"Fire Time" is a 1974 novel by Poul Anderson, a prolific and pretty consistent SF author. No one of his best books (like Tau Zero, The Broken Sword or Brain Wave) but better than a handful of others that I've read (e.g. Operation Chaos, Mirkheim). Its typical Anderson: there's some flaws, but its readable and a good break from say, Victor Davis Hanson or Barry Malzberg. It takes place on another planet, with an alien race (the Ishtarians) described compellingly enough to be featured in Barlowe's Guide to Aliens, which is a Hall of Fame of sorts in SF literature.
There's a lack of internet discussion about "Fire Time," that I could find today, despite the fact that 1.) it did get nominated for a Hugo back when it was published (1974) and 2.) it was written during the ugly concluding years of the Vietnam War, a time unfortunately more and more relevant to our current situation. Books like "Star Fox" made Anderson a pretty popular SF writer, but one who drew criticism for his supposedly pro-war attitude. I read somewhere that "Fire Time" was a kind of response to this criticism, even mentioning the main character of "Star Fox" in its pages.
It would be a mistake to view "Fire Time" as an anti-war book. There are two wars going on here: one is between the nomadic barbarians desperate to avoid the devastating effects of climate change (the "Fire Time" of the title) and their semi-nomadic semi-civilized counterparts that interact with human colonists, and the other is an interstellar war between the huamns and another technologically advanced race. The human colonists on the planet in question contend with local sympathies and bureaucratic thumb-twiddling, and leave some time to explore their (ugh) feelings for each other. The larger human war receives the criticism in this story, while the Ishtarians' war is mostly described in heroic terms. Anderson shows that the technology and complexity take the honor and soul out of battle, and that war by proxy is poison to civilization.
The story is complex, multithemed but readable in a way that all Anderson novels are. Briefly, here are some of the typical Anderson themes at play.
- Tragic heroism. The Ishtarian leaders that oppose each other are depicted are given rich characterization, and they both have their noble aspects. This is an important feature of Anderson's work, where the honor is usually found in what would be the biggest villian of the tale.
- Distrust of remote government. The human colonists are constantly at odds with the Earth hands that feed them, especially when an overarching war bleeds their resources. A Libertarian theme that also runs though "Star Fox" and the van Rijn series.
- Aliens shaped by physics. Anderson paid a lot of attention to the environmental consequences of the astronomical setup of the planets, carrying on the tradition of writers like Hal Clement. Discovery of and interaction with the alien races make up some of the best parts of this and many other Anderson books.
- Characters with moral struggles. 1974 was the year the celebrated Robert Stone novel Dog Soldiers was published. That book featured Vietnam veterans returning home to deal heroin, and featured a collection of truly repulsive and amoral characters. Books like "Fire Time" and "Dog Soldiers" may represent the polar opposites of viewpoints regarding how much moral control people could be expected to have over their actions. I've read only one of Stone's books and over 20 of Anderson's.
There are multipile shortcomings (the 1950's era coyness when describing the human relationships, stretches of boring narration at the beginning, internal dialogue that's overused), that keep this from being a classic. He appears to handle the stoic characters better then the emotional ones. However, this novel is worth finding and reading, and it's nice to see that Baen reprinted it some time ago.