Hall of Fame finalist review: Poul Anderson’s Orion Shall Rise offers masterful social-scientific world-building in clash of cultures (including a libertarian society)

By William H. Stoddard

One of the things Poul Anderson was known for throughout his literary career was world-building. Much of this was planetary design, based on the natural sciences, in which he started out with stellar type, planetary mass, orbital radius, and elemental abundances and worked out the geology, meteorology, and biology of a world.

Anderson was certainly one of the masters of this, up there with Hal Clement and Vernor Vinge. But he put equal effort into social scientific worldbuilding, creating economies, polities, and cultures, and developing plots for his stories from the conflicts they gave rise to.

Orion Shall Rise, a 2024 Prometheus Hall of Fame finalist for Best Classic Fiction, is a nearly pure example of social scientific world-building, set not in a distant solar system but on a future Earth.

A WAR OF JUDGMENT

In its backstory, the great powers of the twentieth century annihilated each other with nuclear weapons, in a conflict called the War of Judgment, leaving a world empty enough to give room for new cultures to emerge.

One of these cultures, the Maurai, derived from the Polynesians societies of our world, from New Zealand to Hawaii, appeared in a number of previous stories as the new dominant power, a great sea power with the advantage of inherited scientific knowledge, but held back from industrialization both by the exhaustion of resources such as fossil fuels and metals, and by a philosophy of environmentalism. They appeared as a mostly benign and humane empire.

Poul Anderson (Creative Commons license)

But in Orion Shall Rise, Anderson puts their philosophy into the crucible.

A DIFFERENCE OF CULTURES

His future Earth has at least four great powers, each embodying a different set of central values:

* The Maurai are a constitutional monarchy with a powerful navy and a deep commitment to protecting the natural environment.

* The Mong, descended from Russian, Mongolian, and Chinese refugees who conquered much of North America, are a society of lords and serfs, with ethical beliefs that combine military duty, a pursuit of enlightenment similar to Buddhism, and a more radical environmentalism that has grown into a religion.

* The Northwest Union, extending roughly from Oregon to Alaska, is a decentralized society with strong tendencies to libertarianism, one of Anderson’s more attractive portrayals of this idea, and is also strongly technophilic.

* Skyholm, dominated by a lighter-than-air structure as large as a small city, with directed energy systems that can alter the weather or repel invaders, maintains a domain of lawfulness centered on France, with an aristocratic political system and regard for folkways.

Most of these, it’s worth noting, are ideas for which Anderson had expressed sympathy in some of his previous fiction. And the one of which this is least true, the Mong, still has its own distinctive virtues.

Each culture is represented by one central character in Anderson’s story: Terai Lohannaso, a middle-aged Maurai agent; Vanna Uangovna Kim, a Mong librarian and mystic; Ronica Birken, a Northwest Union engineer and covert operative; and Talence Iern Ferlay, a Skyholm pilot and heir to its captaincy.

A RECURRING CONFLICT

The conflict emerges from earlier clashes between the Maurai and the Northwest Union:

The Whale War, fought to stop the Norrmen from whaling, followed five years later by the Power War, in which the Maurai responded to their plans for a nuclear power plant by subjugating them and imposing a protectorate.

In the Power War, Birken’s father, held on Lohannaso’s ship as a prisoner of war, was killed, and when he personally brought the news to his family, Ronica, then five years old, shouted at him, ending with “Orion shall rise!” — leaving Lohannaso to wonder what it meant, though many of Anderson’s readers may have guessed at a reference to Freeman Dyson’s proposal for the Orion drive, a spacecraft propelled by nuclear explosions. In fact, that project is central to Anderson’s plot.

Various forms of environmentalism provide the opposing values. The Gaean religion of the Mong views the Earth itself as sacred; it’s utterly opposed to nuclear energy, and in a secondary plot, increasing numbers of the Skyholmers are being converted to it.

