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Review – Fire Time By Poul Anderson


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.

About JP Frantz (2322 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

4 Comments on Review – Fire Time By Poul Anderson

  1. Actually, STAR FOX, the previous book about Gunnar Heim’s exploits set in the same galactic history, was accused of being a “pro-Vietnam book”. (In rebuttal to an attack referring to “a thinly-disguised manual on how to fight the Cold War” and “caricatured Peace Militants” in the story, Anderson noted that it was not a caricature, but drawn from his (and my, for that matter) experience with the self-styled “peace movement”. I could not help suspecting that the sequel was an attempt to show that, oh, no, he is not a narrow-minded rightwingextremistwarlover.

  2. Fred Kiesche // March 12, 2005 at 2:56 pm //

    Just goes to show you how people can have different reactions. I have Fire Time rated highly in my database. Go figure!

    As to why it was nominated, it might have been because it came out when Anderson was producing fewer novels, so it could have been more a nomination for his body of work than for the novel in particular.

    I did not know that “Star Fox” was set in the same universe. It’s been a darn long time since I read that, so I’ll have to read it again (along with “Fire Time).

    The version I have of “Fire Time” is the original Ballantine paperback. It has a few diagrams on the inside covers of the system. Does the version you have (looks like a Baen cover?) have that diagram?

  3. kevin fitzgerald // April 7, 2005 at 9:51 pm //

    Re: Poul Anderson’s “Fire Time.” (Piggybacking). Yes,it was sloggy and boring in many parts, but the exobiology possibilities Anderson raises are extraordinary. Anderson was fond of creating realistic alien species (if individuals among his aliens were all alive and living in my condo complex, it would be a very strange neighborhood). The Ishtarians with their symbiotic vegetable fur, their “post-mammalian biology,” and the outrageous but loveable Dauri, hopping blue creatures with eyes on their “bellies,” descended from creatures similar to starfish, are worth the read (the image of a Dauri that comes to my mind is something like a plucked, headless chicken. Not a pleasing image, but a profoundly alien alien).

  4. Jerome Boulter // December 4, 2011 at 9:36 am //

    Re Fire Time, Kevin Fitzgerald’s comment. I somewhat agree with him that Poul’s exobiological environment is interestingly alien in itself. The post mammalian biological superiority he mentions is in my minds eye is physical rather than political or social. Why else would there be war between Souther continent and Norther continent if this was not the case? If the Ishtarians were advanced socially, then they could have tried to absorb the barbarian hordes which were just as post mammalian as them. Be that as it may, I feel that the negative “sloggy” comments are altogether wrong. Every part of the book saw action and discussion, between the humans and their Ishtarian heroes, between one ishtarian and another and between captors and captured. Altogether I found it an entertaining, thought provoking and enjoyable read, which I vividly recall even though its twenty years since I read any science fiction. 

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