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The Dark Between the Stars by Poul Andersonstory collection

Though marketed as a collection of short SF horror stories, that’s pretty misleading. In fact it’s totally misleading. There’s no unifying theme present in these stories remotely related to the horrors of the universe, whatever those might be. Anderson does essay some of his grimmer tales here. Many of the stories provide a very different reading experience than what one may be used to from him. Qualitatively, they’re all over the map, with only a couple of must-reads. Still, even a middling Poul Anderson story is quite a bit better than what you’re likely to get from most anybody else writing during this period. One to slip into the basket on your next used bookstore trip.

Startling Hugo-winning story about a cannibalistic culture on a distant world. Revenge plot definitely works on a visceral level, while staying true to its SF roots with a fascinating explanation for the cannibalism itself. I guess I would have just preferred a darker ending, but maybe that’s the horror fan in me coming out. Also appears in the Tor collections The Long Night and Winners.

Well-executed story set in an overpopulated, polluted future Earth, and one man’s devious plan to escape to the wilderness. Manages to skirt dystopian clichés while offering a sobering character study. Extremely short but effective.

Unique philosophical story concerning a stagnant “perfect” society whose inhabitants have developed a machine enabling them to travel to alternate Earths in alternate universes, and one man’s misfortunes on a particular journey. Demands repeated reading. This story was Anderson’s contribution to Harlan Ellison’s landmark anthology Dangerous Visions (although its “dangerous” final line has lost the shock value it had all those decades ago). It also appears in the Tor collection Past Times.

One of Anderson’s very best novelettes, about espionage in a totalitarian America. Quite a few SF stories were rendered obsolete when the Soviet Union collapsed, but this isn’t one of them. A remarkable examination of how blind commitment to ideology and dogma, whatever side you’re on, can leave a person ultimately hollow and ineffectual, and how a person will most often act in self-interest when the chips are down no matter what he may claim to believe. Often chilling. Another story to be read more than once.

I couldn’t get into this story about a scientist whose sketchily explained experiments with ESP have caused him to start slipping back and forth from reality into a strange primordial plane of existence. A good idea, but the execution is aloof, overwritten, and (uncharacteristically for Anderson) pretentious. The hallmarks of Anderson at his best — clear prose, characterization, and a well-defined thematic focus — are absent here. Still, Anderson says this is one of his personal favorites. Also appears in The Gods Laughed.

A story that deals with transhumanist ideas many years before the word was even in use. Interesting but seemingly incomplete novelette about deep space exploration in a future where the difficulties inherent in transporting astronauts light-years from Earth have been supplanted by technology that allows the personalities and neural patterns of actual people to be recorded onto a spacecraft’s computer. Then the craft itself (in a process Anderson doesn’t explain all that well) manufactures actual flesh-and-blood bodies at journey’s end, imprinting the same personalities into their brains. The plot follows one such ship and the unforseen crisis that occurs when it reaches a seemingly habitable planet orbiting 82 Eridani. It’s very moving at times, especially at the end, but it needed to be much longer and more polished, and when all is said and done, it seems Anderson was giving higher priority to his pro-space-exploration message than his actual storyline. The result is a good story that should have been great.

One of Anderson’s Time Patrol stories, a “nice” but inconsequential little sappy romance set during Earth’s distant past. Does have a clever climactic twist, though.

Beautiful, simple post-apocalypse environmentalism story that manages to deliver its messages without a hint of preachiness, and with warm and sympathetic characterizations, an Anderson hallmark. In the future, the Hawaiian islands are a dominant political power, helping to oversee the struggling survivors of the former continental superpowers in their reconstruction, all the while enforcing that they do so with minimal impact upon the fragile ecology. A spy from the islands journeys to a small community in the deserts of Baja California that may be draining deep well water in violation of various treaties, in search of a colleague who has mysteriously disappeared. This is the kind of story Anderson does best: clear narrative, with as much humanism as science. Satisfying in every way, “Windmill” succeeds where “The Voortrekkers” pulls up short. Also appears in the Tor collection Maurai & Kith.

Well-known late-1950s novella hasn’t aged too well. A wheelchair-bound astronaut on a station orbiting Jupiter (a planet which here is teeming with life) controls, via a computer providing a “psionic” link, a genetically engineered creature nicknamed “Joe” who roams the Jovian surface, exploring and hunting. However, when the machinery providing the link starts to malfunction, the question arises: whose personality is stronger, the operator’s or Joe’s? Needless to say, science has overtaken this story, but even if you transferred the scenario to a wholly alien world, you’d have to deal with the story’s ableist conceit: that disabled people might only find fulfillment in life by linking their minds to big, strong, powerful artificial lifeforms. The disabled person in this particular story, to boot, is an unpleasant character I had a hard time rooting for. A solid hard SF concept whose execution just bugged me. Still, aficionados of SF from this period regard it very highly. Premise may have been one of many sources borrowed by filmmaker James Cameron for his 2009 blockbuster Avatar.