Book Review: The Enemy Stars, Poul Anderson (1958)

3.25/5 (Above Average)

A few minutes surfing the inter-webs reveals that this 1950s sci-fi work by Poul Anderson arouses some controversy.  People looking for Anderson’s pulp-infused sprawling space opera works of the period will be disappointed with the simplicity of the plot and the restrained horizons it explores.  Readers looking for the social character pieces that crop up in the next decade will be disappointed with the occasionally pallid attempts to create sympathetic characters and moving emotional narrative arcs.

For most of the novel a wonderful middle ground is reached between these two camps despite the work’s rather hackneyed end (in my humble opinion) which weakens the general effect.  Likewise, Anderson’s desperate attempts to make us feel for his characters occasionally pushes the novel into the realm of melodrama sci-fi (a la the film version of On the Beach).

That said, Anderson’s retreat from grand space opera themes does afford at least valiant attempts to create well-rounded/believable characters.  And for a 1950s work, he succeeds….  Likewise, the absence of a grand space opera plot means that Anderson focuses on the interactions of his characters in an unusual environment.

Plot Summary (limited spoilers)

The Southern Cross, a deep space exploration vehicle, is sent off to explore a burned out sun.  Humans have discovered technology, as in Star Trek, to matter transport.  When, the space ship reaches the sun, a crew is beamed onto the vessel to carry out scientific tasks.  The exploration expedition is framed against a future society which spans stars.  Each new colony is suppressed by the Protectorate — tensions which are manifest in the crew.  The crew of the expedition each has their own motivations, backgrounds, prejudices, and ulterior motives.

Eventually a series of disasters strike the space craft preventing them from beaming back to earth.  The crew attempt to solve the problem.  In the course of these events, the facades break down between the characters, and the psychological problems of being stranded in space without a way home emerge.  Poul Anderson balances the points of tension between characters and the suspense of repairing the space ship quite well. I will not give away the ending…

Final Thoughts

Don’t expect space opera.  Expect a valiant attempt to create well-rounded characters… expect a plot which facilitates the unraveling the characters’ prejudices and of course, the laborious finding of common ground…  The general mystery of the surroundings is absent from the work.  All in all, a worthwhile attempt at breaking from the pulp sci-fi restraints of the 50s.  Sections do come of as melodramatic.  I found the premise somewhat simplistic and predictable, but, it’s a vehicle for Anderson’s more human themes…  Definitely, worth finding.

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