Shield, by Poul Anderson

If there was one trait Anderson became famous for by the end of his career, it was his enthusiasm for marrying mythological and scientific ideas. His well-known “logical fantasy” novels The High Crusade and Three Hearts and Three Lions are examples of rational thinking deciding the success of heroic quests in sword-and-sorcery settings. A Theseus-like heroic journey forms the bones of his SF juvenile adventure Vault of the Ages. In Virgin Planet, man lands on an isolated planet Atlantis that is populated only by women, and knowingly follows the script of their legends. The Flandry series of stories are full of isolated human colony planets that have replaced their lost science with myth, but even the rapidly growing empire of reptile-men use legends when discussing their destiny:

The small being who lay on the furs wrapped a fist around the gnarled finger that stroked him. Brechdan Ironrede melted within himself. “You shall have stars for toys,” he crooned. “Wudda, wudda, wudda.”

— Ensign Flandry

I thought Ensign Flandry also drew attention to the story of Zeus and Io, to emphasize the rootless life a character led because her looks had attracted the attention of powerful men. There, Anderson used an allusion to a well-known myth to deepen a character and enrich a very tightly written narrative. I am far less versed in Norse mythology, but his 1963 novel Shield, by title and by content, would seem to reference Scandinavian legend.

Shield is a fast-paced SF adventure describing an engineer-astronaut who returns to Earth after an extended mission on Mars. Peter Koskinen is not only intellectually gifted but sincere, and is part of a select group of travelers who communed with indigenous Martians to create a new military device. This device is the “shield,” and protects its wearer from any form of modern attack, including nuclear warheads. The shield is likely a reference to mythical object: in Norse mythology–Koskinen is a common Finnish name–the shield Svalinn stands between the earth and the sun, and if were removed “the hills and the sea would burn” (Grimnismal).

The Earth, New York City in particular, has been deteriorating by martial law, endemic crime and corruption. Koskinen is threatened by military police the night he arrives, and they try to kill him when their transport is threatened by criminals. His shield repeatedly gets him into, and out of peril as he falls into the hands of gangsters, anarchists and the seedier parts of the federal government. Shield reminded me of the underrated Donald Westlake novel Anarchaos, in that we have a main character with uniquely valuable knowledge who lands on a horribly corrupted planet and has to fight his way through an entire world of adversaries.

All of these adversaries want the shield for themselves, dismissing Koskinen’s insistence that more such devices could be made with the cooperation of the Martians. As long as he keeps the shield from their grasp, Koskinen can fight the chaos around him; a theme described in two of the three different Richard Powers covers (the 1963 and 1970 editions) for Shield. The 1970 cover, on the other hand, shows a figure–presumably Koskinen–holding up the shield as if to change the disorder around him.

Two other abstract covers from UK hardback releases seem to carry different interpretations. The Weaver cover depicts an intricate array of circles inside the shield, representing the ideals Koskinen obtained in his experiences on Mars. The James cover hints at the shield being a sort of disruption in an organized fabric; the shield is not physically represented, so this fabric could be one of ideas, namely the hierarchy of power governing New York.

Koskinen’s adventure is one of danger and frustration, as everyone he meets has an agenda against him. Vivienne, the employee of an underground boss (the criminals actually control bomb craters on the city fringes), becomes his companion. She is a scientist who, with her husband, was framed for treason. Koskinen is generally out of his depth with her, but she helps him escape out of fear of the shield.

They manage to find shelter in the house of a revolutionary, someone in the intellectual resistance that Vivienne knew from her academic past. There, Koskinen meets the philosophical head of the movement, who launches into an extended discussion of his political theory (a passage that runs on for too long). Koskinen swallows it, hook, line and sinker, and the group of upstarts begin plotting their next moves.

The revolutionaries (they call themselves the Equals) insist that they replace the current government with their own brand of martial law. They’ve convinced themselves that liberty, which they idealize, cannot be maintained by democracy, since that would sacrifice their own power. The whole enterprise seems hopeless, led by a combination of theorists unaccustomed to action, and militants who have no respect for the egalitarian ideals . . . much like the “Society is a Fraud” scene from Waking Life.

Koskinen can’t abide the idea, and finds himself trapped and surrounded in the house, with Vivienne getting hooked up to a torture device. He rescues himself and Vivienne by finally turning his shield into an offensive weapon:

It was as if another body moved. Koskinen’s hand flew to the adjustment knob. He twirled it toward maximum. Driven by the energy stored in the power pack, the force shell exploded outward. Only then did he comprehend what he had done.

He saw Gannoway smeared across the wall like an insect.

Shield soon comes to an awkward landing, but the journey is an entertaining combination of character development, violent plot turns and analog SF gadgetry. Its action and political setting earned praise from other reviewers. It is a bloody theater in Anderson’s war between order and chaos, and a self-contained one at that. 7/10.

NOTE: all cover scans are from The cartoon images are from the film Waking Life (2001).

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After Doomsday, by Poul Anderson

My survey of early Poul Anderson novels continues with After Doomsday, a 1962 novel that begins with the end of the world. At the time of the nuclear holocaust, several spaceships of humans are engaged in various trading and exploration missions, meaning that survival of the species is decided by the post-disaster actions of a select few people. Also, Earth had been interacting with a handful of space-traveling alien races at the time, but was in open hostilities with any of them.

Originally published in Galaxy during its famous run under the editorship of Frederik Pohl, After Doomsday takes on a number of weighty themes because of its post-disaster premise. The remaining humans have serious tasks assigned to them, guided–perhaps unconsciously–by the history of the 20th Century:

  • organizing themselves under leaders who can thrive in times of crisis
  • using intrigue to find out which outside power is responsible for genocide
  • surviving as a diaspora, by taking on new economic or political roles

AD depicts all three missions by splitting its focus between the Franklin, a merchant marine vessel of American men (plus one alien navigator), and the Europa, a spaceship populated entirely by female European scientists. Both crews successfully avoid being destroyed by alien torpedos left in Earth’s orbit, and leave home forever on voyages outside the solar system.

Tom MacArthur cover for Panther, 1965.

The story of the men is pretty standard fare. The crew of the Franklin, after escaping destruction and finding clues inside a disabled torpedo, land on a planet called Tau Ceti II. There, the leadership splinters and the makeshift colony starts to descend into chaos. An engineer (and notably, a military veteran) named Carl Donnan was away while the coup was attempted, and he works to curb the despair he finds.

“To hell with that noise,” Donnan said. “Those are good men. Good, you hear? Nothing wrong with ’em except they’ve had the underpinnings, and props and keystones, knocked out of their lives. Strathey [the old captain] was the one who failed. He should have provided something new, immediately, to take up the slack and give the wound to heal. Howard’s failing ’em still worse. Why the blue blazes does he stand there jibbering? Why don’t he take charge?”

