This is a book I bought (on Kindle) solely for the cover. I had remembered seeing the image in an old album of Michael Whelan cover at my dad owned, and it was one of the pieces that stuck with me. Something about the image of a space-bard, his rapt alien audience, and the galaxy rising behind them all struck me as inexpressibly beautiful. So I had to track down the story that inspired it.
What I got was a pretty decent space opera novella. Poul Anderson is too good a writer for his stuff to be worse than decent. The story involves a small group of star-farers, rendered functionally immortal by the whizbang bio-engineering of the future, who are on their way to make contact with a new alien race living on a planet whose star is some distance above the galactic disk. The civilization they’re seeking contact with has just-achieved interstellar travel, but a mix-up with the coordinates leads to a crash on another planet in the system–this one absolutely primitive. The world is covered in swamps, and the crust is devoid of any metal heavier than aluminum.
Our heroes have to find a way to make contact with their original destination planet using only the remains of their wrecked ship. Meanwhile, the find themselves caught in a war between two primitive factions. One, living in small tribes in the highlands, worships the galaxy as an image of God. The other is enslaved to a race of ancient psionic amphibians who acknowledge no existence outside of what they rule. Our heroes eventually hatch a plan to help the underdogs and, eventually, work their way off the planet in the process.
The space-bard on the cover is a guy named Hugh Valland, who is three thousand years old, and considered eccentric because he’s faithful to the one wife he left behind on Earth. True to the image, his patience, genial wisdom, and knowledge of good old folk music are critical to gaining the trust of the aborigines. I think the image conveys the concept–the power of song opening minds to worlds beyond what they dreamed–better than the actual story, but Hugh is the stand-out character nonetheless.
I also appreciate the tendency for classic sci-fi to be incredibly brief. There’s actually quite a bit of story crammed into just slightly more than 100 pages of text. I suspect that most modern writers would have tripled or quadrupled the size of the book without actually adding more ideas in to the fill that text. The result is a book that summarizes a lot of scenes that might have been fully narrated, but is absolutely lean as a result.