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 isfdb.org. The cartoon images are from the film Waking Life (2001).