favourite author in the 1970s. This was for a number of reasons. Anderson often focused on world-building, investing tremendous effort for one-off settings. I happen to be the sort of person who spends more time at a play looking at the backdrops than the actors. Astoundingly prolific, he had an enormous back-list, a tremendous asset from the perspective of a voracious reader. As a consequence, I have read five or six dozen of his works. Perhaps more. 

Alas, Anderson was not without flaw. Anderson, or at least young Anderson, famously had a rather shaky grasp that women characters could be more than romantic plot tokens (Anderson and Joanna Russ had a polite exchange regarding this, that will surprise and delight you should you care to google it1). He had stylistic quirks of which he was tremendously fond. His political views did not drift into the comforting harbour of Libertaria so much as those views beached themselves at a hundred knots on Libertaria’s inviting shores.

Still, Anderson’s curious views of the narrative role of women at the time of writing surely do not pertain to The Longest Voyage because The Longest Voyage contains no women to speak of. As well, Anderson has chosen for the setting an Earthlike moon of a gas giant, perhaps the first plausible example of such a world I recall encountering. Perhaps this story highlights Anderson’s strengths in a way to which the Young People will respond?

To be honest, my most recent review of the story, found here, rated it as a very Poul Andersonian story”. Uninformative and not very enthusiastic. But I can live in hope the Young People responded more favourably than did one jaded coot rereading the award winning SF of his youth. Let’s find out if that’s the case!

1: Added later: I thought the exchange between Russ and Anderson was trivial to find online. Having lost more than an hour to trying, I conclude that it is not. I believe the exchange occurred in Vertex in 1974 and that one account of it may be found in Helen Merrick’s The Secret Feminist Cabal, which may be found here.

Anderson’s part of the exchange began with the unfortunately titled Reply to a Lady”, directed at Russ. In it, Anderson made such bold assertions as the frequent absence of women characters has no great ­significance, perhaps none whatsoever” and Certain writers, Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke doubtless the most distinguished, seldom pick themes which inherently call for women to take a lead role. This merely shows they prefer cerebral plots, not that they are antifeminist.” The discussion that followed was not entirely constructive and Russ ultimately concluded He’s a nice man in a personal way but it’s hopeless; I feel like a rock climber at the 14,000-foot pass in the Rockies looking back through a telescope at some enthusiastic amateur in the Flatirons (foothills outside my study window) who’s proceeding Eastward, yelling​“Hey! You’re in the wrong place! The mountains are this way!” It’s a sheer waste of time to argue with him; we’d better just let him go until he and his crampons hit Chicago.”


I have been trying to think of anything interesting to say about The Longest Voyage”, but my general impression is one of boredom. The plot is glacial, the faux archaic style made it tough for me to get through and some of the language was just unpleasant. There was nothing really to draw me in or even make much of a remark on.

It should be noted Anderson used the same idea, pre-industrial society encountering spacecraft, in a much more interesting way only a few issues earlier in the same magazine. I don’t think this story benefits by comparison.


Oh? Which story?


Sorry, thought I had written it in there. The High Crusade.


It’s very obviously old right from the beginning. We’re looking for treasure in unknown lands, we’re heading off to plunder… that’s a plot that’s gone away as people have become more aware of colonialism and more aware of the horrors committed by those people looking for plunder. Anderson seems to be playing it straight. (Though as it’s clearly not set on Earth I found myself wondering if the worries about sailing off the edge of the world might not be unjustified when that was first brought up!) And we’ve got the savage natives” trope as well– indeed, the story turns on it, and it’s incredibly hard to read just because that trope is so archaic and discredited, and because we know just how awful the real history it’s founded on is. I’m distracted from the story itself by the racism, especially since once they actually meet the space traveler you start getting a wordly white people understand the thing better than superstitious natives” plot.

And yet I do wonder what side Anderson was coming down on, in the end– are we meant to think it’s good or bad that they destroyed the ship? To me it seems very arrogant, to destroy something that will uplift standards of living for everyone on the planet because you want the glory of discovery for yourselves. I’m reminded of white people discovering” America when there were already people living here. But given the tone of the rest of the story I don’t think Anderson was trying to comment on that mindset; I think he was taking it seriously, and thus you wind up with this story has a horrible, outdated moral.” Because I do think we’re supposed to think the captain was right; I think Anderson wants us to think choosing your own path” justifies destroying the ship and killing the star man, as though they wouldn’t be able to choose their own path once they found people willing to share fancy tech with them. (Though I do think there’s more than a little naivete on the part of the star-dwellers if they really would just share technology with these people; part of a large majority not getting into wars is being raised in a culture that doesn’t promote wars, and enough of these people seem to be into violence for the sake of violence that I suspect that would end rather badly.)