BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Every thousand years, the Demon Star, Anu, approaches the planet Ishtar. The northen hemisphere becomes almost uninhabitable and war becomes inevitable as the refugees flood southward. Every time, Ishtarian civilaztion has collapsed during this period. Only this time, humanity may be able to help Ishtarians survive the Fire Time.
PROS: The Ishtarian system itself, is physically interesting. The aliens are somewhat unique and there are hints at alien technology left somewhere on Ishtar.
CONS: One long, slow book. The emphasis is on the politics of war, both between the Ishtarians and the humans’ war with the Naqsa.
BOTTOM LINE: An interminably long book for being only 284 pages long. I just couldn’t get interested in the politics of the whole thing. And the characters weren’t all that engaging either.
I’m not sure why this book was nominated for a Hugo. Well, actually I think I can (more later) but it isn’t because this is a great book or a fun read. I don’t find it to be either. First, I’ll hit the high points. Poul Anderson has created a unique solar system with an interesting trinary configuration. Every thousand years, the red giant Anu approaches Ishtar and renders the northern hemisphere uninhabitable. This is a cool and interesing bit of world building here. It sets in motion all the comes after. Anderson also adds a bit of interesting biology with alien life that, while not directly important, does play a small role in the story.
Unfortunately for me, and I’m guessing John, Fire Time is basically one long political tract detailing the barbarian Arnanak’s attempts to secure his people’s safety from the Fire Time by raiding the southern continent and forcing humanity to deal with them, and the more advanced Gathering. Also, mankind is involved in a war of attrition with the Naqsa race, through a proxy government on a remote planet. Basically, with the interstellar war on, humanity can’t, or won’t, devote the necessary resources to Ishtar to help the Ishtarians prepare for the Fire Time and to help them save their civilaztion. This includes being unable to help the Gathering to defeat or resist the barbarians. While this all sounds interesting, it really amounts to a lot talking going on. There is very little action involved, until the end. What action does take place either occurs off stage or for the express purpose to show the horror and futility of war. Which leads me to why I think Fire Time is on the Hugo list.
Fire Time has an unsubtle anti-war message running throughout the entire book. I had a vague suspicion throughout that maybe Anderson was writing an anti-Vietnam book couched in SF terms. The last chapter didn’t dissuade me from that notion, but served to strengthen it. Seeing that the book was copyrighted in 1974, I’m sure it was written in the year or two previous, which had the Vietnam war crawling to a close with the ultimate abandonment of Saigon and the concomittant hit to America’s psyche. I believe, and I could be wrong, that Anderson wrote this book in response to the war, and many readers agreed with his thoughts and voted for it. That’s fine as far as it goes. I just think the book could have been a lot better, if not enjoyable, and shouldn’t have been nominated based solely on an anti-war message. Of course, I haven’t read much else published in 1974 so Fire Time might be better than most stuff published then.
As it was, it was a long slog through inaction and politic maneuvering, which I found to be deadly dull and uninteresting. With only a few points to keep it from a one star rating.