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Millennial Review XX: After Doomsday by Poul Anderson (1962)

After Doomsday

By Poul Anderson 

4 Feb, 2000

Millennial Reviews


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After Doomsday
Poul Anderson
Baen, 1986 [1961,1962]
209 pages

Synopsis: The U.S.S. Benjamin Franklin has returned from a three-year mission to the galactic core to find the Earth utterly lifeless, far beyond the current known abilities of humans. The obvious suspects are some species of intelligent extra-terrestrial, with whom the Earth has been in contact since the 1980s. There are a number of suspects in this SF mystery, from the imperialistic Kandemiri to some group of humans using extra-terrestrial technology.

The BF evades some oddly sluggish Kandemir torpedoes left in orbit and retires to a planet orbiting Tau Ceti. There various stresses, from grief over the death of everyone’s loved ones to homophobia, build up until the social order on the ship breaks down. Two men are killed, the captain among them and Carl Donnan takes command.

One serious reproductive barrier facing the crew is that the US ship was male only. Other ships were sent out with female and mixed sex crews, but the BF can’t hang around Earth or leave a radio message for them due to the mining of the system. Donnan declines the offer of the Ramri, the Monwaingian navigator, to seek refuge on the Monwaing worlds, since he can’t be sure that the Monwaing were not the killers.

After the US ship leaves, the Europa arrives at Earth. They also survive the torpedoes and manage to cripple one for observation. A vital clue in the form of a scrap of paper is found. The Europa is crewed by an all-woman crew [portrayed in a much less dated way than the all-woman society in Anderson’s Virgin Planet]. They also need to find a way to contact the rest of the surviving humans. The problem is that while the Earth mostly interacted with one cluster of civilizations, the FTL drive available allows ships to cross the galaxy in months and because the local cluster civilizations are also the most likely suspects, the ships may choose to go anywhere but to those cultures.

The Americans decide to try to make a name for themselves as mercenaries fighting against the Kandemir, in the hopes the fame will spread across the galaxy. While Earth is a newly contacted barbarian world, in the 20-odd years since contact they have absorbed the science of the ETs, although this is not always reflected in the machines they can build. One of the crewmen, Goldspring, believes he has some applications of ET tech the local ETs don’t seem to have discovered and it is hoped that this will give the humans an edge, if only a temporary one, over the Kandemir. 50 of the 300 men head out in a ship borrowed from the human’s alien allies. Sadly, while the new tech is functional, it does not prevent the ship from being destroyed, 10 of the humans killed and the rest taken prisoner.

The Kandemir deny destroying Earth, although the Soviets had allied with their enemies. They considered the usefulness of the human nations minor at best and would not have bothered to destroy the Earth since they could have easily allied with an enemy of the USSR should that have been necessary. The Kandemir persuade the human prisoners to share their technical information with them through threat of torture. Before too much information is turned into hardware, the humans manage to escape to the Monwaing worlds.

The women, meanwhile, have set up in a distant civilisation cluster, using superior Terran economic models to run roughshod over the competition. There is a feeble attempt to kidnap one of them which is easily foiled, and the crew of Europa continue to eat the alien’s lunches.

Donnan is presented with evidence by the Monwaing that the destruction of Earth was an unintended side-effect of a doomsday device minor powers bought in the hopes of deterring invasion. Obviously, the implementation of the doomsday device deterrence had some bugs.

The men regroup, convince their doubting allies to let them try again and lead a wildly successful attack on Kandemir using further newly developed technology. A long poem describes the battle and commentary makes it clear it was commissioned by the humans to spread their fame across the galaxy. Luckily, enough alien aesthetic systems are similar enough to ours that it works.

The woman and the men finally meet. There is still a considerable surplus of men, so a system of polyandry is proposed. The main female character, Sigrid Holmen, is deeply attracted to Donnan but first there is the matter of discovering who killed Earth. They eventually dismiss the idea it was accidental suicide and that the Kandemir did it. The eventual conclusion, based on the notations in the torpedo is that

SPOILERS [It is a murder mystery, after all] 

That the Monwaing, or rather a faction within them, the Monwaing being an extremely fragmented species, saw the Earth as a eventual threat and being biosciences oriented and utterly ruthless, simply eliminated the potential problem, framing the Kandemir and providing the evidence that Earth did itself in in case the frame didn’t work. Sadly, Ramri prepares to go home and report the crime, knowing it will trigger a civil war which may destroy the Monwaing. The humans face their no doubt glorious future with horror over the coming destruction of a species which as a whole has many fine points, despite the crimes of a few.

It is probably unfair to do more than one Anderson when there are so many other books, I could do but these are my reviews, I like classic Anderson and I have a lot of his books. Nyah nyah.

This wasn’t an award-winning novel by any means: Anderson’s trademark core-dump-when-stressed happens a few times and the characters are very slight, the women especially. The main male character is one of a type he uses elsewhere, most notably in Tau Zero . The mystery’s solution is somewhat obvious by page 80 or so.

On the other hand, the epic poem, while I can’t judge the quality, is a wonderful idea. The Earth of just-pre-Doomsday is not ours, even discounting the ET contacts: the British Commonwealth is an important unity, the European state includes Yugoslavia but not Britain and the USSR is still around, but it feels like a plausible alternate 2000. Aside from FTL, the technology has not changed as much as I would expect, given the influx of ET technological information and even just the native innovations which we saw happen in the last 40 years but Anderson doesn’t go into a lot of details where antique technology is set centre stage.

The setting is an interesting one: I regret it got used and never returned to or that he never re-used it with a few changes to eliminate the destruction of Earth. Earth as a set of competing minor powers in a balkanised galaxy, an East Asia, if one is optimistic or a New World if one is not, is a setting I don’t recall being used all that often in SF and the example I can think of off the top of my head was also by Anderson, a short story.

After Doomsday is a comfort book for me, a light pleasure to reread and it held up reasonably well, I thought. It is a pity it seems to be out of print.