“Flight to Forever” by Poul Anderson – Classics of Science Fiction

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Rereading “Flight to Forever” made me realize something about the core of my personality. There are a limited number of science fictional ideas that I resonate with that I like to regularly recall.

I consider “The Time Machine” the epitome of science fiction because it explored so many new science fiction themes. New to me at age twelve, and maybe new to the world in 1895. Poul Anderson’s “Flight to Forever” recalls many of those same ideas. “Flight to Forever” was first published in Super Science Stories, the November 1950 issue. You can read it here, or listen here. I first read it in Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels: 1952 edited by Bleiler and Dikty. I just read it in The Last Man on Earth edited by Asimov, Greenberg, and Waugh. Here’s a listing of other reprintings.

“Flight to Forever” also reminds me of Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon and Tau Zero, also by Poul Anderson. The writing style, pace, and plotting feels like science fiction from the 1930s. I’m trying to give you enough hints to get you to go read the story before I give spoilers. This cover might also entice you to go read it too, especially if you discovered science fiction before Star Trek.

While reading “Flight to Forever” I kept thinking how it contained several scenes that inspired the kind of sense of wonder I loved experiencing as an adolescent when I first started reading science fiction. I know as an adult that all those mind-blowing concepts are completely unrealistic, just complete bullshit fantasy, but I still love encountering them over and over. Why?

Am I a 72-year-old kid still being enchanted by fairy tales? I like to think of myself as finally growing up and accepting reality for what it is, but I keep retreating into science fiction. Why? Could a good psychiatrist explain the psychology to me? Is it a neurosis? I will admit that science fiction was a coping mechanism for a turbulent adolescence in the 1960s, and maybe it helps me escape the constant chaos in the news of 2020s. Still, that doesn’t explain the specific appeal of science fiction and the way this story triggers my endorphins.

The story begins with Martin Saunders and Sam McPherson setting off in a time machine to travel one hundred years into the future to see why their automatic test time machines haven’t returned. Martin assures his lovely girlfriend Eve Lang that he will return quickly.

Having one’s own time machine is a wonderful fantasy, especially if it’s one you built yourself in your home laboratory. That’s why “The Time Machine” was so appealing. As a kid, I wanted to be Danny Dunn and have access to wonderful time machines and spaceships. It’s why Back to the Future was so much fun in the 1980s even though I was an adult.

Martin and Sam arrive one hundred years into the future without a problem, but when they try to return to their own time, they discover it takes ever more energy to go back in time. They eventually calculate that the amount of energy needed approaches infinity around the seventy-year mark. Poul Anderson has imagined a natural way for time to protect itself from paradoxes. It’s a neat idea.

Martin and Sam decide to head further into the future to see if they can find a time when scientists might know how to break through the going back in time barrier. This is where the story parallels Wells’ unnamed time traveler, stopping now and then to see how society and mankind has changed. This portion of the story also reminds me of Stapledon’s Last and First Men and many science fiction stories about speculated societies.

Sam is soon killed off, so Martin becomes a lone time traveler hoping to find his way back to his beautiful Eve. He acquires another companion, Belgotai, a mercenary from the year 3000 AD. Together they keep going further and further into the future, meeting society after society. They encounter humans that colonize the galaxy, and aliens that conquer Earth. This gives Anderson a chance to dazzle the reader with all kinds of science fictional speculation.

Eventually, Martin and Belgotai join a deposed monarch fighting a renegade galactic empire. That’s when the story becomes an epic space opera. Martin falls for a regal redhead, Empress Taurey. You’d think Martin will settle here, but Anderson has many other adventures for Martin to experience before the story ends. Martin goes further into the future than the time traveler in Wells’ classic story. Like that story, “Flight to Forever” could be considered a dying Earth tale, and it becomes a last man on Earth story too.

I got the feeling Anderson wanted to include every science fictional cliche he could cram into “Flight to Forever.” I won’t tell you anymore. It’s not an exceptional story, but it is appealing. I must wonder if Anderson wasn’t trying to understand the underlying siren song of science fiction when he wrote this story. Of course, he sold it to a cheap market, so he could have been just hacking out a quick novella to thrill kids and pay his rent.

Reading “Flight to Forever” made me wonder if I could collect a small set of stories that pushed all my sense-of-wonder buttons and just reread them whenever I needed therapy. Sort of like what Kip’s father does in Have Space Suit-Will Travel by always rereading Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. I could create a highly distilled tincture of science fiction to consume when needed, sort of like the playlist of my all-time favorite songs on Spotify.

If I did create a playlist of favorite science fiction stories, would I include “Flight to Forever?” I guess not, because I would keep “The Time Machine” instead. That suggests something to me. Haven’t I been reading one science fiction story after another my whole life just to push the same buttons again? Shouldn’t I explore other stimuli to discover other buttons?

“Flight to Forever” is a nice reminder that certain concepts within my brain like to be remembered, at least every now and then. I’m finding a lot of them in the anthology, The Last Man on Earth. It’s amusing to think about, but I have six large bookcases of science fiction that I could probably reduce to a handful of anthologies that would trigger every type of sense of wonder science fiction ever discovered.

I had a friend that died back in the 1990s. Before he died, he lost interest in the many things he cared about over his lifetime. They went one by one, until he only had two loves left, Benny Goodman and Duane Allman. I call this The Williamson Effect. At 72, I feel I’m in the beginning stages of The Williamson Effect. I’m starting to shed interests. I have a long way to go because I’ve collected an exceedingly long list of interests over my lifetime. I don’t count science fiction as just one interest. Rereading “Flight to Forever” made me see science fiction really is many interests, although a finite set.

James Wallace Harris, 4/15/24

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