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).

About pete

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

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    One of the books I reviewed very early in my site’s history… not sure what I would think of it now!

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      I think it depends if you think the longish political theory passage–spouted by an older man, presumably in tweed–is Anderson trying to push something, or if he’s having some fun with writers who do (cough, Heinlein, cough). I’ve read enough PA to know the man likes to make a good joke, so I chose the latter.


  2. fredfitch says:

    You have me suitably intrigued with the reference to Anarchaos. As you know, I think of that as a Hammett-inspired crime novel transplanted to an alien world, because that allows Westlake to go places he couldn’t in a regular crime novel (not even with Parker). I’ve never seen much of a Hammett influence on Anderson, but Dash can pop up in the oddest places….

    No ebook, but lots of cheap copies out there. I’ll get back to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      The “man gets dropped onto hostile planet, fights his way around until planet is irrevocably changed” trope has been done quite a lot. Anarchaos might be the best of the ones that I’ve read, but Anderson’s approach makes Shield interesting. Lester del Rey’s Police Your Planet is thoroughly average but has been reprinted a bunch of times; a testament to a formula that works (for sales).

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        I like Harry Harrison’s Deathworld novels, which certainly fall into that category. The twist there, at least with the first one, is that sometimes fighting is not only not the answer, it’s the damn problem.


  3. fredfitch says:

    The subject of A.E. Van Vogt came up here recently–just now wondering how would you compare The Shield to this oddly influential little book, which I have not read in many a dark aeon.

    You can always count on a monomaniac to miss the point of any story relating to his idee fixe, but Anderson wouldn’t, and I’d assume this was an influence on his take on the same idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      I too read The Weapon Shops of Isher many years ago . . . way back, when I first started collecting old SF paperbacks via ebay and money orders. If I remember correctly, the Isher weapons could only be used as self-defense, because of some unexplained property. Anderson, being a pioneering “hard SF” writer, replaced van Vogt’s magic with a more plausible-sounding force-field device. Anderson’s rule for SF was to purposely break one law, and let everything else logically flow from it. van Vogt obviously didn’t have that kind of discipline.

      The other aspect of Weapon Shops is the political importance of the shops, as a check on the otherwise totalitarian state. They have an alternative court system (I forgot what kind of cases those courts governed), but the fact that the shops existed seemed to be the most important aspect; they symbolized liberty, or at least the hope of it.

      I probably didn’t think about Weapon Shops very deeply because gun rights haven’t been a particularly important issue for me. I always found the dedicated opposition to bans on repeating rifles, “bump stocks” and the like perplexing. But since then, especially while working in academia, I’ve seen the same kind of “give no quarter” attitude in the advocacy of other things:

      — funding for the studying of dying languages, or keeping niche departments open
      — the odd benefit where the children of university faculty attend the institution at drastically reduced rates, often with reduced admission standards
      — the freedom for a professor to choose whoever they wanted to teach classes in their absence, regardless of qualifications

      All of the above were privileges that benefited an already-privileged minority, but practically the entire faculty would be up in arms whenever they were challenged. I suspect it’s more from the symbolic value of these “rights” than anything. I suppose van Vogt’s book would be worth a second look, for the sake of the rights-versus-privileges argument.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        I think people always prefer privileges to rights, because a right is more passive–it’s something you have to make the most of yourself, instead of something that devolves to you without effort.

        The right to speak doesn’t mean you can speak well. The right to worship doesn’t mean your prayers are answered. The pursuit of happiness–well, my point is made.

        A privilege is something you have that others don’t–like being born very good-looking by the standards of your society–everybody wants a built-in edge, because Darwin, but nobody admits it.

        Now technically, people who advocate for gun rights say “We want everyone to have and exercise those rights” but you look closer, they don’t really believe that, and in essence being white and of a certain class makes it easier to get a gun (or scores of them), and obviously if everybody has a gun, the majority wins (hence some of them actually advocating for laws that obligate you to own one, which will exclude certain persons, and you’ve got a built-in edge for that Turner Diaries scenario some of them are just champing at the bit for, at least in theory).

