Poul Anderson, The Avatar (1978)

Poul Anderson, The Avatar (1979 – Berkley Books). Stunning cover.

I have tons of books to read; so many it is often hard to choose what to read next. This time it was the cover that got me going. Seriously, the Berkley Book cover of Poul Anderson’s The Avatar is nigh on perfection: a Chewbaccaesque tailed alien flashing fangs in a mighty growl and – oh yes – a human couple in 1970s disco action poses. It is too good for words.

In The Avatar, we approach Earth in a not too distant future. The major powers are still there: America, Russia, Europe, although slightly altered in the hyperbole version so common in cold war SF. However, there is a major change: humans now know they are not alone in the universe. There are the Others, who humans never met, but whose actions and legacy for ever have changed humanity. They left a fabulous gift: a stargate for instant travel. And on the other side of that gate lies Demeter, a planet ready for human colonization. A much-needed planet to reduce the brewing tensions on populous Earth.

Who are these Others, and what do they want? Somehow they must have been watching from afar, making sure the stargate was not found until at a time when humanity was ready to make the leap for space. The transition came with ripples that turned into big waves and upheaval, but somehow a new order has now settled and a balance reached. But it is a fragile balance, a tipping point, where societal havoc could flair again. And at this precarious time another stargate has been located, but what lies beyond is unknown – and just about to be chartered by an expedition.

The problem is that the ship sent out to explore gets back just two months after it went – instead of the many years (if ever) the political leaders thought it should take. The gates, it seems, does not only transport across space, but also allow for time travel. In fact, in relativistic terms eight years have passed for the crew. Now they come back with great tidings and a diplomat from the Betans, a friendly alien society that wants to connect and establish trade. This means change of epic proportions for mankind – a connected universe with endless possibilities is unfolding. It also means the death of the world as we know it, and hence the death of the current power base.

This change is too abrupt for the people in power, so instead of a victorious return the ship is whiskered away and hidden, complete with crew and alien, and no words told of what happened to them. It is a great scam, so effective that it is a complete secret except for a handpicked few. But there is also Daniel Brodersen, a wealthy businessman who realizes something is not as it should, and that the lie reaches to highest levels. He is no hero, but he has the means to do something and escapes Demeter with a crew to go find out what happened with the expedition. This hails the start of a long journey. A journey that will take the crew, and the remnants of the first expedition, across the breadth of space and time – all the way to the Others.

A weakness, in an otherwise pretty good plot, is the idea that the human rulers (dressed in some semi-criminal oligarch costumes) would be able to contain the knowledge of a successful contact with an alien civilization. That does not seem credible; because information wants to be free – it is in our very nature as humans. And when the stakes are high, the more likely it is that someone, somewhere would let the tongue slip. And why do the despondent rulers not want to aim for the stars? Is it them, or the people that isn’t ‘ready’? However, these questions fade away as we follow the crew on their flights across time and space, jumping from stargate to stargate with the hopeless aim of finding back home to Earth.

Thus, on the surface this is a book about political intrigues and human exploration of the great unknown. This is to a degree true, but it is also a book that dwells on the longing for intimacy, and what happens to people that have got lost in time. Much of the plot uses the present back dropped against a fond of what happened ten years ago, before the first expedition to the Betans. Relationships and friendships, expectations and missed opportunities, everything is mirrored in both the past and the present. And there is lovemaking – in all types of gravity. And when it is not lovemaking, it is a sometimes tiresome dialogue on who hopes to make love with whom, or whether it was good, and if it was bad, why was it not good, and who is jealous, and who is not… It find it frustrating and strange that the alien Betan who is among the crew is mentioned only in passing for more than half the book. Seriously, an intelligent ALIEN representing a new civilization is in the ROOM, and instead there are all these thoughts about the pleasures of love.

However, one thing that Anderson does very well is the description of the holothete, humans trained from childhood to be wired to a computer, and how the vastly expanded possibilities for thoughts changes the person, making the ordinary life less and less tractable; a mind on the expense of the body. There are other nuggets too; especially the swirling dance across the universe, and Anderson is a very good writer, sometimes even poetic as in the short avatar passages that are interspersed through the novel. I do recommend you to read the book, but am left with the feeling it could have been a better book if it didn’t dive so deep into some of the longings of soul and flesh (on the expense of other topics). Anyway, The Avatar reached 8th place in 1979’s Locus Poll Award for best novel.

(3.75 out of 5 | pretty good)



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