09 August 2007

Poul Anderson, The Star Fox. NY: Signet, 1966.
Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan. NY: Dell, 1959.

Ah, the Space Opera—the individual versus the infinite. From Buck Rogers to Star Wars, putting a cowboy in a spaceship has been incredibly popular. Gunner Heim, captain of Anderson's spaceship Star Fox, is one such cowboy. He has much in common with Winston Niles Rumfoord, Vonnegut's aristocratic explorer in Sirens of Titan. Both of these characters are strong businessmen on Earth who buy private spaceships to take on tasks that their governments will not attempt, to make space safe for humanity. Both succeed. Yet the hope for humanity implied by these successes could not be more different.

The difference is free will.

Vonnegut, while a self-proclaimed humanist, is nonetheless a serious determinist. In his work, characters are acted upon; they react, but they do not choose: we do, as Bokonon teaches in Cat's Cradle, "what we must, muddily must, muddily must". So when Rumsfoord hurls himself gallantly into the unknown and inaugurates a new space age, it isn't because he wants glory, or even for discovery. It is because he must: this act is required to reach the goal of a power beyond his own. While this goal is eventually met, providing a successful conclusion to human development, this success leave us with a very bleak view of humanity's purpose.

Heim, though, is a Navy man—and command implies choice. Heim is no one's tool, fighting a private war to save a planet, and his success is far from certain. But the thrill of freedom, and the danger of choice, make Anderson's future much more attractive than Vonnegut's version. While both authors provide fast-paced, easy reads, The Star Fox is really nothing more than a ripping good yarn. Vonnegut, on the other hand, forces readers to confront uncomfortable philosophical issues. This could be why, while Anderson is recognized as a Sci-Fi giant, Vonnegut has become part of the literary canon.



Post a Comment

<< Home