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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Strangers from Earth, by Poul Anderson (part 3)

The Poul Anderson collection Strangers from Earth concludes with three more stories from the 1950s. In my first two reviews of this collection, I covered idea-driven pieces dominated by dialogue, and then action-driven stories that made their political and cultural points on more subtle level. Here, we get a mixture of these two types.

Jacks cover for Mayflower-Dell edition, 1965.

“The Star Beast” (1950)

Much is accomplished in the opening lines of this story:

The rebirth technician thought he had heard everything in the course of some three centuries. But he was astonished now.

“My dear fellow–” he said. “Did you say a tiger?”

“That’s right,” said Harol. “You can do it, can’t you?”

Harol, a dissolute citizen of a decadent, post-scarcity Earth, has once again become bored of his existence and has decided to undergo reincarnation. Rather than swapping races or sexes, he chooses to inhabit the body of a tiger. Rebirth in animal forms is a fashionable undertaking in Harol’s time, but not into nervous systems unsuited for human thought and emotion.

Reincarnation is a rich trope in vintage SF; this blog has encountered it before in Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, and Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go has always been a personal favorite. Not to mention the “regeneration” episodes that tie together every incarnation of the titular character of Dr. Who. However, the focus of “The Star Beast” is not so much reincarnation is it is transfiguration into the form of another species. This too, has seen coverage here, in discussion of Michael Bishop’s “The White Otters of Childhood.” Incidentally, my enthusiasm for the work of Bishop started after finding this review of his novel Transfigurations, which I also recommend.

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the opening lines is the notion that someone–in organic form, no less–has spent a full three centuries as a rebirth technician. It’s difficult to imagine being in the same line of work for that stretch of time, but at least he’s not suffering redundancy like the two unemployed gentlemen in “Quixote and the Windmill” (see part 1).

Generations of this lifestyle has left the denizens of Earth satisfied but vulnerable to disruption. That disruption comes in the form of an invading fleet from a far-off colonial planet, headed by an admiral named Felgi:

“You left us in exile,” said Felgi, and now the wrath and hate were edging his voice, glittering out of his eyes. “For nine hundred years, Earth lived in luxury while the humans on Procyon fought and suffered and died in the worst kind of hell.”

This bitterness coming from neglect of an imperial authority is a major theme of Anderson’s Flandry series, specifically The Rebel Worlds and The Day of Their Return. Here, the Terran representative (a figurehead for the most part) is dumbfounded by the fact that the Procyonites would not simply want to share in the advancements that has made life on his planet so easy.

Met with practically no resistance, Felgi destroys the mechanical control centers and plunges Earth into a state of lawlessness. This makes his seizure of power nearly automatic, but the former Terran president Ramacan does manage a last, desperate heroic act to throw a wrench into Felgi’s ultimate plans.

Meanwhile, the transformation of Harol into a tiger is described in enthusiastic detail. Harol’s personality and memories fade against the intensity of different, keener senses and physical power:

At night, at night–there was no darkness for him now. Moonlight was a white, cold blaze through which he stole on feathery feet; the blackest gloom was light to him–shadows, wan patches of luminescence, a shifting, sliding fantasy of gray like an old and suddenly remembered dream.

Anderson goes on to quote the first verse of William Blake’s 1794 poem “The Tyger,” awkwardly putting it among Harol’s disappearing recollections. There are many interpretations of “The Tyger,” but here, the question What immortal hand or eye dared frame thy fearful symmetry? is posed about a futuristic, all-providing system of technology. Humans are now incapable of engineering their machines, instead understanding them as supernatural.* They lost their right to this existence, in favor of a more primal one.

“The Star Beast” is a crowded combination of intriguing ideas; Harol’s transfiguration into a tiger and the Earth/Procyon conflict would seem to have enough character arcs and angles to fill out a novella, at minimum. Instead, the invasion drama is played out in an extended conversation between two characters, and the pre-existing relationship between Harol and his longtime lover Avi is contained in another passage of dialogue. The action in between is interesting, and Anderson ends the story on a point of ambiguity, referencing the Frank R. Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger,” another piece famous for the question it asks. This is not quite a kitchen-sink effort, but some readers will not view this piece as more than the sum of its parts.

“The Disintegrating Sky” (1953)

This story is another one dominated by conversations between characters; it’s becoming evident that Anderson spent considerable time speculating what people in the future would say to each other. This means that some of his short stories can feel starved for action, but the practice has paid off in fleshing out the characters of his later novels.