        We do worry about the state–liberals as much as conservatives, albeit differently. We worry that the civil society won’t be enough to stand against absolutism, and suppose it’s people we don’t like who seize that power–seize it first! Get that privilege! Go for the advantage, because equality before the law is just a thing we talk about but never mean.

        Now if I had kids, which I don’t, I could in fact get reduced tuition for them at the university I work at (where I am not a professor). I’m in a union, and it’s something we’ve got, and you better believe we’d fight for it if they tried to take it away. That to me seems fair, because working class people do need a leg up. Professors is more of a gray area, but they fight just as hard for their perks. But at least they’re not fighting for the right to overthrow the government with small arms, like that makes any sense to begin with. The Weapons Shops are real–but they don’t work for us. We don’t pay well enough.

        What were we talking about? 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. fredfitch says:

    Took me a while to get this, and longer to get around to reading it, but just finished it. You weren’t kidding about the awkward landing, but this type of story almost never lands convincingly. The takeoff was pretty decent (with a bit of a noir feel, that doesn’t get developed enough). Some good stuff along the way, but less than I’d hoped. It embodies the very weaknesses of SF in the early 60’s that made Westlake abandon the form. But in fairness, Anderson had to write to the market just as much as Westlake did.

    The problem with this one is that unlike Westlake, who stayed close to the stark model of Hammett with Anarchaos, stayed focused on telling the story and letting it make the points for him, Anderson is drawing much more upon Heinlein–and Heinlein’s weakness for impromptu political lectures, that we the reader are supposed to take seriously. I think like a third of the book is people explaining society’s ills and potential solutions to other people. That doesn’t even work for George Orwell. (But at least Orwell knew it.)

    The founder of the Equals (who doesn’t seem to know he’s founded them) is kind of interesting, since Anderson seems to be saying his ideas are sound, but the moment people start to try and implement them, they go wrong. Castles in the Air come crashing to earth the moment someone takes up occupancy.

    The answer Koskinen comes up with is that you just let the people figure it out for themselves–the shield will give them each the chance to explore unfettered individuality, and it’s not a gun–except it could be used for mass slaughter in an enclosed space very easily as is demonstrated. Walk into a crowded dance club and kill hundreds in seconds. Way more efficient than an AR-15, and nobody can fire back at you.

    Since I never took most of it seriously, I’m mainly mad about what happens with the love interest, who is quite reminiscent of some of Octavia Butler’s female leads from the 70’s and onwards. Not nearly so well-drawn, but still, I think the best parts of the book involve her and Koskinen on the lam–and yet Anderson introduces an alternate love interest who isn’t a tenth as interesting, and yet Vivienne just concedes the game to her for no reason other than (I suppose) she’s not the marrying kind.

    (Also, Koskinen thinks to himself, gazing upon her dark beauty, that she must be a quadroon. People in the future are going to refer to beautiful mixed-race women as quadroons? What maroons.)

    Some of the analysis of earth’s problems does evoke present-day issues, and I’m not saying Anderson had no clue about politics, but I think we know by now (and Westlake knew then) that Libertarianism isn’t the answer. No ‘ism’ ever is. Anderson kind of sees that, but hasn’t figured out a way around it–ultimately, Koskinen just becomes his own social theorist–and does an experiment with the entire planet, to paraphrase Al Gore.

    The stuff with the Martians (who we never see) was probably most intriguing, and I’d have liked to see a sequel where he and Vivienne go to Mars together–that really was the solution–go back and wait for earth to be ready for the shield. And work on some little octaroons in the nonce.

    Well, he wasn’t a mature writer yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      Yeah, a trip to Mars might have made for a more intriguing ending, although that might have elevated the book’s plot to van Vogtian levels of implausibility.

      Koskinen’s fascination with Vivienne had a lot to do with the fact that he was a returning astronaut, obviously a hardcore geek, and hadn’t interacted with women for a prolonged period of time. The use of quadroon was a hint –an awkward, dated one at that– that this near-future Earth hadn’t totally absorbed the idea of mixed-race relationships, or mixed-race people at that. To be frank, it wasn’t an entirely unreasonable speculation in 1965 (I suspect its constituent parts came out of the 1950s). Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever came out in 1990, and many universities seem to be re-segregating themselves.

