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.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
This entry was posted in books, science fiction, short fiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Strangers From Earth, by Poul Anderson (part 2)

  1. fredfitch says:

    Sorry it took me this long to comment. I have to read this one. Anderson perhaps had as finely tuned a conscience as any SF author–a deep seething anger against the way things are, and this sounds angrier than usual. It reminds me a bit of his story Sister Planet, the way you tell it. I’ll have to look it up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      Poring over these stories has been useful in figuring out the DNA of the Flandry series, which include a couple of pretty strong novels. It’s a little bit like reading through Philip K. Dick’s early stories, they’re good enough on their own, but their real value is in watching the author form his favorite building blocks. Could the same be said for a famous crime writer, like Hammett (I haven’t read any of his short pieces)?

      I had a couple of grammar mishaps in that Cinc –> Cincinnatus paragraph — those have been fixed.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        I just fixed a mistake in an article I wrote like three years ago, so it’s literally never too late. As long as you don’t forget your log-in. 😉


  2. Pingback: Strangers from Earth, by Poul Anderson (part 3) | gaping blackbird

  3. Pingback: Star Ways, by Poul Anderson | gaping blackbird

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