It’s not exactly Vintage Science Fiction Month anymore, but just because I let this one slip last week doesn’t mean I’m not going to post a review of Poul Anderson’s Fire Time. As I remember it, I picked up Fire Time at a used bookstore a few years ago thinking it was a fantasy or sword and planet. It is not, being rather very much hard science fiction. (The High Crusade is the only other Poul Anderson I’ve read, but apparently Anderson wrote fantasy, space opera, and hard science fiction all.)
Fire Time takes place on a planet far from Earth. It is the rare planet inhabitable by humans, but their presence is largely limited to scientific work rather than any real colony. The planet is primarily inhabited by sapient lion-centaur creatures with a sword-and-shield level of technology. Habitation is spread across two large continents, one in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern hemisphere, with an island archipelago in between.
Humans largely stick to the south, the civilized continent. The Gathering, the loose federation of lion-centaur groups, extends into the southern tip of the northern continent, but it is mostly given over to barbarians. The civilization-barbarian divide is a product of the setup of the local solar system. It has three suns, and one causes serious problems when it gets to close. Unlike the Three-Body Problem, the problematic sun here at least is reliably so, causing a cataclysmic Fire Time (lasting several decades) every 1,000 years. Only the northern continent becomes inhabitable, but the southern continent faces its own cataclysmic refugee crisis every Fire Time.
This time promises to be different due to the human’s advanced technology. There are just two problems: Home-world politics means no help from outside the planet will be forthcoming and, indeed, normal supplies will be cut and on-world resources requisitioned. And a barbarian leader has welded the northern tribes into a fearsome force he intends take south as soldiers, not refugees.
It is big, world-spanning stuff, with lots of hard science fiction exposition, but the story focuses on five characters: the military officer sent to enforce the political decisions made back home, two native humans (one male and one female), a lion-centaur military leader from the Gathering with avuncular ties to the female human, and the lion-centaur leading the barbarians.
Fire Time was published almost 50 years ago but remains highly timely, dealing as it does with imperialism and refugee crises and climate change. Which isn’t to say that it is the sort of book that could be—or at least you would expect to be—published today. It doesn’t track simplistic contemporary orthodoxies and is the better for it. Take the imperialism angle. Earth (ruled by a single government) is embroiled in a war in a colony world it was largely dragged into by the colonists. It is very concerned about perceptions and what they might mean for that war effort. The planet where the story takes place is a backwater that doesn’t figure much into Earth politics, but its politicians don’t want to be seen as imperialistic by interfering in the affairs of another planet. Even if that “interference” would mean working with the Gathering to dramatically reduce the suffering from Fire Time. It’s complex and realistic, recognizing both that politics can make for bad policy and that just because somebody can slap “imperialism” on something doesn’t mean it is bad.
Your Mileage May Vary depending on how hard you want to dork out on the hard social science fiction aspect and the hard science fiction aspect. I’ve barely mentioned the latter, which tells you something about my own preferences, but there is a lot for the hard science fiction fan to dig their teeth into, from the lion-centaurs’ “manes” made of symbiotic plants to a parallel evolutionary track. I was mostly ambivalent, with my enjoyment being driven by the hard social science fiction aspect and the characterization, both of which are really good. I would also have preferred more action.
4 of 5 Stars.
Vintage Science Fiction Month comes every year, right after Santa. The gist is simple: read speculative fiction written before 1980 (or the year you were born) and write about it in January. Fire Time was published in 1974 and nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1975. Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of Andrea at The Little Red Reviewer.