Vault of the Ages (1952), one of Poul Anderson’s earliest novels, should not be missed. Although Vault of the Ages is at its core a simplistic juvenile (50s sci-fi for younger readers), Anderson’s budding storytelling skills make it engaging and a joy to read. If only I had read it when I was younger! Suggested for any fans of 50s sci-fi, early post-apocalyptical sci-fi, and Poul Anderson completests.
Brief Plot Summary
Sometime in the future the “Doom” (caused by atomic weapons) wipes out civilization — all that remains are intensely superstitious loosely confederated tribes who live in wooden houses and tend livestock. Five hundred years after the Doom somewhere in the Alleghenies a boy named Carl, the son of the chief of the Dalesmen, dares to defy taboos and seek out the City (the ruins of a pre-Doom settlement).
The plot concerns an invasion of fierce northern peoples called the Lann. Driven by a cooling climate and attacks from other unnamed peoples, the Lann desire to occupy the lands of the Dalesmen. Unlike other authors who are content to leave the “barbarian” enemy a nameless force of evil, Anderson tries give a rational for their actions and even introduces a character in parallel to Carl, Lenard, the son of the chief of the Lann. Like Carl, Lenard also does not fear the taboos and supposed curses and demons associated with ancient technology and the City.
Carl is sent to the City to acquire metal (yanked from old skyscrapers) from the “witches” (various people who eek out an existence in the ruins). Here Carl finds a time vault with instructions to resurrect ancient technology (including simplistic mechanical technology — windmills, sailboats, etc).
The Dalesmen are suspicious of the time vault and its contents and condemn Carl to death. It’s up to him and his few trusted friends to rescue his own people (despite their suspicion of him), raise the taboos on the technology which can deliver his people, and obtain the secrets of the vault before Lenard and the Lann!
The plot itself pulls no punches — it’s predictable and free of frills/twists etc. However, Anderson infuses his narrative with energy and excitement. Despite knowing the outcome I found myself rooting for Carl nevertheless! Vault of the Ages is characterized by unbridled optimism and obvious morals — technology is beneficial if used by the right people and the right people are the idealistic young who push against the boundaries imposed by their elders with the good of society at heart.
In frustrating 1950s fashion, the “idealistic young” are men… Women are nowhere to be seen.