“How?” Easterling’s teeth flashed in a wolf grin.

“By not quacking at everybody but addressing himself directly to the ones like you, that he can see have got more self-control than average,” Donnan said. . . . “restore order before this thing completely gets out of hand. And then, stop asking them what they think we out to do. Tell them what we’re going to do.”

Donnan’s no-nonsense lecturing wins him a cadre of support, and soon he is charge of the Franklin. He realizes that their survival depends on adopting a new purpose, and so adopts the mission to identify the alien race that destroyed their planet. Along the way, they invent ways of contacting other survivors (the know vaguely of the Europa), but the primary objectives are the truth, and ultimately, vengeance.

To contact the alien powers, they become mercenaries in an ongoing war, a Great Game of diplomacy and wars-by-proxy between empires. The nature of these aliens is not especially important (they are not compellingly portrayed, in any case), except that they cannot seem to keep Donnan’s crew under control for very long, either as hirelings or prisoners. Anderson keeps things moving with action and political intrigue, to the point that what would seem primary actors (commanders and the like) are rather gullible and cardboard.

Dember cover for Galaxy, 1961.

In contrast, the women of the Europa are mostly highly educated civilians, and are not threatened with a leadership crisis. They too seek a purpose to bide their time, and establish themselves on a trading planet through innovative commercial activity. Anderson describes their new home as an ornate and diverse place:

From their window high in that tower known as i-Chula–the Clouded–Sigrid Holmen and Alexandra Vukovic could easily see aro-Kito, One Who Awaits. That spire lifted shimmering walls and patinaed bronze roof above most of its neighbors; otherwise its corkscrew ramps and twisted buttresses were typical Eyzka architecture. The operations within, however, resembled none which had yet been seen on Zatlokopa, or in this entire civilization-cluster. Terran Traders, Inc. had leased the whole building.

Their success brings them substantial wealth over time, but then a less sophisticated alien race attempts to undermine them. This leads to one of the Europa’s leaders being kidnapped for torture (like in many cases in history, the economically ignorant associate the success of an ethnic minority with some sort of forbidden knowledge), but she escapes in a particularly unrealistic action sequence. Like Donnan, Sigrid initially outsmarts her captors before turning the scene into one of brutal mayhem. These escape episodes may have been inspired by stories of WWII-era heroism, but they do suffer from implausibility.

The other principal weakness, a consequence of having so much action in a compact (128 pages) novel, is the scarcity of interesting characters. Donnan is the practical everyman who, through his grounded and analytical response to crisis, becomes the leader of the men. We could have seen his leadership tested more, as the Franklin crew move between employers and planetary systems. The Europa crew’s story could also have been enriched with more interactions among the characters, but perhaps Anderson was not ready to tackle intellectual fatalism at this point; he definitely was by the time he wrote Tau Zero.

I wouldn’t claim AD to be a high point in Anderson’s early novel-writing, but it is a step forward from Star Ways and Virgin Planet. 6/10.

NOTE: I should mention that a ballad written by the Franklin’s men appears inspired by “MacDonough’s Song,” a fictitious song of rebellion included in Rudyard Kipling’s “As Easy As A.B.C.” Anderson was clearly a fan of this story, since he suggested “MacDonough’s Song” for Jerry Pournelle’s 1981 anthology The Survival of Freedom.

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Star Ways, by Poul Anderson

Much of Poul Anderson’s prolific output belonged to a handful of loosely-connected “future history” series, where the scientific, political and cultural trends of his time were projected into the future. The Psychotechnic League was the first attempted future history, comprised of several short stories and two novels: Virgin Planet and Star Ways. Virgin Planet (1959) had some ideas relating to a far-out civilization spread across a sporadically-connected “union” of planets, but it was mostly a play on the adolescent fantasy of one man stranded on a world of virile women. Star Ways (1954) is a more serious space adventure story, investing more attention to the concepts of the Psychotechnic League; this tale builds upon the setting of the series, instead of merely taking place within it.

Ed Emshwiller cover for Ace Double edition.

Star Ways tells the story of a clan of space-traveling Nomads, a people descended from a lost colonial mission described in “Gypsy.” Every clan populates a starship, exploring alien star systems and acquiring navigation expertise beyond that of the Earth-based Union government. Being at the forefront of exploration, as well as accumulating wealth through trading, make the Nomads targets for spying by an underfunded agency named the Stellar Union Coordination Service. One of the protagonists is a “Cordy” agent who manages to infiltrate a Nomad ship, the Peregrine, while it was docked on the frontier planet Rendezvous.

It does not take long for the Cordy agent, Trevelyan Micah, to be unmasked by the Nomad captain and brought aboard the Peregrine as a prisoner. As a native of Earth–called “Solmen” by the Nomads–he is viewed with extreme suspicion while being marched to the captain’s quarters for interrogation:

His group accumulated quite a procession of Nomads, men and women and children; many looked highly intelligent. His bemused vision sharpened to sudden focus as one woman stepped from a doorway ahead of him.

She was young, and bigger than most, and there was grace in her movements. The hair that fell past her shoulders was a deep-blond rush of waves, and the blue eyes were frank.

“Hello, who’ve you got there?” she asked. “Since when are we adopting Solmen?”

A couple of the guards scowled, and Trevelyan remembered that in Nomad society women had well-defined rights, but were expected to keep in the background. One of the younger men, however, smiled at her. “You ask him, Nicki. Sean brought him up but wouldn’t say why, and neither will he.”

Fortunately for Trevelyan, the Nomad captain is an enlightened leader about to embark on a dangerous mission into an unknown sector of space. Other Nomad ships have been disappearing in the area, without explanation. The Cordy is kept on board to keep him from reconnecting with his agency, and because his training could be needed when they encounter alien planets.

As hinted in the quote, a relationship develops between Trevelyan and Nicki. Anderson takes time and care in their interactions, and while it’s not perfectly done, he adequately sets up each character’s emotional choices throughout the story. Nicki is the source of truths for Trevelyan about Nomads’ culture, sexual mores and centuries-long trepidation towards the Union. In turn, she probes the depth of Trevelyan’s mental programming at the hands of his employers; his dedication to the Union cause is too axiomatic to be natural for her. Through her challenges, we can see Trevelyan as a prototype of the Anderson’s spy character Flandry.

Karol Thole cover for Urania edition, 1969.

The Peregrine also takes on board the mysterious woman Ilaloa, a native of the forest on Rendezvous. She’s the love interest of one of the Nomads (Sean, from the above quote), who had been lovesick from a previous marriage to an outsider that decided to settle on a planet. Ilaloa possesses some psychic sensitivities (the ability to sense the emotions of others among them) and suffers extreme anxiety in urban settings. She’s a curious character who spouts SF cheesiness (“It was a cruel and hollow night filled with stars! Cold! Cold!”) but her alien quirks make her an unpredictable focal point.