Alex Schomburg cover for Fantastic Universe, 1953.

Cliff Bronson, an affluent and well-connected bachelor, has an apartment in Manhattan where we occasionally invites friends and acquaintances to discuss high-mind topics. Because this is an early-1950s Poul Anderson story, all participants are well-dressed men who drink and smoke as they talk. This is just his way of clearing the stage for ideas without cultural, sexual or psychological differences to complicate things (this was kind of thing the early John Brunner was working to change within the genre, before it was fashionable to do so).

This is somewhere in the near future, where sophisticated men like Bronson stock their dwelling with cultural artifacts:

There were shelves of records, the old masters of music, and the walls were lined with well-worn copies of the world’s great literature, from Aeschylus to Guthrie.

But among the records were also to be found the sinister discords of Stravinsky and Berlioz along with the latest better popular releases. And some very curious and disquieting volumes nestled amongst Shakespeare and Goethe and Voltaire. Across the room Frans Hals’ sardonic Jester leered at a recent Dali. The arrangement seemed deliberate, perhaps symbolic.

Among Bronson’s guests is a nuclear scientist associated with “the latest nuclear bomb project,” brought to the party as entertainment for his regular armchair philosophers. Unfortunately, Cogswell has spent most of the night brooding in his armchair, apparently too occupied with the pressures of his work. Other guests (an executive and a sculptor, for what it’s worth) manage to engage him with a question about the nature of time.

“Why do we see time as flowing instead of static?” asked Gray.

Cogswell shrugged. “Who knows? We just do. Some authorities have suggested that the time-direction is the direction of the increase of entropy. But somehow I’ve never been satisfied with that theory, perhaps because it’s so vague.”

Burkhardt looked triumphant. “I say we move from past to future because the Author is writing all the time. . . The past is what he has already written.”

“And he never rewrites,” said Bronson with a wry smile. “The moving finger writes, and having writ. . .”

From this reference (of the old poem “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam”), the story evolves into a metafictional commentary, where the characters have the growing realization that perhaps they are characters in a story; a “bad story” not worth turning into a novel.

Even without the metafictional turn, the non-scientist characters seem to embody a feeling of frivolousness. They are attempting to distract themselves from an ongoing political crisis that threatens their existence, a task made harder by their shared secular viewpoint (the conservative Burkhardt refers to an Author, but that’s as far as he’ll go). Cogswell isn’t frivolous, but as an individual scientist–a cog in the machine, say–he realizes he has little power over the military/science conglomeration that seems to be ushering in nuclear war. This seems at odds with the individual heroism seen in “The Star Beast” and the Flandry series; perhaps Anderson was vacillating in his views of individual versus collective action during these years.

Another interesting aspect of this act of self-deprecation is the fact that it was published in Fantastic Universe. Its editor at the time, Sam Merwin Jr. (1910-1996), seems to have had relatively high standards in the early 1950s, and had a keen awareness of the stereotypes populating genre fiction. While he never had the strongest reputation as an author, his perspective might be worth looking into.

“Among Thieves” (1957)

Too bad the board game Diplomacy was invented in 1959. Otherwise, I could have claimed that Anderson might have been inspired by it when writing “Among Thieves.” It’s a military drama that has drawn the admiration of Jerry Pournelle, who has anthologized it twice, first in The Survival of Freedom.

Fawcett Crest edition, 1981.

In this article, I’ve judged “The Star Beast” and “The Disintegrating Sky” to be tales without much optimism. It is difficult to find much hope in stories about the prospect of nuclear war, but their casts of characters lack someone to take on the individual burden–tremendous that that burden would be–to save the civilization from destruction. “Among Thieves” also begins with Earth in trouble, but this time there is someone willing to seriously try saving it, albeit at a severe cost.

The story begins with a scene very familiar to Anderson readers. A ranking ambassador of the Terrestrial Federation, the center of a sprawling interstellar empire, is visiting a frontier colony world. He is waiting at the negotiation table for the local head of state, Hans Rusch, Margrave of Drakenstane, who is blatantly tardy:

In the bleakly clock-bound society a short delay was bad manners, even if it was unintentional. But if you kept a man of rank cooling his heels for an entire sixty minutes, you offered him an unforgivable insult. Rusch was a barbarian, but he was too canny to humiliate Earth’s representative without reason.

