A lot of good, even classic, science fiction stories are currently available for free as HTML, PDF or some e-reader format. I decided to feature some of these “freebee” pieces on a semi-regular basis this year.
Poul Anderson (1926-2001) was a very prolific SF and fantasy author, whose career spanned about six decades. Much of his fiction, especially from the 1950’s and 1960’s, belonged to one of his loosely-connected “future histories,” but maybe his best-known works are standalone novels: Tau Zero, Brain Wave, and The Broken Sword. My own Anderson favorites include The High Crusade and The Corridors of Time.
I hadn’t read anything by Anderson in over a year, so I decided to take a look at one of his early stories. “Inside Earth” is a 1951 novella published in Galaxy (and featured on the issue’s cover, no less), but curiously absent from any Anderson collections since then. Fortunately, it’s in the public domain and available for free as a Project Gutenberg file.
“Inside Earth” describes a future Earth ruled by an alien species called the Valgolians, who have granted humans with limited roles in their own governance. Humans with jobs inside the Valgolian centers are called “Terries,” described as generally-disliked sycophants to power. Not important to the story’s plot, the Terries illustrate a loose strategy of social engineering employed by the Valgolian Empire.
I’ve always felt a little sorry for the class. They work, and study, and toady to us, and try so hard to be like us. It’s frustrating, because that’s exactly what we don’t want. Valgolians are Valgolians and Earthlings are men of Earth. Well, Terries are important to the ultimate aims of the Empire, but not in the way they think they are. They serve as another symbol of Valgolian conquest for Earth to hate.
Anderson chooses to describe this society from the viewpoint of those in power – a Valgolian would have a more informed understanding of the big picture than someone leading the more limited existence of the subjugated. The protagonist Cornu is a Valgolian surgically disguised as human in order to reconnoiter the local resistance movements.
Cornu is assigned to pose as an ex-journeyman who drifts between jobs until he is recruited into the underground resistance. The Valgolians monitor these revolts in order to assess the humans’ capability for self-rule; until they unite across racial, religious and economic divisions, the Empire will crush their revolts. That is, the Valgolians encourage resistance efforts to continually emerge, and then fail, as a means of advancing Earth society to their standard of acceptance.
Things are already improving for many of the conquered, who are no longer burdened with international warfare. Their resentment for Valgolian rule sounds unreasonable to Cornu, who is filled with the rationalizations from his training:
I came out of the enormous mountainlands into the sage plains of Nevada. For a few days I worked at a native ranch, listening to the talk and keeping my mouth shut. Yes, there was discontent!
“Their taxes are killing me,” said the owner. “What the hell incentive do I have to produce if they take it away from me?” I nodded, but thought: Your kind was paying more taxes in the old days, and had less to show for it. Here you get your money back in public works and universal security. No one on Earth is cold or hungry. Can you only produce for your own private gain, Earthling?
In the description of his travels as an agent provocateur, Cornu represents the humans he meets by their social status or cultural subtype. The women he meets while posing as a Chicago laborer are — regrettably — tagged as “sluts.” It’s not until he actually joins the resistance movement and spends time with the striking Barbara Hood that he begins to appreciate the humans as individuals. She, with her “huge blue eyes” and “soft mouth and stubborn chin,” manages to capture his attention.
Cornu gets his chance to infiltrate a sophisticated plot to liberate Earth; the plan is to launch a nuclear attack on Valgol itself, from a base hidden beneath the surface of a forgotten planet. He realizes that the rebels have armed themselves capably, and have formed an alliance with other dangerous resistance movements from other planets in the Empire.
If the “find the rebel base” plot sounds very familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it in every Star Wars movie, but always from a viewpoint sympathetic to the scrappy rebellion. Here, we have a more interesting perspective from Cornu, who as a Valgolian is trying desperately to hang onto his perception that he’s the only true grown-up in the room. This becomes increasingly difficult as he grows closer to Barbara.
Cornu eventually gets one golden chance to sabotage the rebel effort, but only after winning Barbara’s affections. This stokes an interesting internal conflict, and more than a hint of bitterness about the position his government has placed him:
The provocateur policy is the boldest and most farsighted enterprise ever undertaken. It is the first attempt to make history as we choose, to control the great social forces we are only dimly beginning to understand, so that intelligence may ultimately be its own master.
Sure. Very fine and idealistic, and no doubt fairly true as well. But there is death and treachery in it, loneliness and heartbreak, and the bitterness of the betrayed. Have we the right to set ourselves up as God? Can we really say, in our omniscience, that everyone but us is wrong?
It is a fine question to pose – Cornu sees himself as part of an effort to discover his free will. At some point, the rebellion is supposed to succeed against the Empire. However, whether the Earthlings are deserving of self-rule was not supposed to be his job to assess. Evidently, the Empire has grossly underestimated the humans this time … does that mean they remain justified in keeping them under their thumbs?
Anderson successfully poses the above questions in “Inside Earth”, which succeeds more as a science fiction story than a spy story. Cornu gets engaged in arguments with the friends he makes among the rebels, arousing their suspicions but somehow not blowing his cover. His ability to master the circuitry of a communications device seems to materialize for the convenience of the plot. The racist ravings of an older rebel appear to be thrown in at the end.
There are also several evocative descriptions of the Western and alien landscapes, especially when Anderson considers mountain peaks and stars in the night. I think they do serve to enrich the story, even if they can seem a little out of place:
Overhead the stars were glittering, bright and hard and cruel, flashing and flashing out of the crystal dark. The peaks rose on every side, soaring dizziness of cliffs and ragged snarl of crags, hemming us in with our tiny works and struggles.
Descriptions like the above reveal an author soon destined for greater things. 7/10.
One of my favorites SF writers, though I’ve sadly neglected him for some time.
Nobody does guilty conflicts half so well. Did you ever encounter his story “Sister Planet”? A good one to read when you want to bask in misanthropy a while. “Oh God. Please exist. Please make a hell for me.”
There’s something almost noir-ish about Anderson. The way he keeps trying to balance out this complex moral equation inside himself–and never quite does. The columns never add up. But the math is breathtaking at times, all the same.
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I never heard of “Sister Planet,” but seeing that it was selected by Aldiss for an anthology once, I’ll have to keep an eye out.
Guilt is indeed a major theme with Anderson. The last novel of his that I read, “The Enemy Stars” featured the guilt borne – extremely reluctantly – by the patriarch of a family of spacemen that just sent his last descendant on a doomed mission. There’s an awful lot of depth hiding behind the cheesy covers and interchangeable titles. It’s difficult, in fact, to pick out his masterpieces for that reason.
Well if you want to try sometime, I’ll be glad to follow along.
I remember “The Merman’s Childre”n–about the half-human progeny of merfolk, torn between the sea and land, between human sexual morality and the total lack thereof of their magical cousins (who have no incest taboo, and the older brother and sister are deeply in love with each other, but the brother can’t shake off what he learned from mom’s people, no matter how he tries.) They wander from place to place like the oceanic Children of Lir. Draws on both Celtic and Norse myth, and feels utterly rooted in reality. Nothing the least bit airy-fairy about it.
Strange man. Strange soul. I sure hope he was happier in real life than he seems in his books. Then again, cheaper than an analyst. They actually pay you. Though it’s SF/Fantasy, so not much. 😉
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Just a quick note to say I didn’t know Anderson, I’ve googled around the last few days, and it looks like I’ll be reading him indeed. Thanks!