SW features alien encounters, dangerous ship maneuvers, and a classic near-shipwreck. These stressors bring Trevelyan and Nicki closer together, and give the book a lot of action, but there is little room left for the SF ideas we might expect. How do the Nomads select their trading partners, what is their monetary system, why do the clans share so little information with each other? There are also many unanswered questions about the Union and its need for a successful mission by Trevelyan. These are not necessarily gaps for a middling SF adventure, but the lack of depth is noticeable after reading something like Silverberg’s Star of Gypsies and Anderson’s Flandry series.

Michael Whelan cover for Ace, 1978.

SW is more than passable as an adventure story, but it lacks the development of science fictional ideas we have already seen in Anderson’s more ambitious titles, e.g. Ensign Flandry, “For the Duration” and “Duel on “Syrtis”. The cultural integrity of the Nomads is threatened on a bioengineered paradise, and we’re not left with much justification as to whether we’d expect them to remain gypsies or not. The novel also cannot decide which character is the emotional center–the person whose fate we’re most compelled to care about–which is fine in a book of ambitious ideas; here, that content is missing. This review in SF Ruminations, using an Anderson-written foreword in the 1978 “Peregrine” edition, states that a lot of the more cerebral passages were cut out of SW to make it fit into an Ace Double. I have to agree with SF Ruminations (and perhaps Anderson himself) in that we’ve been left with a readable but somewhat unfocused yarn. Nonetheless, it is interesting for the characters and political ideas that we see more fully-formed in Anderson’s later works. 5/10.

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Virgin Planet, by Poul Anderson

Prior to writing his major “Technic History” titles (including the Flandry books), Poul Anderson constructed another extensive “future history” series out of novels and short fiction pieces. This sequence is known as the Psychotechnic League series, ranging from the 1950 short story “Gypsy” to the 1959 novel Virgin Planet, the subject of this article. VP is an expanded version of a 1957 novella of the same title that appeared in the first issue of the SF magazine Venture Science Fiction.

Emsh cover for Venture Science Fiction, 1957.

VP tells the story of a wayward spaceman who lost his way on a solo exploration and landed on the isolated colonial planet Atlantis. Settled long ago by a group of women colonists, this spaceman is the first male human to see the planet in about 300 years. While the population of Atlantis has been maintained by cloning technology, over several generations its culture has broken down into feudalism and illiteracy.

When Davis, the wellborn pilot from Earth, lands on Atlantis, he not only represents his entire sex but also the sophistication of the loosely-aligned Union of settled planets. Before he exits his spaceship, a valkyrie figure named Barbara Whitley (one of many Whitley clones, all of whom are warrior-types for their villages) rides an ostrich-like beast towards it:

“Hoy! Corporal Maiden Barbara Whitley of Freetoon speaking! I come in peace! Let me in!”

The ship remained smugly silent. Barbara rode around it several times. There was a circular door in the hull, out of her reach and smoothly closed. She yelled herself horse, but there was not a word of reply, not a face in any of the blank ports.

Really, it was too much to bear!

She whipped the crossbow to her shoulder and fired a bolt at the door. The missile clanged off. It left no mark. The orster skittered nervously, fluttering useless wings. For a moment Barbara was afraid of death in reply, but nothing happened.

“Let me in!” she screamed.

Davis eventually does emerge, leaving his space-blaster in the ship, and promptly gets lassoed by Barbara. Referring to him as the Monster, she takes him into town. There, the chieftain and her advisors debate what to do with him, since he resembles the Men of their legends but has arrived alone. Eventually, they lock him in a cage and tell him to prove that he is a man by “fertilizing” Barbara.

Being the only man on a planet full of uninhibited women fits a standard adolescent fantasy, and the cheesecake nature of this premise is reflected in the cover art of several paperback releases. While VP can certainly be faulted for its sleazy passages (possibly included to fill out the novel version; I haven’t read the Venture novella), at its core it is a genuine sociological thought experiment. In a female-dominated world, it is the man who is considered property (as shown on the Paperback Library edition, by some distance the best cover art for the title).

uncredited cover for Paperback Library edition, 1970.

Despite his myriad opportunities, Davis is repeatedly frustrated to actually have sex with any of the Atlantans throughout the bulk of the story. This isn’t much of a spoiler, as the “trial” with Barbara is conveniently interrupted by an invasion from a neighboring tribe; from then on it’s easy to see what the running joke is going to be.

In any case, Anderson does make some interesting contrasts with the Dark Ages of history. The inter-tribe battles occur often enough that a protocol has evolved: the Whitleys of the losing side swear loyalty to the chieftain of the victors, and this chieftain is invariably a clone of the one their previous lord. Other phenotypes have their own shared surname, and corresponding social roles in many places.

An exception are the Burkes, who have managed to expel every other phenotype (Whitleys, the Udall chieftains, etc.) to create a more prosperous town. However, they regard outsiders as subhumans to be exterminated, and prove an ill refuge for Davis. He opts to stay with Barbara and her clone-sister Valeria, who by that point are embroiled in a jealous rivalry.

Eventually, Davis finds a relatively free-thinking clan of river-borne traders, and motivates them to overthrow the cartel of Doctors. The Doctors have elevated themselves into a superclass of knowledge-keepers, hoarding the cloning and fertilization machines so that all Atlanteans pay tribute in order to have (female-only) children. Although Davis manages to evolve from property to savior-figure, he must stay clear of the fighting during the coup attempt.

Clyde Caldwell cover for Baen.

There are a couple of other interesting aspects to VP: as explained in the afterword of my Baen edition, Anderson carefully accounted for the effects of Atlanta having multiple moons and two stars in its system. The nearly perpetual daylight and chaotic tides are therefore contributing factors to the barbarity of the planet. As in Vault of Ages, those who hoard technology and fight bitterly against the spread of knowledge are called the Doctors. Perhaps Anderson had his reservations about the medical profession, and its veneer of certainty?

VP is a readable yarn with its fair share of interesting SF ideas. However, for even a remotely experienced reader, it will inspire more eye-rolling than a Pavement concert. Not a classic, but worthwhile if you are willing to take the good with the bad. 5/10.

NOTE: See this review for a more favorable take on VP (its better points are given more detail).

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two Rudyard Kipling stories about technocracy

portrait by John Collier, 1891.

Presently, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) is scarcely acknowledged as a pioneer of imaginative fiction. His contributions have escaped attention from the so-called “retro” awards, and his reputation seems too unsettling for contemporary genre editors. After years of chasing down 1950s SF novels, “Golden Age” stories from the 1940s and H.G. Wells titles, it was only after finding a Kipling quotation at the end of Poul Anderson’s The Day of Their Return did I suspect that the Victorian writer had strong ties to the genre.