Which bore out everything that Terrestrial Intelligence had discovered. From a drunken junior officer, weeping in his cups because Old Earth, Civilization, was going to be attacked and the campus where he had once learned and loved would be scorched to ruins by his fire guns–to the battle plans and annotations thereon, which six men had died to smuggle out of the Royal War College–and now, this degradation of the ambassador himself–everything fitted.

The Margrave of Drakenstrane had sold out Civilization.

Civilization had been neglecting Drakenstrane (actually, the two-planet system of Norstad-Osterik it dominates) for many years, while it struggled for survival in a drawn-out war with an adjacent colonial planet, Kolresh. Kolresh was also an imperial colony at some point, but the people there had been so isolated for so long, that they had mutated into an entirely different species. Or so it was thought. The ties between Civilization and the two warring planets have been neglected for centuries, with the depths of the biological and cultural divide being incompletely understood.

The Margrave Rusch has arranged a cease-fire in the war against Kolresh, maintaining a stalemate and acknowledge a mutual resentment toward Earth. Their rumored alliance has alarmed some of the Terrans, since the navy of Kolresh is too strong for their planet’s defenses, and had only been held at bay by the elite soldiers of Drakenstrane. Presently, Rusch invited the Terran ambassador to make a counter-alliance, supporting him with enough resources to defeat Kolresh once and for all.

Playing both sides against each other may have put Rusch in a position of influence among heads of state, but it has started to cost him domestic support. The people under his charge, most of all Queen Igra, find this prospective relationship detestable. Making an alliance with Kolresh would put Norstad-Osterik in a position to overthrow the decadent empire of Terra, or so he claims to her:

A wind sighed over the slow thunder on the beach. A line of sea birds crossed the sky, thin and black against glowing bronze.

“I know,” said Ingra. “I know the history, and I know what you’re leading up to. Kolresh will furnish transportation and naval escort; Norstad-Ostarik will furnish men. Between us, we may be able to take Earth.”

“We will,” said Rusch flatly. “Earth has grown plump and lazy. She can’t possibly rearm enough in a few months to stop such a combination.”

“And all the galaxy will spit on our name.”

“All the galaxy will lie open to conquest, once Earth has fallen.”

“How long do you think we would last, riding the Kolresh tiger?”

Tigers keep appearing in Anderson’s fiction: twice in this collection, in “Tiger by the Tail,” the first (by publication date) Flandry story, and with the tiger-human hybrid creatures of his 1974 novel Fire Time.** Aside from that, “Among Thieves” is very much a story unto itself, and Anderson does not seem to be relying on literary allusions to make his points this time. Conversations are also given more context and setting, and the relatively sparse action is not as glaring. These changes could signal his development as a writer, or having submitted this work to a different editor: John W. Campbell of Astounding.

Of course, the title of this story is taken from the old proverb:

There is honor among thieves.

Or, is it:

There is no honor among thieves.

Anderson cleverly leaves the critical beginning out of his title, so you will have to read the story to find out. That is, if Rusch’s intentions are to be considered, in the end, honorable–he thinks he can end the civil war that plagues his people, or he can attempt to spare Earth from invasion. Either way, he makes his decisions on a different moral plane than that of the crown of Norstad-Osterik or the Terran bureaucracy (although the ambassador does have a firm grasp of the situation).

Strangers from Earth contains some interesting examples of what Anderson was capable of in the 1950s, and what ideas occupied his thinking. Certainly, the threat of nuclear war and the world powers’ inability to contain it as a psychological menace is felt in his writing. There is also a belief in the individual as the agent of progress (or in many cases, preservation) for Civilization. Maybe Anderson is known today as a “hard SF” writer who followed the model of the early Heinlein, but these stories show a literary figure whose ambitions went well beyond those labels. 7/10.

* Note that this lack of sophistication, while disastrous in “The Star Beast,” was not insurmountable in Anderson’s comic tale of knights vs. alien invaders The High Crusade. Of course, that was a pre-technological civilization, and the Earthlings were made of more resilient stuff.

