The Queen of Air and Darkness, by Poul Anderson

Painting of the goddess Astraea by Siemiginowski.

Poul Anderson is an interesting bird among science fiction writers. Known for his insight into human nature – particularly those things about us which, for all of our science and technology, have not changed – Anderson is sometimes also characterized as being anti-progress, as his work is sometimes critical of the secure, restrained lives led by modern people.

I don’t see Anderson as being anti-progress, myself. There often seems to be the implication of his work that humans could have their science and technology, and the advantages of primitive life too – if they so chose.

Anderson’s “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” which won the Hugo for best novella in 1972, definitely plays on both the themes of unchanging human nature and criticism of modern lifestyles.

In it, the colony world of Arctica has long been plagued by the disappearances of children. Its residents are told by authorities that these are merely the predations of dumb animals – that their parents must not have been watchful enough, that home security must have been lax.

One detective disagrees. When he is approached by a mother who swears her son could not have simply been eaten by wild dogs, the two embark on a quest to test the detective’s theory about who is really abducting the world’s children, and why.

I always like to re-read “The Queen of Air and Darkness” around this time of year because the imagery is very much that of moonlight on virgin snow. Our protagonists’ efforts to track the origin of the abductions are hindered by the severe snowstorms and long nights of this sparsely populated world. And they gain their most important pieces of information around the hearthfires of rural families, who sing hymns to The Queen of Air and Darkness.

Like most of Anderson’s work, this one cleverly combines science and mythology to produce something that is both, yet neither.

Unfortunately this fine novella is not yet available for Kindle eReader – but lots of paperback copies containing it are floating around for sale on the Web, as it was collected in several “best of” anthologies.

Just make sure you get the novella by Poul Anderson and not the novel of the same name by T.H. White, which is the second volume of the retelling of Arthurian legend, The Once and Future King.

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