There are explicit references to Kipling throughout Anderson’s oeuvre, with the Minnesotan author seemingly growing his appreciation for the Englishman with experience. A little digging revealed that SF luminaries Neil Gaiman, John Brunner and Jorge Luis Borges have also acknowledged his influence. My speculation is that the more one reads Kipling, the less fitting the broad criticisms: “jingo imperialist” (Orwell), unapologetic colonialist, and so on.

Kevin Kelly cover for Citadel Twilight, 1992.

The 1992 collection The Science Fiction Stories of Rudyard Kipling, curated by Brunner, is composed of pieces from various times in Kipling’s career. All feature novel scientific ideas, often in combination with supernatural tropes.

  • “A Matter of Fact” (1892) describes a attack on a ship by a pair of giant sea monsters, as witnessed by three journalists from different countries. Critics have mostly focused on the story’s lampooning of journalism, but I found the insights into animal behavior interesting.
  • “The Ship That Found Herself” (1895) speculates on a new, almost entirely mechanical steamer attaining a kind of self-awareness through its sheer complexity. Not much going on in the story beyond this idea.
  • “.007” (1897) gives personalities to railroad engines in the Northeastern United States. This one read like a 19th Century version of Thomas the Train Engine.
  • “Wireless” (1902) is a multilayered story about radio communication, the fabric of time and the influence of writers from the past. The story is absurd at a superficial level, but a closer look at it reveals the grey area between new scientific ideas and superstition. Obviously, the field of wireless signaling has flourished since this story, while mesmerism and trances have gone the way of witchcraft; here, they’re at an intersection.
  • “In the Same Boat” (1911) is a story about two psychiatry patients–both are haunted by nightmares and unsuccessfully treated with pills–who meet on a train and grow to help each other. Since the two are a man and a woman of similar social class, a romance of sorts does develop. What’s interesting is the discovered source of their conditions, and Kipling’s use of an audacious medical idea still gestating in the field of psychoanalysis.
  • “The Eye of Allah” (1926) discusses the ongoing conflict between scientific progress and religious tradition. The science in this case is a 13th Century microscope, but the religion is not Islam, but Catholicism. The idea that a hierarchy decides when “the time is right” to start seeing the world in a new way is a very rich theme in SF. I was reminded of the Walter Miller classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, but there are many genre novels built around the institutional suppression of progress.
  • “Unprofessional” (1930) tells the story of scientific advancement by unorthodox (or, “unprofessional”) means. A group of friends is able to pursue a new medical idea after one of them comes into an inheritance. This idea is the exploitation of multi-day “tidal” rhythms in physiology, to the benefit of mice and cancer patients. However, this leap of insight fails for lack of systematic testing. Despite the theory of biorhythms, as described in this story, falling into the realm of pseudoscience, the study of 24-hour circadian rhythms is thriving (netting a Nobel Prize in 2017).

The most interesting stories in this collection, however, are two novelettes sharing a future of air transport and corporate power.

“With the Night Mail” (1905)

If nothing else, this story demonstrates a SF writer’s ability to take a nascent technology and build an entire future out of it. Published in McClure’s slightly less than two years after the Wright brothers managed the first-ever powered aircraft flight, “With the Night Mail” depicts a world brought together by air travel. Large vessels carry mail, passengers and material using a lighter-than-air substance called “Fleury’s gas,” navigated by crew who watch the skies through a durable transparent “colloid.” Pilots are updated to worldwide conditions from the government with “Notices to Airmen,” the successor publication to the Notice to Mariners of Kipling’s time.

F. Gardner illustration from With the Night Mail & As Easy as A.B.C., a chapbook publication.

This story is packed with inventions and speculative technical jargon, a futuristic version of “The Ship That Found Herself” and “.007”. What makes “With the Night Mail” so much more interesting is Kipling’s description of international cooperation and communication.

“With the Night Mail” can be challenging to read, because Kipling wrote it for a fictional audience: those in the year 2000 who would be familiar with ubiquitous air travel and global freight. The narrator is a journalist on board “Postal Packet 162,” an airship that regularly carries mail between England and Quebec. The route is regulated well enough that the captain has nostalgia for the more challenging early days of flight:

“Our planet’s overlighted if anything,” says Captain Purnall at the wheel, as Cardiff-Bristol slides under. “I remember the old days of common white verticals that ‘ud show two or three hundred feet up in a mist, if you knew where to look for ’em. In really fluffy weather they might as well have been under your hat. One could get lost coming home then, an’ have some fun. Now, it’s like driving down Piccadilly.”

He points to the pillars of light where the cloud-breakers bore through the cloud-floor. We see nothing of England’s outlines: only a white pavement pierced in all directions by these manholes of variously colored fire–Holy Island’s white and red–St. Bee’s interrupted white, and so on for as long as the eye can reach. Blessed be the Sargent, Athens, and the Dubois brothers, who invented the cloud-breakers of the world whereby we travel in security!

So not only has England’s weather been conquered, but the traditional borders have started to lose their distinction: between land and sea, and between the cities Bristol and Cardiff (in Wales). The Atlantic Ocean and North America are less tamed, and the story describes the dramatic rescue of the crew from a listing French ship that has broken down over the sea from faulty German parts. There’s often room for nationalism in a Kipling story, even one of post-conflict futurism.

The heroic adventure is seasoned with the description of an international non-governmental organization–really, a technology company–called the Aerial Board of Control, or A.B.C. This group schedules flights and adjudicates trade routes, as described in this ominously prescient passage:

She [ a “Mark Boat” vessel serving traffic control ] is responsibly only to the Aerial Board of Control–the A.B.C. of which Tim speaks so flippantly. But that semi-elected, semi-nominated body of both sexes, controls this planet. “Transportation is Civilization,” our motto runs. Theoretically, we do what we please so long as we do not interfere with the traffic and all it implies. Practically, the A.B.C. confirms or annuls all international arrangements, and, to judge from its last report, finds our tolerant, humorous, lazy little planet only too ready to shift the whole burden of public administration on its shoulders.

Kipling built the next story–his most famous piece of SF–out of this paragraph, giving the A.B.C. a full 150 years to grow in wealth and importance.

“As Easy As A.B.C.” (1912)

Pete Souza photograph, Woodside, CA. 2/17/2011. White House Flickr account.

99 years after “As Easy As A.B.C.” was published in London Magazine, the photograph of a “Tech Titans” dinner was released, showing President Obama joined by Silicon Valley elites of the highest order. Given the popularity of both the White House and consumer-friendly technology companies at the time, this toast (to the future?) seems to be the moment when the corporate-government marriage went fully mainstream. This terrible article plays the who’s who game with every guest diner, but here are the highlights:

  • Steve Jobs of Apple sits to Obama’s left, although at this time he is seriously ill. Apple eventually becomes the largest publicly-held company in the world, by market capitalization.
  • Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook is partially visible on the right edge.
  • Directly across from Obama are Larry Ellison of Oracle and Reed Hastings of Netflix.
  • Eric Schmidt, then-CEO of Google, is visible on the left edge. In 2015, Google was restructured into a conglomerate entity named Alphabet, Inc.

