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. isfdb.org

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.”

“Why?”

“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.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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4 Responses to Ensign Flandry, by Poul Anderson

  1. fredfitch says:

    I am myself now reading the Johnny Fedora novels, about a spy/assassin who is irresistible to women (and keeps misplacing them, though they usually leave him), the first of which were published years before Mr. Bond came along, as did many another superspy. We tend to forget how well-established a trope tends to be before it comes to full flower in terms of popularity. The ones that hit big obscure the ones that were just decently successful, like the sun obscures the moon (and yet, isn’t it more enjoyable contemplate the moon?)

    Would Flandry have been the first SciFi Superspy?

    (I would say SF, being a purist, except I couldn’t resist the rhyme.)

    I thought I was a Poul Anderson reader, but you are really getting into the weeds with him. I hadn’t even heard of these stories. Never came across them in the dusty paperback swap shops.

    Like

    • pete says:

      Flandry might be the first SF hero to combine flamboyant behavior with a growing weariness at keeping his Empire together. Of course, he’s a military man instead of a civilian, but he has a complex relationship with his home planet. He knows the Terran decadence is fatal for keeping an empire going, but he also confesses “to live” for all the finer things in life. It must have given him a wide appeal to Anderson’s SF audience, and left plenty of room for character development.

      The Flandry stories belong to Anderson’s “Technic History,” which is, as far as I can tell, his second attempt at a Heinleinesque future history. He worked through some the issues that can be seen in his early novels: the dialogue is more purposeful and passages showing the “other side” of the conflict-and-hand use that side’s viewpoint. One of the best chapters in EF features the Merseian ruling class, showing their power structure and religious belief in conquest.

      The Flandry books are certainly around, but perhaps they’re not as popular as Anderson’s most famous one-off titles. It would be hard to forget seeing that periscope cover!

      Like

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

  3. Pingback: Shield, by Poul Anderson | gaping blackbird

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