      Koskinen’s understanding of the shield itself was also demonstrably incomplete; as you pointed out, even after he experiences its potential for slaughter, he wants to “open source” its technology. The gap between theory and practice is as wide as the one between the Equals and their founder. I’m currently reading Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding, a history of Science Fiction’s “Golden Age,” and it’s possible Anderson used John W. Campbell and company for inspiration.

      It’s fair to say Anderson wasn’t at his apex at the time of Shield. By 1965, however, he was capable of producing some outstanding titles. I already mentioned how clever The High Crusade was, but the real hidden gem (which I read a week ago) was The Night Face or, as it was originally known, Let the Spaceman Beware! This one was from 1963, and demonstrated real ambition; highly recommended. In fact, I thought I was finally getting tired of Anderson’s work until stumbling on that short novel.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        Looking forward to hearing more about that one.

        I appreciated the cleverness of some ideas here, but they were executed too hastily. Open source is well enough for for software, but this is a device you can easily kill a lot of people with that will overturn governments and turn individuals into petty gods. Anderson had to write a way for Koskinen to defend himself, he wanted to make it believable, and then he didn’t reckon wtih the full implications of what he’d written, because he was out of space. Too much plot for a short novel.

        I’ve seen this general free-wheeling ethos before–Clifford D. Simak’s “The Big Front Yard” posits that an old Yankee trader can be in charge of an information superhighway that allows humans to trade ideas with endless alien races just bopping on through (and that none of them have ever thought of inventing paint). The government just agrees to stand by and watch this happen, and leaving disease out of it, obviously this could go really wron really fast, but the point is that the Yankee trader has a good job again.

        Libertarianism has a lot of adherents in SF–and in fiction generally. Writers are free-lancers, living from book to book, and they bristle at taxation more than some corporations do. Westlake certainly had a Libertarian streak, but it was tempered by his very deep knowledge of human nature. Anderson sees the pitfalls as well, but he just loves the idea he’s come up with so much–and it’s not the kind of story where you deal with the consequences fully. It’s an adventure, and there’s a great girl in it, and let’s get back to that.

        Vivienne is the best thing in the book. And of course just having a potential romance doesn’t mean the hero and heroine end up together, but he seems to have gone that way with it–the hero realizes ‘this is the girl’–and then decided it would’t work. Okay, it’s the 60’s, but Westlake wrote Up Your Banners just a few years later, which ends quite differently.

        Interracial romance can be done extremely well (in life as well as fiction), but you do have to deal with prejudice to write it credibly–Anderson doesn’t have time. There’s no indication other than ‘quadroon’ that anybody on this earth thinks about race, and there’s no mention of any other non-white people except the Chinese–who Anderson seems ambivalent about. Yes, many of them are good people, but Koskinen stil can’t bring himself to send any Chinese the specs for his shield. We still distrust the Chinese government, but leaving that aside, there were a lot of Asian Americans then, and it really does seem that in this future America, white is still the default color.

        Which is made more noticeable by Vivienne’s presence. She herself seems unaware racism ever existed. Because in the worlds created by SF authors of that period, it mainly didn’t–just the effects of it upon those authors, not dealt with very well. The fault isn’t in society, it’s in us. And you can only deal with it by looking at it honestly.

        The weird thing is, this is a man who spent FIVE YEARS on Mars, dealing with alien races (no indication his crew were anything other than white guys), and forming a deep connection with these alien beings–and he can’t understand a fellow human who is maybe one-fourth African ancestry, and looks at the Chinese as the real aliens.

        So on the whole, I don’t think this one dates well. The book or its hero. I mean, they’re in there behind the shield for a good while, waiting to find out if they’re going to die, and zero indication they did anything but cuddle. Anderson worships the opposite sex, but his romances can be awfully frustrating. (Like the half-human merman whose true love is his sister, but they picked up the incest taboo from mom).


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