That last paragraph of “With the Night Mail” I quoted was also used to begin the original version of “As Easy As A.B.C.”, describing an organization still defined by its original charter but infinitely more powerful after 105 years. It has been largely successful in pacifying the rival nations through political restructuring and the suppression of populist uprisings.

The story describes, with dark humor and peculiar ambiguity, the means by which A.B.C. asserts control over the terrestrial plebiscites. An airship containing am international coterie of officer/managers is headed to Chicago to investigate signs of trouble in Northern Illinois. The narrator is the official reporter, and begins the story by voicing his frustration at the lack of popular interest in his organization.

ISN’T it almost time that our Planet took some interest in the proceedings of the Aerial Board of Control? One knows that easy communications nowadays, and lack of privacy in the past, have killed all curiosity among mankind, but as the Board’s Official Reporter I am bound to tell my tale.

The A.B.C. promotes this kind of forgetting, however, and would rather have people leave the troublesome history of the 20th and 21st Centuries behind. For example, the people of Chicago, like their overhead masters, have long condemned racism. The city memorializes the victims of racism with a large (and explicitly named, be warned) statue of a lynching victim, which it unveils every Thanksgiving. The ceremony, accompanied by a anthem of liberty, is unsettling to the management:

‘Chicago?” said Takahira. “That’s the little place where there is Salati’s Statue of the N—- in Flames. A fine bit of old work.”

“When did you see it?” asked De Forest quickly. “They only unveil it once a year.”

“I know. At Thanksgiving. It was then,” said Takahira, with a shudder. “And they sang MacDonough’s Song, too.”

“Whew!” De Forest whistled. “I did not know that! I wish you’d told me before.

MacDonough’s Song may have had its uses when it was composed, but it was an infernal legacy for any man to leave behind.”

“It’s protective instinct, my dear fellows,’ said Pirolo, rolling a cigarette. “The Planet, she has had her dose of popular government. She suffers from inherited agoraphobia. She has no – ah – use for crowds.”

We’re assured that the A.B.C. is not on a mission to actively stamp out political ideas, democratic or socialist, but to rectify civil intrusions–obstacles to planetary traffic, in their mantra–before they grow out of hand. Called into Chicago by the desperate local government, the airship clears a crowd of protesters with a sort of Shock and Awe routine over the city, with blinding lights and deafening noises.

F. Gardner illustration from With the Night Mail & As Easy as A.B.C.,

The narrator has a protective helmet closed over his head, so he is unable to detail the experience of the dispersal. However, there are plenty of clues as to what was used.

“Keep still!” Takahira whispered to me. “Blinkers, please, quartermaster.”

“It’s all right – all right!” said Pirolo from behind, and to my horror slipped over my head some sort of rubber helmet that locked with a snap. I could feel thick colloid bosses before my eyes, but I stood in absolute darkness.

“To save the sight,” he explained, and pushed me on to the chart-room divan. “You will see in a minute.”

As he spoke I became aware of a thin thread of almost intolerable light, let down from heaven at an immense distance – one vertical hairs breadth of frozen lightning.

“Those are our flanking ships,” said Arnott at my elbow. “That one is over Galena. Look south – that other one’s over Keithburg. Vincennes is behind us, and north yonder is Winthrop Woods. The Fleet’s in position, sir” – this to De Forest. “As soon as you give the word.”

“Ah no! No!” cried Dragomiroff at my side. I could feel the old man tremble. “I do not know all that you can do, but be kind! I ask you to be a little kind to them below! This is horrible horrible!”

“When a Woman kills a Chicken,
Dynasties and Empires sicken,”

Takahira quoted. “It is too late to be gentle now.”

This does not seem to be the writings of a simple Imperialist. The A.B.C. flagship then touches down in Chicago and chides the mayor for not policing the situation effectively. The mayor and chief-of-police are portrayed as rather ineffectual sycophants, placing a hand on De Forest’s knee while complaining about “too much democracy.”

The trouble in Chicago has been started by a group of political dissidents whose civic crimes include the act of living too close together and promoting popular government. The mayor calls them Serviles, because of their willingness to endure punishment for their cause. Once the Serviles were captured, the main task of the police was to secure them somewhere where other citizens couldn’t find and physically attack them.

The mayor, in finally relaying “the facts of the case,” also manages a perverse understanding of the right to privacy:

[the Mayor] “Our Serviles got to talking – first in their houses and then on the streets, telling men and women how to manage their own affairs. (You can’t teach a Servile not to finger his neighbour’s soul.) That’s invasion of privacy, of course, but in Chicago we’ll suffer anything sooner than make crowds. Nobody took much notice, and so I let ‘em alone. My fault! I was warned there would be trouble, but there hasn’t been a crowd or murder in Illinois for nineteen years.”

“Twenty-two,” said his Chief of Police.

“Likely. Anyway, we’d forgot such things. So, from talking in the houses and on the streets, our Serviles go to calling a meeting at the Old Market yonder.”

The Serviles have evidently stirred up enough unrest that the A.B.C. men resort to additional crowd-control measures. Electrical circuits are activated to paralyze people, the Old Market is destroyed, and other actions are taken, the full effect of which is left vague by the narrator. The most anxious of the company, Dragomiroff, seems to betray widespread mayhem, but the consensus is that swift and decisive action was needed to contain the crisis.

Eventually, the corporate types decide to take the Serviles onboard and leave Illinois. Their lack of repentance, and habit of acting out as individuals, is thought to make for an amusing demonstration back in London.

“As Easy as A.B.C.” is a horror story of compliance and commercialized tyranny. Most of the world under this company’s thumb is perfectly willing to be governed from above, but the world population is in steady decline, and De Forest laments the lack of individuals ready to challenge his place on the Board. The Mayor was also ready to bring dissidents into the government, because there were so few individuals with any interest in running things.

Institutional decay is described in another incident, before the crew reach Chicago. They land in rural Illinois first, and a suspicious farm girl manages to hold them paralyzed with a circuit of their company’s design:

The girl laughed, and laid aside her knitting. An old-fashioned Controller stood at her elbow, which she reversed from time to time, and we could hear the snort and clank of the obedient cultivator half a mile away, behind the guardian woods.

“Come in and sit down,” she said. “I’m only playing a plough. Dad’s gone to Chicago to – Ah! Then it was your call I heard just now!”

She had caught sight of Arnott’s Board uniform, leaped to the switch, and turned it full on.

