Poul Anderson

© 2001, William Tenn

Originally appeared in Locus,, 2001
reprinted in Dancing Naked, the Unexpurgated William Tenn, 2004

I could, for instance, begin with Poul as I became aware of him in the beginnings. That was when he published his first story, "Tomorrow's Children," (co-written with F. N. Waldrop) in the same 1947 issue of John W. Campbell's Astounding as my second story, "Child's Play." Now "Child's Play" was the absolute best I'd been able to write up to that moment. And I would have to tell about Campbell informing me that the readers seemed equally divided in their favorable opinions of the two pieces, something that filled me with chagrin tussling with admiration.

Or I could begin equally validly with the parrot. When I was invited to be the guest of honor at the 1980 Westercon, Penn State granted me a research term off. Karen and Poul heard that Fruma and I were shopping for a Bay Area apartment and were being asked for an arm and leg (each) as basic rental.

They were going abroad for a couple of months, and insisted we take over their Orinda home, rent-free, for the period. All they asked was that we take care of their aged parrot, and water the lawn from time to time.

Fruma and I sang out "Deal! Deal!" and cavorted all the way to California. The house and grounds were prettier than we had dreamed of, there was a wonderful little playground nearby for our four-year-old daughter, and Poul's study and their immense library were at my disposal, with a complete set of Kipling to roam in as well as all the Scandinavian mythology and Northman cultural minutiae a Jewboy from Brooklyn could ever have dreamed of.

But that parrot! It was as large as it was old, and it had the ugliest curved beak and the most malevolent angry eyes. It periodically was out of its cage and flew around the house screaming at us in lewdest, most ferocious Psittacine. It always knew when I began reading a Kipling poem to myself and blared ear-splitting curses at me for daring to sit in the master's sacred place, for daring to touch the master's sacred book.

Fruma and I were terrified of the parrot. For two months we fed it and overfed it. We sang quavering Yiddish folk songs to it. We made long and careful obeisances to it. But it never seemed the slightest bit mollified. It just kept cursing us and snapping its beak at us.

I don't know if Eric the Red ever kept a parrot in his longboat. But it always seemed a fit pet for Poul Anderson, the man who introduced a kind of Viking ethnicity into science-fiction literature.

Well, the reason I could hit the tuning fork with either anecdote is that both of them fit Poul Anderson. The fine young sensitive writer of a superb atomic doom story, the twentieth-century skald of a strange, disreputable new medium, and the utterly unusual fantasist, whose work was as full of beauty and ancient terror as a large and belligerent bird suddenly taking it upon himself to identify and protest a villainous usurper.

Poul was all that and more, more, more. He introduced me several times to Bay Area audiences and in his gentle, sudden stammer often gave more to the crowd in his intro than I ever could in my subsequent talk. As Sir Bela of Eastmark (his Society for Creative Anachronism nom de joute) he and Karen took us on our first excursions to the Middle Ages as they should have been, and taught us to relish history caught alive -- and kicking.

And he had long, complicated conversations with me about politics and sociology, in which he switched sides even more often than I did, and found complications and overtones even more frequently than the most pepper-inhaling of Talmudists.

In this as in other respects, he was much like Heinlein, deeply intolerant of simplicities yet deeply patriotic to what he saw as the very citadel of democracy and the arena of open discussion. And for this -- let us admit it -- he was often reviled, like Heinlein, by fans who could barely penetrate the complex surface of his arguments and thought.

And he was also -- let us state it -- one hell of a good man, of a good husband and father, as his wife, Karen, will testify; as his daughter, Astrid, veritably raised within science fiction, will testify; as his son-in-law, Greg Bear, who practically married into royalty, would certainly testify.

Now the man himself, the good man and great, prolific writer himself, he and I disagreed on so many things -- on agents, for example, most of all. We could argue for hours without Poul's showing the slightest hint of anger, without his dropping a single sneer or derogatory remark aimed at anyone at all. I had forgotten, except when disagreeing with Poul Anderson, what a wholesome, invigorating, non-nasty thing an argument could be.

But then, of course, in my memory of Poul, there will always be the parrot -- that damn ugly beak-snapping, claw-scrabbling parrot. I must say it. He left a lot to forgive in that parrot, Poul did.

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