** Fire Time was also heavily influenced by the world-building of Hal Clement.

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Strangers From Earth, by Poul Anderson (part 2)

This article continues our look through Strangers from Earth, the collection of early (1950-1957) Poul Anderson stories. The first three featured interesting ideas about man’s place in the universe of the future:

  • our biological place with respect to a telepathic superman, in “Earthman, Beware”
  • our economic place in the presence of a fully automated welfare state, in “Quixote and the Windmill”
  • our true place in the cosmos, and whether that can ever be changed, in “Gypsy”

However, in all three cases the characters spent most of their time in conversation with each other, and their depth suffered for lack of things to do. The stories also had passages where Anderson invested an effort in producing literature of a high calibre; these were poetic descriptions of a metal robot’s gait, or the approach toward an Earth-like exoplanet. It’s been tempting to feature these paragraphs as quotes and let them represent the style of each entire story. In fact, this quality was not sustained throughout the pieces (an impossible task, given the quantity of stories he published in this era), but those moments did help maintain my interest in this collection.

“For the Duration” (1957)

This story describes a political revolution in the future United States, from the point of view of an insider whose conscience is in conflict with his self-preservation. The idea that one tyranny begets another through violent upheaval is also featured in the Flandry series.

Emsh cover for Venture Science Fiction (1957).

Lewisohn is a professor of cybernetics who has developed the theory needed to construct a “force shield,” impenetrable to anything with high kinetic energy (missiles and bullets) or radiation (atomic fallout and radio waves). He lives a life of relative privilege, but under the dictatorship of Hare this means a single room apartment without roommates. Everyone not part of the ruling class or its secret police (the “N’s”) has been regraded under the threat of violence:

People by day would gather to watch a N kicking in somebody’s ribs, and get in the way, but during the empty darkness before sunrise the noise of boots only made them thank Hare that they weren’t receiving such guests.

The story opens with Lewisohn getting arrested by a squad of N’s. Before he is driven off to imprisonment or death, a team of revolutionaries rescues him. He is taken to the secret hideout of the opposition leader Achtmann, a young military officer whose ranks of followers number in the millions. The strength of this resistance force is explained by Achtmann:

“Our agents sound out various prospects. . . oh, carefully, carefully,” he explained. “The likeliest ones are finally given a narco and a psych profile is taken. If they’re suitable, they’re in. If not–” he grimaced. “Too bad. But we can’t risk some stupid innocent pouring out the whole works.”

I didn’t like that part of it. I wondered if Kintyre, the tall man who directed my rescue and was fond of cats and children, if he had ever put a bullet of some well-intentioned, unsuitable soul. To forget, I went on with practical questions.

Lewisohn (the story is told from his point of view) continues to “forget” in favor of practicality. He is able to produce force shields for Achtmann, who is then able to defeat Hare’s armies and N troops. Much of the combat has to be carried out with bayonets and short-range gunfire, so the coup is especially bloody as it proceeds city to city. It’s the grittier flipside to the heroic revolution of Heinlein’s Sixth Column (without that book’s disturbing racism).

Nicknames are used to show the fine boundary between hero and tyrant. When Lewisohn’s apartment gets raided, the N’s stop themselves from destroying a self of books because “the Cinc collects ’em.” Evidently, the Cinc refers to either Hare himself or his central authority. Later, Lewisohn wistfully refers to Achtmann as “our Cincinnatus,” after the famous Roman military hero who saved the Empire from anarchy by momentarily ruling it, before returning to his farm. Alas, this Cincinnatus, despite his assurances to Lewisohn, isn’t in a rush to “return to his plow.”

Logo for the Cincinnati Reds, 1950s.

This story leaves me with an enigma; not the contents per se, but its title. “For the Duration” appears to be a reference to the 1919 Saki short story “For the Duration of the War.” The Saki piece is about a rector who is frustrated with the amount of attention his wife is committing to a pet project: the translation of a French book. He invents a hoax describing an ancient Persian poem, supposedly discovered by a nephew in the military. The truth is hidden behind the secrecy of wartime maneuvers in Asia.

Despite the choice of title, I’m unsure as to what Anderson’s story has to do with Saki’s satire of Edwardian Britain. The Rector’s small act of rebellion, Saki tells us, comes from a dissatisfaction borne out of his being moved from a moderately fashionable parish to the remote countryside:

The Rector’s wife might be content to turn her back complacently on the country; it was the Rector’s tragedy that the country turned its back on him.

Could Anderson be implying that Lewisohn’s choice to support and enable Achtmann was more self-interested than described? After all, it is Lewisohn telling the story, and his actions always carry a tone of post hoc rationalization. It’s an interesting possibility and hints at a deeper, more sinister layer to the character whose intellect we are tempted to admire and with whose plight we are encouraged to empathize.