We were checked, gasping, waist-deep in current this time, three yards from the verandah.

“We only want to know what’s the matter with Illinois,” said De Forest placidly.

“Then hadn’t you better go to Chicago and find out?” she answered. “There’s nothing wrong here. We own ourselves.”

“How can we go anywhere if you won’t loose us?” De Forest went on, while Arnott scowled. Admirals of Fleets are still quite human when their dignity is touched.

I read this as a sign of hope that the corporate reach will never be absolute.

This novelette has been interpreted in several ways, often critically, by scholars anxious to fit it within their perception of the author. It has been described as (no surprise) imperialistic, obsessed with privacy, and hopeless in tone. However, the A.B.C. is never keen on taking over Chicago; it wants to restore civil order an take its leave. The real warning is in the lack of capable hands that could both administer the population and respect individual freedoms. In our time so many of us freely give our personal data to a corporate entity (in exchange for access to so much free stuff), even while fretting about the impact businesses have on the political process. The true reach of the Tech Titans, and the accuracy of Kipling’s dystopic vision, has yet to be revealed.

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Ensign Flandry, by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson might be best known today as the author of some early hard SF (Brain Wave, Tau Zero) and fantasy (The Broken Sword, Three Hearts and Three Lions) classics, much of his very prolific output was the result of combining elements of different genres. Among his most popular stories of the 1950s and 1960s were the summation of SF and spy elements, featuring the character Dominic Flandry.

The Flandry stories were published from 1951 to 1985, appearing in numerous collections and under many variant titles, making their chronology somewhat of a jumble. Several pieces predate Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, whose film adaptations have since shaped the popular “spy-fi” motif. While Anderson always packed his stories with scientific, political and philosophical ideas, he did invest the Flandry series with page-turning action and romance. While his Flandry books do not seem to ever be mentioned as his most prestigious works, they are possibly his most popular: each title has been reprinted several times. Ensign Flandry appeared in 1966 to bring the series into a novel format, and to provide a good jumping-in point for new readers.

The packaging of EF has evolved over the years. Its first appearance as a novella was accompanied by recycled space-battle artwork (a painting titled “Martian Spaceships Invade New York”) in Amazing Stories. My own copy is the 1976 Coronet edition, featuring one of my favorite paperback covers.

The first publication as a book was actually by Chilton, the company known to the genre for giving Frank Herbert’s Dune its hardback debut. The Roger Hane cover emphasizes the deceit and false emotions expressed by the titular character. After the “spy-fi” motif developed under the popular James Bond movies, Baen chose to emphasize Flandry’s lascivious ways with no subtlety in its omnibus edition.

The Chilton, Coronet and Baen covers all validly depict significant aspects of EF; this is the Flandry’s first foray into the world of deception and the long-con, he does get in over his head on a few occasions of battle, and his dalliances with a couple of important ladies factor into the plot. However, Flandry is more Horatio Hornblower than 007 (the first Flandry stories predate the first James Bond stories, 1951 to 1953), at least from EF through the fifth book in the series.

EF tells the story of Flandry’s rise in notoriety from a low-level space navy officer to roving intelligence agent pulling together the splitting seams of his nation. This “nation” is the sprawling, interstellar Terran Empire whose expansion across the worlds is told in other Anderson titles.

The Empire is squarely in an age of decadence in EF, with a society of enormously wealthy but dull aristocrats governing it between elaborate parties. The awe of the Terrans’ past accomplishments has worn away:

His lady broke the silence between them with a murmur that made him start. “I wish it were a hundred years ago.”

“Eh?” Sometimes she could still astonish him.

“Birthday meant something then.”

“Well . . . yes. S’pose so.” Hauksberg cast his mind back over history. She was right. Fathers had taken their sons outdoors when twilight ended parades and feasts; they had pointed to the early stars and said, — Look yonder. Those are ours. We believe that as many as four million lie within the Imperial domain. Certainly a hundred thousand know us daily, obey us, pay tribute to us, and get peace and the wealth of peace in return. Our ancestors did that. Keep the faith.

Hauksberg is one of a few figures dedicated to maintaining their ancestor’s achievements. A decadent aristocrat and foreign minister, he is sent on a diplomatic mission over an evolving crisis on a frontier planet, Starkad.

Starkad is a primitive world dominated by two humanoid races, the land-based “Tigeries” and the aquatic “Seatrolls.” The Tigeries are a matriarchal people who resemble bipedal tigers, who are at continual war with the Seatrolls, a rough cross between human and salamander. In a scenario reminiscent of our Cold War, the Terran Empire has allied itself with the Tigeries, while the Seatrolls have been receiving assistance from a rival empire, the aggressive Roidhunate of Merseia. Officially at peace, the Terrans and Merseians nonetheless contest over valuable planets via intrigue and proxy war.

The tension between diplomacy and violence is maintained throughput the story, because Merseia is a younger and more dynamic empire, considered by many Terrans to be the barbarians at the outskirts. The Merseians are bipedal reptilian aliens, ruled by a collection of elite families and oriented toward expansion and conquest. They too respect the games of diplomacy and subterfuge, as well as the more competent Terrans who stand in their way. The Merseian commander of a “peacekeeping” outpost on Starkad plays chess with his Terran counterpart over video console, and they trade gossip about Hauksberg’s upcoming arrival:

[Runei, the Merseian] “You have not heard? Our latest courier informed us that a … kraich … yes, a Lord Hauksberg is hither-bound.”

[Abrams, the Terran] “I know.” Abrams winced. “Another big wheel to roll around the base.”

“But he is to proceed to Merseia. The Grand Council has agreed to receive him.”

“Huh?” Abrams shook his head. “Damn, I wish our mails were as good as yours… Well. How about this downed flitter? Why won’t you help us look for the pieces?”

“In essence, informally,” Runei said, “because we hold it had no right, as a foreign naval vessel, to fly over the waters. Any consequences must be on the pilot’s own head.”

The flitter pilot, is Flandry, a low-ranking officer fresh from the Imperial naval academy. Inexperienced but resourceful, he survives his crash at sea long enough to be rescued by a passing Tigerie vessel. The surface of Starkad is mostly ocean, forcing the Tigeries to maintain their civilization by sail. The conflict with the Seatrolls is relatively recent, and might not have occurred for centuries without the influences of the two competing empires.

This conflict is introduced to Flandry in dramatic fashion when the boat gets attacked by a raiding Seatroll party. The Seatrolls use a combination of catapults, sea-monsters and firearms in battle, while the Tigeries also wield a strange amalgamation of modern projectiles and cutlasses. In the raging violence, Flandry has the chance to prove his mettle fighting alongside the ship’s female captain, Dragoika:

A rifle bullet wailed. A Seatroll sprayed lead in return. Tigeries crumpled. Their blood was human color.

