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What makes the whole Technic Civilization saga interesting to me is how Anderson didn't exactly write it in order. When reading through the notes in this volume, you have some stories that date from the 1950s and others (mostly the longer novels) written in the mid to late seventies. And yet for the most part it all seems to fit together as a piece, with no real changes in style or quality. A lot of authors when you fit their stories into a roughly chronological order, you can see the progression from a simpler style to more sophisticated concerns as they take concepts that they came up with when they were younger and add more depth to them, put it through a bit of a rethink. Reading through these stories it seems like Anderson came up with the whole timeline and concept, and then proceeded to willfully skip through the gaps, writing in whatever order he wanted. Chances are it didn't quite happen that way, but the fact that he can even give that impression is impressive in itself. The Van Rijn stories aren't even "the older, funnier stuff", it's just another block of stories.
This is the first volume that decently covers a large period of time, and feels like it, taking us from the days when the League and the Commonwealth were starting to fall apart and sliding right into the beginnings of the Terran Empire, and hints as to where it might have gone wrong. Its bookended by two fairly excellent novels and a bunch of decent short stories, and by the time we reach the end of it we're quite a ways from where we started.
But we start with the end. "Mirkheim" is considered one of the better of the League novels and even from the start it FEELS more important, there's a sense of epic events brewing and heading toward a destination that can't be undone. It's also the last hurrah for our old friends David Falkayn and Van Rijn, as well as the crews that helped keep them alive. Reading this one puts the last story in the previous volume, "Lodestar", in more context, as we have the organization that Falkayn helped bring into being (feeling that the League wasn't giving races a chance to rise up and make a name for themselves in the galaxy) coming under attack from a race that wasn't supposed to have this much of an armada. Everyone tries to keep the war from happening while figuring out where the sudden fleet of starships came from, an answer that nobody is going to like.
As the last real "League" book, there's an elegiac feel to the novel. We've got an older Falkayn and his friends, retired for a few years already, going out for what they know is one last mission, because they know that the landscape after they're done isn't going to support who they are anymore. Falkayn is already having concerns beyond profit, looking toward a future he's not going to be around for. The emotional impact is probably increased by having read a whole slew of stories with these people in a row, knowing that the status quo is about to change forever and not go back, knowing this is the last time you're going to see them, or that the universe is going to be like this. In a way it seems a bridge from the more freewheeling stories of the League years, where the dangers were personal and explorations were exciting, to the days of the Empire, where whole planets could be decimated and the stakes becoming more political and that much higher. And the crew knows this, they can feel the winds shifting, its a tone that threatens to overtake the novel. In this context Van Rijn already seems like a dinosaur, out of place with all his fumblydiddles and cock-a-doodle-doing, a relic of a time that is disintegrating while everyone stands there. Its that thematic concern that gives the novel its weight, and why it makes more sense when read in context. On its own its merely a decent adventure novel staring older versions of your favorite characters. In the scheme of things, it's a blip but also the end of an era.
Things get okay before its over, but at the same time its not okay. It's going to fall apart but long after these people will be concerned about it. Which is right. We like these people, we don't want to see them suffer because the times are spiraling out of control. Let them go peacefully and we'll remember them thus.
After that we get a mix of stories, mostly centering around Avalon and the bird-people who live there. "Wingless" and "Rescue on Avalon" show us the aftermath of one of Falkayn's last offscreen acts, setting up a colony for people with the Ythri, as the two races carve out an existence together far from the burgeoning empire (first seen beginning in "The Star Plunderer"). Anderson does take an interesting tactic in the last two stories, however, both times seemingly going out of his way to show the Empire as a, if not a totally malignant force, at least negligently harmful. "The Sargasso of Lost Starships" shows us the aftermath of the Imperials putting down a rebellion before getting deeply weird as the Terrans veer toward the Black Nebula and encounter a race of aliens that come closer to fantasy than any of the stories have so far. Anderson is good enough to keep this entertaining but bracketed by his portrayals of alien races in the other stories, it comes across as feeling a little flat, getting more toward sword and sorcery territory. His ability to depict other human cultures is becoming sharper, however.
Still, it seems a dry run for the final novel in the collection, "The People of the Wind" where all the elements from the previous stories come together in a story that aches. Bringing us back to Avalon and the human-Ythri colony that exists there just as the Empire decides to expand and annex them, he does a masterful job of detailing where the cultures would intersect, how they would cross-pollinate each other and co-exist, the political factions within and how they have to respond to the coming threat of the Empire (once again depicted as well meaning but utterly misguided). His detail of the Ythri (a race seen first in the opening stories of this saga) shows a concerted attempt to portray a different worldview, strange but normal when seen from their eyes. His work here prefigures the later work of CJ Cherryh (my personal favorite in crafting alien cultures that feel like alien cultures) in his ability to skew things just enough so they aren't feathered humans that talk funny. He doesn't make it all the way, in a lot of ways the Ythri are still relatable and all too human, lacking that essential element of strangeness, signals coming from a foreign place with flustered interpretation.
But it's the personal element that drives this story, everyone jockeying for what they want versus what they need, and the greater need of the society around them. The human in love with the bird people, a descendent of our old friend Falkayn, the men of the empire attempting to do right within their own values but unable to let this single world stand alone, the people who try to fight to keep it. There's real poetry in his descriptions at times, and real stakes, and for the first time his novels are more than just fun and thought-provoking but soaring, with concerns beyond dazzling us with the sweep of the future or the shock of the new. There's a human heart here, desperate and scrabbling, clinging to what gets left in the rubble and all too aware of how easily it can be swept away. I hate to use a cliche like "It makes the book worth the price of admission" because "Mirkheim" already makes it worth it. So with the two together you get twice the book you deserve and all the rest are merely a bonus. But even the bonuses are worth it too.
It's tempting to recommend this as the one volume to get, merely for "People of the Wind", as "Mirkheim" lacks impact without reading the sweep of the Falkayn stories. But if you've been following all along, suddenly it becomes essential.