1974’s Fire Time is the second book in Poul Anderson’s Gunnar Heim sequence. Be it noted that Heim makes an extremely brief appearance in this novel.
Three hundred parsecs from Sol, the Anubelea multiple star system offers humans a fascinating illustration of the impact of stellar evolution on planetary ecosystems. For the inhabitants of Ishtar, the peculiarities of their home system doom them to endless cycles of rise, fall, and recovery.
But first! A lecture on stellar evolution.
Bel is a sunlike star around which Earth-like Ishtar orbits. Anu was at one time a sunlike star but because it is somewhat more massive than Bel, about a billion years earlier it migrated off the Main Sequence. Now a red giant 280 times as bright as our sun, it has scorched and killed its own life-bearing world, Tammuz. The distance between Anu and Bel1 varies from 40 AU to 224 AU. When its thousand-year orbit takes it closest to Bel, Anu contributes an additional 20 percent to Ishtar’s energy budget, enough to heat the world by about 11 degrees.
For vast swaths of Ishtar, 11 degrees is the difference between survival and death. Those natives preferring to live have no choice but to make their way to those lucky regions that don’t get baked at Anu periapsis. To put it another way, every thousand years, great waves of desperate barbarians try to force their way into favoured lands already populated. This invariably causes civilization to collapse.
There is some hope that the next cycle will not be as bad. The Legions may be able to hold the barbarians out of the region dominated by the Gathering, which means the next dark age will not be as dark as the ones previous. At least, this was the hope before Arnanak united the Valennener barbarians into an unstoppable horde determined to claw its way into the Gathering’s hospitable lands.
Luckily for the Gathering, it permitted human scientists to establish a small but thriving community on Ishtar. Humans may be inferior to the locals in terms of social intelligence, durability, and lifespan, but the puny, stupid, mayflies are far more technologically advanced than the Gathering. Human resources, if added to those of the Gathering, could save civilization!
Except … Earth’s World Federation is embroiled in an ongoing war with the Naqsan League over the partition of Mundomar. The Federation supports the breakaway human nation Eleutheria, whereas the League sides with Mundomar’s Naqsan settlers, who long predate human settlement. It’s a stupid war but it’s the only war the Federation has. Everyone, even small science outposts on Ishtar, have to do their bit to keep the pink bits of the star map pink!
Which means that resources that could be devoted to defending the Gathering are instead being diverted to the Federation-League War. A pointless slap-fight out in the stars may doom civilization on Ishtar.
End of background exposition!
Despite being much older and also married, Ian Sparling is somehow smitten with young, pretty Jill Conway. This completely unprecedented love affair between an older man and charming maiden faces a tremendous impediment in the form of the coming doom of Ishtaran civilization, to which both are very attached. If they are to hook up, Ian and Jill will have to save the alien civilization using only cunning, determination, and atomic weapons.
Of course, the locals don’t call their planet Ishtar. Anderson credits the nomenclature used by the humans to “scholarly dilettante, Winston P. Sanders.” In one of those astounding turns of fate, Winston P. Sanders is one of Anderson’s pen-names.
This isn’t Avatar but you can see Avatarfrom here, starting with the Ian-Jill romance and the manner in which Ian’s wife dutifully accepts being side-lined by the New Hotness. There’s also Anderson’s increasingly unsubtle politics
(Humans) don’t work together in awfully good harmony — hence ax murders, mobs, and socialism.
Not to mention some unfortunate worldbuilding choices, from North America’s vast welfare slums, to the world’s desperate African peasants and Indian cities “paved with sleeping people.” Anderson cannot believe that humans would ever adopt birth control with sufficient enthusiasm to reduce birthrates; hence inescapable over-population; hence a reason to settle even dismal worlds like Mundomar. Oh, and Anderson also believed that automation would result in mass unemployment; the answer to which was either a welfare state or the liquidation of the surplus masses, both of which the author found repugnant. Worldbuilding angst.
Anderson was always fond of infodumps and this book is full of them. Having invested a lot of energy creating Ishtar and its system (and possibly aware he’d never get back to it), he wants to share his homework with the reader. For fans of worldbuilding it’s genuinely fascinating stuff, arguably more interesting than the civilization-vs-barbarian-horde plot. But it’s not a harbinger of enthralling fast action that the lectures are frequent enough and long enough that a supporting character falls asleep during one of them.
Interestingly for a book of this era, not only is there a surprising amount of sympathy for the Naqsan perspective (Mundomar is reportedly Anderson’s take on the Israel-Palestine conflict), but there is also sympathy for the civilization-dooming barbarians. They aren’t a faceless ravening horde; they’re just a bunch of desperate people led by someone who has put a lot of thought into how best to save as many of his people as he can.
For me, the good in this novel is outweighed by the bad. This is definitely not one of my comfort reads. I reread the first Heim novel, The Star Fox, from time to time, but I think this might be my first reread of Fire Time.
Now, fans back in the day disagreed with me, because Fire Time was nominated for Best Novel Hugo back in 19752. So who are you going to trust, me or a bunch of fans?
Fire Timeis available as part of an omnibus3 here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada) and on its own here (Amazon UK) and here (Barnes & Noble). Neither Chapters-Indigo nor Book Depository appear to carry it in any form.
1: Ea is a red dwarf 6000 AU from the other two and it’s lucky to get a footnote.
2: This book lost to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, but it edged out Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, Priest’s Inverted World, and Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye. I’ve not read the Dick or the Priest but I don’t know that I would rate Fire Time higher than The Mote in God’s Eye.
3: The omnibus includes There Will Be Time, The Enemy Stars, and Fire Time. That’s a pretty random assortment of books to bundle together.