“Duel on Syrtis” (1951)

Allen Anderson cover for Planet Stories, 1951.

This adventure story, already reviewed in detail here (an excellent site, by the way), tells of a “big-game” hunting trip on Mars. Mars has been colonized by Earth, and the native Martians–described as short, owl-like humanoids–have either been incorporated into a working underclass or remained “wild” outside human civilization. An industrial scion named Riordan has arrived on Mars to kill an “wild” Martian of some notoriety, named Kreega.

“Duel on Syrtis” is told from both Riordan’s and Kreega’s perspectives, in alternating passages. Riordan represents the conquering jerk, eager to add “a Martian skin” to his collection of trophies, and Kreega is the cagey survivor. Significantly, the story begins with Kreega receiving the presence of his enemy from the local fauna:

The voiceless scream of dying traveled through the brush, from plant to plant, echoed by the fear-pulses of the animals and the ringingly reflected cliffs. They were curling, shriveling and blackening as the rocket poured the glowing death down on them, and the withering veins and nerves cried to the stars.

Kreega huddled against a tall gaunt crag. His eyes were like yellow moons in the darkness, cold with terror and hate and a slowly gathering resolution. Grimly, he estimated that the death was being sprayed in a circle some ten miles across. Add he was trapped in it, and soon the hunter would come after him.

Riordan’s perspective offers us the colder mind of the calculating hunter. Also, we see that he is operating outside of human law. Anderson is not condemning hunting in general; after all, it was (and still is) a major part of life in his home in the northern Great Lakes region. It’s the mentality of safaris and exotic game that he’s portraying as reprehensible.

Riordan sprayed the heavy-metal isotope in a ten-mile circle around the old tower. He did that by night, just in case patrol craft might be snooping around. But once he had landed, he was safe–he could always claim to be peacefully exploring, hunting leapers or some such thing.

The radioactive had a half-life of about four days, which meant that it would be unsafe for approach for some three weeks–two at minimum. That was time enough, when the Martian was boxed in so small an area.

An extended action sequence makes up the bulk of the story, and it is well-written and engaging. It’s easy to anticipate the dozens of choreographed space battles in Anderson’s future novels. However, in my second reading I noticed that as the hunt proceeds, the savvy Riordan and instinct-driven Kreega subtly trade places. The inflection point appears after Riordan barely avoids losing his mutant hound (he also has a trained hawk) to a spiked pit.

Sweat which he couldn’t wipe off ran down the man’s face and body. He twitched intolerably, and his lungs were raw from gasping as his dole of air. But still he laughed in gusty delight. What a chase! What chase!

This is exhilaration, not fear, but is still in contrast to Kreega.

Repatriated slaves had told him of Earthlings’ power. Their roaring machines filled the silence of their own deserts, gouged the quiet face of their own moon, shook the planets of their own energy. They were the conquerors, and it never occurred to them that an ancient peace and stillness could be worth preserving.

Well–he fitted an arrow to the string and crouched in the silent, flimmering sunlight, waiting.

It turns out that Kreega has plans for the human conquerors beyond Riordan. “Duel on Syrtis” is the strongest, in a narrative sense, piece in the collection (the last two entries are interesting in their own right, so I will cover them in the next post), and shows Anderson’s capability in building characters through their actions.

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Strangers from Earth, by Poul Anderson (part 1)

Poul Anderson (1926-2001) an acknowledged “grandmaster” of science fiction, had a writing career than spanned several decades, from the late 1940s to the end of the 20th century. As was typical of his generation, he established his name with a large number of short fiction pieces, many of which were expanded or reworked into novels at later times. His large bibliography reflects a consistent respect for ongoing market trends, ranging from magazine-published novellas to SF novels and a Heinleinesque “future history,” followed up by later series of longer novels (not to mention a healthy amount of fantasy works).

I’ve been reading through some of Anderson’s future history books, particularly those featuring his Flandry character. While entertaining as a combination of SF and spy genres, the Flandry books feature layered characters and several big ideas about the future of human progress. But before I delve into that series, I decided to review a collection of some of his early short stories, Strangers From Earth (1961). This article is probably going to be the first of three posts on SfE, whose component stories were first published between 1950 and 1957.

Vincent di Fate cover for 1987 Baen edition.