Flandry rammed home another shell and lobbed it into the sea some distance off. “Why?” screamed a gunner.

“May have been more coming,” he said. “I hope hydrostatic shock got ’em.” He didn’t notice he used Anglic.

Dragoika cast her fish spear. One pistol wielder went down, the prongs in him. He scrabbled at the shaft. . .

Anderson describes this melee extremely well, showing how Flandry’s training gives the Tigeries just enough of an edge to carry the day. The emerging attraction between Dragoika and the Ensign, however, is less convincing. It felt included to balance out the other relationship in EF–the more genre-typical pairing of Flandry and the beautiful courtesan Persis d’Io–with Dragoika making both the romantic advances and the military decisions. Her role “fit the bill” a little too well, and there was not enough room in the story to fully justify for throwing her lot in with Flandry.

Michael Whelan cover for Ace.

Persis d’Io has a more interesting story arc. She is the far-younger consort of Hauksberg, kept for his entertainment on the long trip to Merseia. She’s possibly named after the mythical Io, another woman whose beauty garners the attention of a powerful male (Zeus, obviously) and forces her away from home. Hauksberg finds her holed up in her chambers, watching an animated movie.

He lowered himself to the arm of her lounger and laid a hand on her shoulder. It was bare, in a low-cut blouse; the skin felt warm and smooth, and he caught a violet hint of perfume.

“Aren’t you tired o’ that thing?” he asked.

“No,” She didn’t quite take her eyes from it. Her voice was dark, and her mouth not quite steady. “Wish I were, though.”


“It frightens me. It reminds me how far we are from home, the strangeness, the–And we’re going on.”

She also has some insights about the way the Imperial ruling class is anthropomorphizing the Merseians, assuming they can be understood as humans. Born of a lower social class, her relationship with Hauksberg keeps her away from the struggle as a workaday dancer, as long as she remains on his good side. So it appears oddly reckless to get entangled with the handsome Flandry. However, she takes the initiative in seducing officer (who calls her Donna; she calls him Dominic), easily getting through his guard and professing a kind of safe ignorance:

“Let’s get acquainted,” Persis said gently. “We exist for such a short time at best. Why were you on Starkad?”

“Orders, Donna.”

“That’s no answer. You could have simply done the minimum and guarded your neck. Most of them seem to. You must have some belief in what you’re doing.”

“Well–I don’t know, Donna. Never could keep out of a good scrap, I suppose.”

She sighed. “I thought better of you, Dominic … Cynicism is boringly fashionable. I didn’t think you would be afraid to say mankind is worth fighting for.”

Flandry winced. She had touched a nerve. “Sort of thing’s been said too often, Donna. The words have gone all hollow, I … I do like some ancient words. ‘the best fortress is to be found in the love of the people.’ From Machiavelli.”

“Who? Never mind. I don’t care what some dead Irishman said. I want to know what you care about …”

Flandry has been brought along on the trip to Merseia at the request of Abrams, who was impressed with his actions on Starkad. Abrams proves to be an exceptionally cagey character, bridging the conflict on that primitive planet with larger moves planned by the Merseians. He is convinced that the lizard-men are aiming for a major incursion into the Terran empire, using Hauksberg’s mission to stall their defenses. All of Flandry’s sneaking around on Merseia, whether in alien territory or inside Persis’ bedroom, is actually done under Abrams’ instruction.

Flandry and Persis are two pieces being moved around by Abrams, but there is also another character. Early in EF, Abrams manages to get the drop on a Merseian spy, a long-suffering war veteran whose body has been mostly replaced by machines. The mission was essentially a suicide, but Abrams spares his life and–somehow–has him reprogrammed as a double agent. This gives him an ace-in-the-hole to use, along with the inexperienced Flandry, and the (presumably) manipulated Persis. At one point, Abrams is missing and Hauksberg finds Persis in the arms of Flandry; this would inspire a one-way trip off-planet. My understanding is that Persis knows more about Abram’s plot than she lets on, and knowingly hazards her standing with Hauksberg to help get Flandry sent off of Merseia. Here, the pieces fit together more nicely than in the other subplot on Starkad…

I mentioned earlier that the relationship between Dragoika and Flandry, and the emotional underpinnings of it, felt shallow. This is a consequence of EF being built differently than the original short stories. In those, Flandry always had a mysterious woman to woo, and she belonged to an exotic but less technological culture, and he would leave her at the end of his mission (spoiler alert, I suppose). The Flandry novels purposefully depart from this formula, starting with Dragoika; her bond to Flandry is shaped by the shared experience of traumatic combat. First is the heroic battle at sea, but later her home city is viciously bombarded, and finally, the two of them are trying to survive a space battle. This progressive de-romanticization of war is skillfully done, but then compromised when Flandry once again finds himself in a critical role.

So Dragoika is there to witness Flandry do all of these impressive things, because they repeatedly find themselves in the place in time for him to do them. This crowds out her story significantly, and when she learns of the fate of her people on Strakad, we do not share in the tragedy. This aside, EF is a fast page-turner and a entertaining entry point into Anderson’s meticulously constructed Technic History. 7/10.

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Vault of the Ages, by Poul Anderson

Being a straightforward “juvenile” paperback with very small typesetting, Vault of the Ages (1952) sat in my collection for years before I had any desire to pick it up and read it. After encountering some positive words about it, I decided to give VotA a try in my next Poul Anderson binge. That is, the next time I decided to plow into my to-read list in an alphabetical fashion.

Wayne D. Barlowe cover for Berkeley edition (1978).

That is an evocative cover by Barlowe, by far the best artwork done for this title. Despite the typesetting, VotA was a quick read and fairly enjoyable. It definitely is intended for younger readers, as all of the primary heroes are teenagers and action sequences are purposely dispersed over the length of the story.

The editors of Fantasy & Science Fiction (in the January 1953 issue) explained that publishing SF novels specifically for teenagers was a practice that started with Heinlein and joined by other authors in 1952. VotA was mentioned as a quality example, along with Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in the Sky and Chad Oliver’s Mists of Dawn; Anderson’s title therefore has its minor place in the history of the genre. I’m not sure if VotA was the first to feature a post-apocalypse setting, which of course fills the shelves these days, especially for the “young adult” audience.

long after the bombs

It’s centuries after a nuclear war, and over many generations people have survived on a roughly Dark Ages-level of existence. The most sophisticated tribe in the area (which is somewhere in the contemporary northeastern United States) is the Dalesmen, made up of farming families and a prosperous trading town. They face an invasion from the north, composed of barbaric nomads called the Lann. There is also a ruined city, known as The City, that is inhabited by its own hardscrabble tribe of scavengers (the “witches”).

