Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Poul Anderson: "Tiger by the Tail," "Sargasso of Lost Starships" and "The Star Plunderer"

Having read three stories by 1996 Grand Master A. E. van Vogt in our last episode, let's read three stories by 1998 Grand Master Poul Anderson today.  I find Anderson's bibliography a little confusing (though not as confusing as van Vogt's, of course) but I am pretty sure these three stories are all set in the same universe as that inhabited by overweight space merchant Nicholas van Rijn, van Rijn's protégé David Falkayn, and agent of the decadent empire which succeeded the vigorous growing civilization of which van Rijn and Falkayn were exemplars, Dominic Flandry. All three first appeared in Planet Stories in the 1950s; I am reading them in scans of the old magazines available for free at the world's greatest website, the internet archive. 

"Tiger by the Tail" (1951)

If you recognize the brunette with the blingy coif on the cover of the issue of Planet Stories in which "Tiger by the Tail" first appeared, maybe it's because back in 2018 we read the other Poul Anderson story that was printed in this issue, "Witch of the Demon Seas," which appeared under a pseudonym. 

Captain Dominic Flandry of the intelligence service wakes up after a night spent drinking in the demimonde of planet Lynathawyr building up contacts for his current mission to find he has been kidnapped and is aboard a space ship crewed by barbarians; they wear kilts and from their belts hang the scalps of their enemies as well as blasters.  These jokers, the Scothani, have seized Flandry to pump him for information about the Terran Empire and in hopes he will turn against the decadent and corrupt government of the human race and join them in their conquests.  In Flandry's conversations with the barbarians, Anderson presents his themes of how an overly sophisticated empire preoccupied with petty internal squabbles and populated by selfish pleasure-seekers is vulnerable to attack from honest and vigorous barbarians who lack polish and culture but have energy and ambition and are eager to embrace risk and take one for the team.

As well as a respectable space fleet, the Scothani have built up an empire of scores of systems and alliances with other species of spacefaring barbarians, and plan to invade the Terran Empire in a year or two.  The Terran Empire is so poorly led and its people so soft that the Scothani and friends have a real chance of doing some real damage.  Fortunately, over the months, the charismatic Flandry worms his way into a position of confidence with several barbarian nobles and gives them advice that turns them against each other.  Flandry also seduces the young and beautiful queen of the Scothani, whose marriage to the old and neglectful king is a purely political one--she is from a rival ethnic group from the south that doesn't really care to be under the thumb of the king's northern people.  (The Scothani are not human, with their pointy ears and little horns, but they are sexually compatible with humans, and Flandry follows in the footsteps of John Carter who was getting it on, as the kids say, with an egg-laying Martian princess, though Carter was a gentleman who married Dejah Thorus of Helium while Flandry is strictly the love 'em and leave 'em type.)  Thanks to Flandry, the Scothani fall out with their allies and their empire erupts into civil war, short circuiting their invasion of Terran territory.  

In the story's climax the Queen is having mixed feelings about starting a civil war among her people out of love for an alien, and she pulls a gun on Flandry and forces him to swordfight with the Scothani prince who first captured him, her stepson, I guess in hopes the Terran agent will prove himself a real man and not just a conniving spook.  Fortunately Flandry has studied fencing and boxing scientifically and outfights the barbarian in single combat.

An acceptable entertainment with a space battle, a sword fight, and a tragic love story that straightforwardly presents the historical and sociological theories that Anderson presumably based on his reading about the Roman Empire, plus denunciations of racism and a celebration of free trade--Anderson covers all the bases in this one, like he's trying to brew up a microcosm of his entire career.  "Tiger by the Tail" was included by Donald Wollheim in an anthology in 1963 and by Valentino de Carlo in another in 1967, but since then has appeared almost exclusively in collections of Flandry stories. 

"Sargasso of Lost Starships" (1952)

The cover of this issue of Planet Stories features a blonde fighting for her life against some horrendous alien.  Good luck young lady, we are pulling for you!  Inside we find a letter from Chad Oliver in which old Chad tells fellow SF fans that he is finishing up his MA in anthropology--Chad also performs an act of magnanimity towards a former antagonist.  And of course the story that brought us here, Poul Anderson's "Sargasso of Lost Starships."  This story doesn't seem to have set the SF world afire--it wasn't reprinted until the 21st century!

Planet Ansa, an independent colony of humans with an aristocratic culture of landed nobles and a peasantry tied to the land, recently was conquered by the Terran Empire--the town the story starts in is still in ruins and the streets are patrolled by Terran soldiers.  Ansa's most adventurous space captain, Basil Donovan, the Earl of Lanstead, survived the war.  An arrogant aristocrat as well as a skilled naval officer, he considers the Terrans who have conquered his planet to be mere peasants.  Donovan is summoned to the ship of Captain Helena Jansky of the Terran space navy.  Jansky has been given the job of exploring the mysterious Black Nebula; superstitious spacefarers think the nebula is haunted and those planet-bound barbarians whose systems lie in sight of the nebula worship it as an evil god.  The Terran intelligence apparatus has determined that Donovan knows more than anybody about this creepy light-year-wide cloud of dust, so, when Jansky's ship blasts off, Donovan and his alien slave Wocha, a big muscular brute like a rhinoceros centaur, are aboard.