The Maurai aren’t Gaeans, but their own ecological conservatism is sufficiently opposed to the Norrmen’s projects to draw them into a war of conquest. Anderson presents them sympathetically, but he also gives Ronica’s father a telling criticism of their motives, their self-image, and their historical role.

(The Maurai in fact are much like what J.R.R. Tolkien, another environmentalist, said of the elves in his Lord of the Rings trilogy (the 2009 inductee into the Prometheus Hall of Fame) in a letter to Milton Waldman: That in wanting to preserve the earth they also wanted to preserve their own privileged place in it, and to embalm it, so that it wouldn’t change.)

A FASCINATING INVENTION

The Northwest Union itself is a fascinating invention: A culture founded in resistance to the Mong invasion, made up of people ready to fight for what belongs to them, and one with a minimal central government not far from anarchy, territorial governments with still limited powers, and much more power exercised by voluntary Lodges, including the Wolf Lodge, prime mover of resistance to the Maurai.

Many of its details are shown through Ferlay’s eyes, when he’s in exile from Skyholm. The Norrmen are fiercely independent, abhor slavery, and maintain equality between men and women; and they have a largely unregulated economy with comparatively rich material resources, and a desire for more — for a recovery of lost technologies, and for access to energy that will lift them up from poverty. That desire ultimately involves them in war with all three of the other major powers.

Poul Anderson with his wife Karen at an sf con (Creative Commons license)

It’s characteristic of Anderson that, even though his story clearly puts one side in this war in the right, he doesn’t make it a straightforward clash of good people with evil. At least one of the Norrmen, Mikli Karst, is deceitful and often malevolent. In contrast, Vanna Uangovna Kim, who is on the other side, has perhaps the purest motives of any of the central characters, and her fate is a deeply moving one in which she appears in an admirable role. That’s one of the points where Anderson excelled, and especially so in this novel.

ABOUT ANDERSON

Poul Anderson (1926-2001), was the first sf author to be honored with a Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement. The award to the ailing author was accepted by his wife, Karen, at the 2001 LFScon (the first LFS mini-con) at Marcon, Ohio’s oldest and largest sf/fantasy convention.

Anderson won his first competitive Prometheus award for his novel Trader to the Stars, inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1985.

He also wrote The Stars Are Also Fire (the 1995 Prometheus winner for Best Novel), “No Truce with Kings” (a story inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 2010) and “Sam Hall” (a story inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2020).

OTHER REVIEWS OF 2024 HALL OF FAME FINALISTS

Stay tuned, because the Prometheus Blog is publishing reviews of all four 2024 finalists in the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction – just as we published earlier this spring reviews of all five Best Novel finalists.

Check out the recent posts reviewing Harry Turtledove’s novel Between the Rivers and the Rush song “The Trees.” (A review of the other Hall of Fame finalist, Terry Pratchett’s novel The Truth, is in the works and will be published soon.)

The LFS press release announcing the finalists includes capsule descriptions of all four 2024 Hall of Fame finalists.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE PROMETHEUS AWARDS:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – including the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to all published essay-reviews in our Appreciation series explaining why each of more than 100 past winners since 1979 fits the awards’ distinctive dual focus on both quality and liberty.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt), Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

* Check out the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Facebook page  for comments, updates and links to Prometheus Blog posts.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards and support a cultural and literary strategy to appreciate and honor freedom-loving fiction, join the Libertarian Futurist Society, a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital in envisioning a freer and better future – and in some ways can be even more powerful than politics in the long run, by imagining better visions of the future incorporating peace, prosperity, progress, tolerance, justice, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights, individuality and human dignity.

Through recognizing the literature of liberty and the many different but complementary visions of a free future via the Prometheus Awards, the LFS hopes to help spread ideas and ethical principles that help humanity overcome tyranny, end slavery, reduce the threat of war, repeal or constrain other abuses of coercive power and achieve universal liberty, respect for human rights and a better world (perhaps ultimately, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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