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Obituaries

Poul Anderson; Sci-Fi Novelist

August 03, 2001|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Poul Anderson, a prolific science fiction novelist known for well-crafted, scientifically accurate stories and fantasies based on Nordic myths, died Tuesday at his home in Orinda, near San Francisco. He was 74.

The cause was complications of prostate cancer.

Anderson wrote about 80 books beginning in 1952, including "Brain Wave," "Three Hearts and Three Lions," "Tau Zero," "The Boat of a Million Years" and "Harvest of Stars."

Last month, his most recent work, "Genesis," won the John W. Campbell Award for the best science fiction novel of 2000.

Given the title Grandmaster by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, he held most of his field's top awards, including three Nebula Awards and seven Hugo Awards.

"He was one of science fiction's giants and handled every conceivable theme in the genre," science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke said in a statement Thursday.

"Tau Zero," published in 1970, was considered his finest work of "hard" science fiction because of its scrupulous attention to scientific detail. At its center is a space ship hurtling uncontrollably through the cosmos.

"Overall, ['Tau Zero'] is a monument to what a born novelist and poet can do with authentic scientific materials," James Blish wrote in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Anderson created a memorable character in Nicholas van Rijn, whom Clarke described as a "galactic robber baron and wheeler-dealer." Van Rijn appears in a series of novels and short stories bound together by a "future history" about the exploration of space by what Anderson called the technic civilization.

Other stories were loosely based on Nordic history or sagas, such as his 1979 work "The Merman's Children." Set in medieval Denmark, it concerns a conflict between the Christian church and the mermen, who lack souls. Gerald Jonas, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called the novel a genuine hybrid of historical fiction and fantasy.

Born in Pennsylvania, Anderson came from Danish stock and lived for a short time in Denmark, where his mother took the family to live with relatives after his father died in a car crash. He grew up mainly in Minnesota, where his mother bought a farm.

In high school before World War II, Anderson found himself a social misfit. A friend introduced him to science fiction pulp magazines, which became his refuge. Before long, he began to write his own stories.

Barred from military duty because of childhood illnesses that impaired his hearing, he enrolled at Minnesota's Carleton College, where his mother was a librarian. He intended to become a physicist but continued to write stories, selling his first one the year before he graduated in 1948.

He settled into writing full time after realizing that he would never be more than a second-rate scientist. He joined the Minneapolis Fantasy Society and began attending science fiction fan events, meeting his wife, Karen Kruse, at one such gathering in 1952. They were married the next year.

He and his wife eventually moved to California and spent the 1960s living in Berkeley, an experience that Anderson once told an interviewer for Contemporary Authors, "scrubbed me free of any last traces of liberalism."

Considered politically far-right in science fiction circles, Anderson preferred to describe himself as having a libertarian predilection. He placed himself in the Robert Heinlein tradition, often exploring themes of individual liberty and free will.

"It's partly an emotional matter," he told Locus magazine a few years ago, "a prejudice in favor of individual freedom . . . a distrust of large, encompassing systems."

In addition to his wife, Anderson is survived by a daughter, Astrid; a brother; and two grandchildren. A memorial gathering was planned for Saturday at the First Unitarian Church in Oakland.

His family suggested that donations be made to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Emergency Medical Fund, c/o Chuck Rothman, 1436 Altamont Ave., PMB 292, Schenectady, NY 12303-2977.

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