“Earthman, Beware” (1951)

This novelette describes the plight of Joel Weatherfield, a reclusive superhuman who had a brilliant career as an inventor and child prodigy before disappearing from society. With his suspected off-planet origins and unprecedented mental abilities, Joel might be Anderson’s adaptation of Kal-el of the Superman comic. Revealed to be biologically distinct, Joel is a benevolent but disaffected h. superior, beyond the reach of ordinary h. sapiens laws and limitations. Such characters are all the rage in the movies.

Lonely? No human being would ever know how lonely.

It hadn’t been too bad at first. As a child, he had been too preoccupied and delighted with his expanding intellectual horizons to care that the other children bored him–and they, in their turn, heartily disliked Joel for his strangeness and the aloofness they called “snooty.” His foster parents had soon learned that normal standards just didn’t apply to him, they kept him out of school and bought him the books and equipment he wanted. . . . He’d always been “a good boy,” as far as he was able. They’d had no cause to regret adopting him, but it had been pathetically like the hen who has hatched ducklings and watched them swim away from her.

This simile involving two species is relevant to the Joel’s present confrontation with one Dr. Margaret Logan (“Peggy” to Joel), who worked with him at MIT before his disappearance. “Earthman, Beware” begins with Joel returning to his remote Alaska cabin from a fishing trip to discover that Peggy has tracked him down, in person.

“Couldn’t you just have let me stay vanished?” he asked wearily.

“No.” Her voice was trembling with her lips. “Not till I knew you were safe and–and–“

He kissed her, tasting salt on her mouth, catching the faint fragrance of her hair. The broken waves of her thoughts and emotions washed over him, swirling through his brain in a tide of loneliness and desolation.

Besides his technical acumen, then, Joel is separated from Peggy and her kind with the ability to read the thoughts of others. He manipulates Peggy into abandoning her infatuation with him, but the experience leads him to think that his telepathy–the cause of so much of his desire to isolate himself–could be a means of escaping his “feral child” existence.

Maybe it’s my lack of enthusiasm for comics, but instead of Superman, Joel reminds me of the titular character in Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John. There is the similar immature body, oversized brain and soft contempt for ordinary humankind. Joel’s emotional distance is far less toxic, but he does, like Odd John, “reach out” telepathically for others of his kind. This effort leads to a second confrontation, with unexpected consequences.

“Earthman, Beware” is a neatly packaged extension of the telepathic h. superior trope, adding comeuppance reminiscent of classic mythology. There isn’t much room for Anderson to explain how Peggy became so enamored with Joel, which is unfortunate because she provides the only representation of human-h. superior interaction, outside of Joel’s own recollections. At least this time she doesn’t get called back again and again like a loyal pet, unlike Fido of Odd John.

“Quixote and the Windmill” (1950)

Anyone paying attention to artificial intelligence (AI) these days is likely to be at least a little unnerved at the depth it reaches into our daily lives. My very first review, which described how (in 1962, no less) Fritz Leiber anticipated the way in which the computer would conquer the board game go, was posted in July of 2017. Since then, I’ve witnessed AI becoming a mainstream and off-the-shelf approach in my industry (internet infrastructure) and many others, including transportation, finance and medicine. Of course, we’ve also experienced AI-driven “flash crashes” in the stock market, erroneous election predictions, and out-of-control censorship of social media platforms. For better or worse, this is the world we’re living in.

Karl Stephan cover for 1965 Moewig edition.

“Quixote and the Windmill” is an example of a story more valued for its prophetic ideas than for its plot or characters. There’s also an ending punch line that looks like a retort to Asmiov’s I, Robot stories. The plot can be explained succinctly:

  • Two unemployed men of the future are sitting at an automated bar, drinking and complaining about their lot in life. Advances in technology, and AI in particular, have left them without a meaningful occupation, consequently suffering from a lack of respect.
  • They confront a large, humanoid robot, who had been wandering through the countryside, also without an apparent purpose.

Anderson identifies redundancy as a male problem in this story, with the two characters having capabilities, but not those of a “first-rank genius” who can stay ahead of the machines. They live off of a universal income (an idea which returns to us again and again, regardless of the fact that it destroys incentives and productivity), but lack the ability to replace the meaning of work with recreation:

They sat quiet again. Then Borklin said, slowly: “At least you can get some fun. I don’t like all these concerts and pictures and all that fancy stuff. I don’t have more than drinking and women and maybe some stereofilm.”