The three tribes are distinguished by different appearances, with the Linn being stockier and the Witches described as “gnomish,” as well as quality of living. The Dalesmen have subsisted well on their successful farming and trading:

It was a handsome and comfortable house, thought Carl, letting his eyes travel around it. The soft light of home-dipped tallow candles fell on skin rugs, on a loom with a rich, half-woven tapestry stretched across it, on pots and bowls of baked clay and hammered copper.

In contrast, the Lann have suffered greatly under increasingly harsher winters (Anderson hints at the arrival of a new Ice Age) and the Witches seem to be in a state of collapse. However, they all share a language, and they all divide power in the same manner: the chief is the popular leader, but the doctor is authority on all matters of religion and knowledge.

The state of the Witches is made to be pathetic, since the City also houses the Time Vault, a concrete tomb containing a trove of knowledge and equipment from pre-holocaust civilization. The Witches forbid entry to this place, believing ancient stories about demons and curses residing inside. These spirits are referred to as the “demons of Atmik,” suggesting that the longtime fear of knowledge contains some truth, but these people are corrupted by it and will only survive as long as there is metal in the City left to pillage. Anderson wrote a prologue for the Berkeley edition of VotA, stating that the novel was inspired by the two time capsules buried in New York and Atlanta in 1938.

the barbarian invasions

Carl, the son of the Dalesmen chief, is touring the farmland to recruit the men he meets into his father’s army. Many of the farmers have been refusing him, preferring to take their chances at being missed by the Lann, or not quite believing the prospects of a great invasion. Later, after the Dalesmen army–whose ranks are pointedly short of men–is defeated in battle by the Lann, Carl sees many of these families belatedly fleeing the horde with overloaded wagons.

The wagons were piled high with family goods, and Carl frowned even as his hand was being shaken. What was the use of dragging all that through heartbreaking miles of forest when it slowed travel and invited behaviors?

The visual of ordinary people unable to discard their possessions, even to save themselves, reminded me of one of my favorite films:

frame from Songs From the Second Floor, Roy Anderson (dir.). Tumblr.

Carl’s frustration with his tribe grows when he discovers the notorious Time Vault inside the City. He and two companions, also teenagers, had to take refuge there after being chased through the forest by Lann horsemen. There, he met the chief of the Witches, an old man named Ronwy. Ronwy is the most enlightened adult figure in the novel, because he has studied the contents of the vault and understands that it is not, as his people are convinced, cursed with evil magic.

Knowing that the Lann are too numerous and too united for the Dalesmen to defeat, Carl recognizes the contents of the Vault–the accursed knowledge–as his father’s only true hope for victory. Ronwy, in turn, sees Carl as the best hope for his own people, as an enlightened Dalesmen leadership could pull the Witches ot of their own ignorance. Ronwy is the novel’s “wise old man” serving as the mouthpiece of the author’s philosophy, but Anderson uses this character with admirable discipline (especially when compared to some of Heinlein’s later novels).

Carl leaves the City with an item from the Vault, a hand-cranked flashlight. This helps him escape the Lann raiders who had been waiting for him, and he brings it home to his father and the Dalesmen doctor, a bearded elder named Donn. The subsequent demonstration of the machine leads to the most amusing scene in the book:

“Taboo! Taboo!” The old pagan word rustled and murmured in dark corners, hooted mockingly up the chimney to hunt the wind. “It is forbidden.”

“But it is good!” cried Carl, with a wrench in his soul. “It is the power which can save us from the Lann, and–“

“It is one of the powers which brought the Doom.” The High Doctor touched the flashlight with his wand and muttered some spell. “Would you unchain that wrath and fire again?” …

Donn turns out to be the most formidable obstacle in Carl’s quest to bring knowledge to the Dalesmen, even bringing him to trial at some point. Fortunately the trial scene doesn’t ruin the book (which is what happened to Heinlein’s Have Space Suit–Will Travel), but it does proceed with the Lann literally outside the town walls. He forces Carl to split with his tribe in order to save it, a signature moment in the classic Hero’s Journey.

And it is the Hero’s Journey that Carl is to follow. He travels between the Dalesmen, the battlefields, the City and the forests between them multiple times–to the point of repetition. To drive home the point, he even has an encounter with (you guessed it) a wild tiger, an animal sacrifice to his growing bravery. A crucial early event in the narrative is when Carl enters the Vault, descending beneath the surface of the Earth, to attain the dangerous knowledge.

They went down the steps. At the bottom, Rowney lifted his candle high and Carl saw that the vault was a great underground chamber lined with concrete, reaching farther in shadowy distance than he could see.

It’s plausible that Anderson learned about time capsules of 1938 and decided to write a tried-and-true Hero’s Journey around it for his first novel. This pragmatic approach would certainly fit this author, long respected in the genre as a model of consistency.

the darker half

Carl’s journey from loyal son to classic hero is highlighted by frequent encounters with the chieftain’s son of the Lann, a fierce teenager named Lenard. Lenard and Carl share many traits:

  • the willingness to defy authority for the great good of their people,
  • a brewing frustration with their tribes’ doctors, and their antiquated beliefs
  • and a steadfast resistance to giving up.

Lenard, who we first see as a captured prisoner inside the Dalesmen chief’s house, is clearly the Lann version of Carl, driven to battle out of the desperate state of his tribe. His observations are seasoned with wisdom gained from a short lifetime of experience, and he has the edge in verbal confrontations with Carl:

“But there is room here,” protested Carl. “There are forest tracts which need only be logged off and plowed–“

“So we should come as beggars?” Lenard tossed his head like an angered stallion. “None of that for a warrior people. Nor do I think there is enough room for such large tribes here, even when you count the forests. No, there is space for only one tribe, and we mean to be that tribe.”

Later, Lenard captures Carl after a battle, and spares his life as well. He is the first to see that the two of them would make greater allies than enemies. Not only is he a key part of the Hero’s Journey narrative, but Lenard ensures that the reader does not see the Lann as simply a swarm of nameless savages. Anderson usually chooses a side of a great conflict in his stories, but he also promotes the understanding of the other side of said conflict.

As it must, the larger war between Dalesmen and Lann, is eventually distilled into a final duel between Carl and Lenard. The melee is a sweaty, brutal affair, pitting Lenard’s slightly greater skill against Carl’s marginally greater desperation. This confrontation dwarves the ostensibly larger battle that follows it, since the Carl/Lenard story has grown to dominate VotA by that point. The denouement of enlightenment is a bit clumsy, but possibly satirical, given Donn’s garbled pronouncements about the value of knowledge.

VotA is actually pretty solid as a juvenile adventure tale, told with plenty of action and a generally optimistic tone. As with his short fiction, Anderson makes the case for individual action in the face of collective ignorance and corruption. There’s a lot of loose threads and infeasible events, but if you don’t mind that sort of thing–or you’re just interested in the early works of a SF grandmaster–you could do worse than give this title a try. 6/10.

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