If, while reading Starfarers, you can't seem to escape the uncomfortable feeling that Anderson has been this way before, it's because he has. And better. Ooh, so much better. Starfarers is Anderson's latest take on the theme of deep space voyaging, and although he brings some new approaches — and most importantly, some new science — to his storytelling this time, the familiarity of it all ultimately breeds plenty of contempt. This story is as fresh as yesterday's breakfast. And the fact that it isn't even populated by interesting characters (most unusual for Anderson) doesn't help. The occasional evocation of an old-fashioned sense of wonder can't compensate for the fact that in Starfarers we sadly have what may be one of the worst novels of Poul Anderson's illustrious career. And I say that with genuine pain, people, as I'm a big fan of this man!
The story begins in the not-too-distant future, when humanity has both encountered evidence of intelligent life deep in space, and, with the help of good old quantum physics, figured out a way to develop an almost-light speed "zero-zero" drive that will at long last get people to the stars, and, hopefully, out to where these aliens might be. Anderson, as he has done many times before, cobbles together a collection of stock SF characters to populate the Envoy, a spacecraft which, due to relativistic time dilation, will take a whopping ten thousand years of Earth time to travel to its appointed destination and back (while only five years seem to pass in the lives of the crew).
You would think that Anderson, with his track record, could take this opportunity to develop some fascinating backstories for these voyagers. After all, it's no small thing to volunteer to go off on a space flight that will ultimately return you to a "home" perhaps even more alien to you than the place you're going to visit. But instead, Anderson surprisingly glosses over his characterizations. We get little feel for what is motivating any of these intrepid starfarers beyond some vague sci-fi notion of "wow, the universe, so much to discover!" Some of them follow the old saw of "trouble at home, gotta get away," but come on now, it would take a lot to persuade you to abandon your homeworld for ten freakin' millennia. The crew of the Envoy is composed entirely of idealized politically correct stereotypes, ethnically diverse to a fault, and often to the point of absurdity. One character, pilot Jean Kilbirnie, seems a clear attempt to recreate the memorable character of Caitlin Mulryan from the almost-as-tedious The Avatar, and she speaks with such a thick Scottish brogue you feel like she's a refugee from a dinner theatre rendition of Brigadoon.
So do they fly off into the great unknown? Sure. Do they encounter strange new worlds and alien civilizations? You betcha. Do they boldly split infinitives where no man has gone before? Well, actually, Anderson's grammar is sound, thanks very much, but his story is so unremittingly tedious and melodramatic that by the time you're halfway through you'll be pleading for Dominic Flandry to turn up and start blasting anyone and everyone.
This is purely by-the-numbers stuff for Anderson, folks. Indeed, the extent to which Anderson's laziness can be demonstrated is in a series of recurring subplots showing how life on Earth is changing as the centuries pass. This could lead to some really worthwhile sociological speculative fiction; yet what Anderson chooses to do, again, is rehash stories and themes he has visited before. This takes place most glaringly in Chapter 21, where Anderson merely Scotch-tapes a slightly revamped version of a 1954 (that's right, 1954) novellette called "Ghetto" into the novel proper. And by today's standards, it's melodramatic to the point of being turgid, a ridiculously obvious and overwrought commentary on class in which a starfarer, having returned to Earth after centuries, tries to integrate himself into Earth culture by settling down and marrying an Earth girl, with the expected unhappy ending. Your reaction will probably be equally divided between rolling your eyes at the mawkishness of it all, and wondering why it is Earth people have chosen to oppress starfarers this cruelly in the first place. It's an attitude Anderson never really justifies, sociologically or politically.
But what's most objectionable about these interruptions in the narrative is that they're just that, interruptions, and the narrative they're interrupting is a dreary enough slog as it is. Poul Anderson is one of SF's true giants; at the time I'm writing this he's 74 years old, and we should be grateful that we still have someone from the old school still with us. (Addendum: Anderson passed away August 1, 2001.) But as far as Starfarers is concerned, I have to say I liked it a hell of a lot better when it was about 300 pages shorter and called Tau Zero.