“I suppose you’re right,” said Brady indifferently. “But I’m not cut out to be a hedonist. Neither are you. We both want to work. We want to feel we have some importance and value–we want to amount to something. Our friends … your wife … I had a girl once. Pete … we’re expected to amount to something.”

When the two men hear the robot pass by, they debate their eventual fate as being “scrapped” and replaced by “men of metal in a meaningless metal ant-heap.” This inspires a brief, one-sided and drunken fight with the machine. This ends in mutual embarrassment:

Brady reeled about to stand before the robot. The alcohol was singing and buzzing in his head, but his voice came oddly clear.

“We can’t hurt you,” he said. “We’re Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. But you wouldn’t know about that. You wouldn’t know about any of man’s old dreams.”

Unfortunately, I haven’t read Don Quixote, so I probably missed the more subtle elements of this explicit reference. My best guess would be that man’s old dreams involve the basic fulfillment that comes from meaningful work, but the answer probably resides within Cervantes. In any case, the robot has something to say in response to end the story on a lighter note: see this review for discussion.

As mentioned in another review, “Don Quixote and the Windmill” actually begins with a more ambitious literary style, describing the robot as it walks: He walked with a rippling grace that was almost feline, and his tread fell noiselessly– and so forth. The robot is explicitly gendered, engineered to replace the male in his traditional role in the industrial workforce. Had the cast of characters a bit more to do, and the story not a setup to a genre-typical zinger, Anderson would have followed through with a more nuanced statement about the challenges awaiting men in the post-labor future. As it is, we have an acceptable but talky “future history” story.

“Gypsy” (1951)

The “future history” I mentioned above is called the Psychotechnic League series in, and also includes “Gypsy.” Whereas “Don Quixote…” described economic changes on Earth, “Gypsy” introduces events related to mankind’s efforts in colonizing exoplanets of faraway star systems.

Richard Powers cover for 1961 Ballantine edition.

In “Gypsy,” Anderson uses a human-interest narrative as a means of exposition for his Psychotechnic League series. Unfortunately, this means that very little actually happens aside from some self-reflection of the main character (a starship pilot-turned-homesteader) and conversations with his wife and nine-year old son.

Erling Thorkild (many far-future Andersonian spacemen work in multiethnic crews, but retain old-world names and cultural traits) is reminiscing while finishing an errand aboard a small space “boat” above his colonized planet:

The planet swelled before me, a shining blue shield blazoned with clouds and continents, rolling against a limitless dark and the bitterly burning stars. Harbor, we had named that world, the harbor at the end of our long journey, and there were few lovelier names. Harbor, haven, rest and peace and a sky overhead as roof against the naked blaze of space. It was good to get home.

Erling and his crew aboard the Traveler were part of a large mission from Earth to search the outer reaches of known space. They had been knocked off course by accident, and visited many planets before finding Harbor as an ideal destination. Unfortunately, they had completely lost the location of Earth and its solar system, so that they have had lo live with the disappointment of never being able to return.

Readers of this blog might be reminded of a Robert Silverberg novel with a similar premise: Star of Gypsies. That novel was a much deeper exploration of a speculative Roma culture, with its boundless travels and mythical homeland, whereas this Anderson story uses the title Gypsy as pure metaphor. Here, Erling is represents the future version of the perpetual traveller who is unable to ignore the pull of the sea, especially when his old shipmates are visiting.

We began reminiscing about the old days, planets we had seen, deeds we had done. Worlds and suns and moons, whirling through a raw dark emptiness afire with stars, were in our talk–strange race, foreign cities. . . Oh, by all the gods, we had fared far!

One can guess the outcome of the next conversation between Erling and his wife, after his friends leave. It’s no real spoiler to say that ancient traditions are followed in the end.

The most recent “future history” experience I have for comparison is comprised of the Heinlein stories within The Green Hills of Earth and Orphans of the Sky (which I liked). I’ve found it hard to think of these SF series as anything more than the sum of their constituent parts, perhaps because of a lack of truly interesting characters. I never became interested in what happened in Niven’s history following Ringworld. I’ll come across more Psychotechnic pieces as I work my way through my pile of unread Anderson titles, but they won’t take special priority.

My next post (yes, I’m back to doing these) will continue with SfE, covering two more early Anderson stories. We seem to be finished with the Psychotechnic League for now, and the next entries certainly do not lack for plot.

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