Donovan is reluctant to tell Janksy about his adventure in the Black Nebula, but as the ship approaches the ball of dust the truth becomes clear to us readers.  Inside the nebula lies the planet Arzun, which is inhabited by a decadent alien race of immortal psychopaths who look like humans but have god-like powers--they can teleport between planets, for example, and manipulate matter with their minds.  Among other high crimes and misdemeanors, they use these powers to drive human space travelers insane; as Jansky's ship enters the region of the nebula the ship's lights turn on and off, the men hear scary voices, they see things that make them draw their weapons and accidentally shoot themselves, etc.  When Donovan came to the nebula as captain of an Ansan ship before the war with Terra, many members of his crew died or lost their minds, but he met a gorgeous Arzunian woman, Valduma, and fell stupidly in love with this evil creature.

The psychic aliens cause Janksy's ship to crash on Arzun, killing half the crew.  The survivors march across the bleak planet for weeks, fighting monsters as they go.  Donovan and Janksy become an item, as the kids say, and Donovan has to choose between the essentially decent Terran captain and the goddess-like but evil Valduma, who can provide him sexual pleasures no human can.  Valduma offers her erotic talents in return for Donovan's help capturing the Terrans--the few remaining Arzunians, who are like ten thousand years old, want to leave the Black Nebula and conquer the Terran Empire, but their teleporting powers don't operate more than a light year or so from the Nebula and they need to kidnap the Terran spacemen and make them operate a ship for them.  (Because they are decadent and never developed technology beyond swords and mail, they can't figure out how to crew the spaceships they have captured over the decades themselves.) 

Donovan chooses to side with his fellow humans instead of becoming valduma's boy toy, and there follows a long, perhaps too long, series of scenes of hand-to-hand battle; the aliens may have their psychic powers, but the humans are disciplined fighting men and have the aid of Donovan's hulking slave, who is as strong as several men; eventually the Terrans triumph over the selfish and ill-disciplined psykers.  

"Sargasso of Lost Starships" is a decent space opera/planetary romance kind of thing with a love triangle involving an evil femme fatale and plenty of monsters and aliens.  And again we have Anderson's themes of clashes between different sorts of societies, societies in a state of radical change, and a celebration of cultures in which people work together across borders of class and biological identity.  Some might claim the Arzunians' abilities are inconsistent and contrived, that the psykers switch between being surprisingly powerful or surprisingly weak depending on what Anderson wants to do with the plot or what atmosphere Anderson is trying to create, and I think there are too many repetitive scenes of people fighting with swords and spears, but otherwise "Sargasso of Lost Starships" works.     

"The Star Plunderer"

I recognized "The Star Plunderer" immediately as I began reading it; I must have read it as an adult but before I started this blog in my copy of 1986's The Stars at War, edited by John F, Carr and Jerry Pournelle, which I have had since I was a kid.  For the purposes of this blog post I read the magazine version.

"The Star Plunderer" is a first-person narrative, part of an unpublished book written during the founding of the Terran Empire and discovered by archaeologists centuries later.  After a little intro by an archaeologist, the narrative starts with Mother Earth at her lowest point--our big blue marble is being sacked by six-limbed aliens with super strength!  

I guess the conventional wisdom is that SF before some date or other was irredeemably sexist, but here in "The Star Plunderer," as in "Sargasso of Lost Spaceships," we have a woman who fights the enemies of Terra with a gun and when her gun stops working she fights the aliens hand to hand.  In the first section of the story our narrator, John Reeves, and his fiance, Kathryn O'Donnell, are overwhelmed by the Gorzuni raiders after killing many of them and enslaved.  

The Gorzuni are one species among those that make up the Baldic League, an alliance of barbarians (humans who have betrayed Terra among them) who have defeated the decadent Terran Commonwealth's space fleet and have been looting the Solar System for years.  These barbarians can use modern equipment like space ships and firearms, but they aren't too good at building or repairing them, so John and Kathryn, trained engineers, are plucked from among the scores of human slaves packed into the hold of a rundown Gorzuni star ship to become the assistants to the senior human slave who is responsible for maintaining the captured human-built vessel.  That senior slave's name is Manuel Argos, and readers of "Sargasso of Lost Starships" (which takes place a century or two after "The Star Plunderer") will recognize that name as that of the first Emperor of Terra!  He may be a slave now, but he is brave, ambitious, a keen judge of character and a master manipulator, and he is determined to take over this ship and then lead humanity to victory over the barbarians, and he wants John and Kathryn to be his right hand man and woman!

The second half or so of the story follows Manuel, John and Kathryn's plotting, successful mutiny, liberation of the three hundred slaves on the ship, and then their development of the ship into an efficient machine and the slaves into a skilled space crew with which they raid the Gorzuni home system.  While all this happens Kathryn is falling in love with the larger-than-life hero Manuel, leaving the oblivious John in the lurch!  In the final scene, back on Earth, she tells John she is leaving him for Manuel and our heartbroken narrator bitterly tells us that he knew then that Manuel and Kathryn would succeed in setting up a space empire and a dynasty, but he didn't give a damn!   

"The Star Plunderer" is the best of the three stories we are talking about today.  It covers much of the same territory philosophically, comparing aristocracy with democracy and monarchy with republicanism and decadence with youthful vitality, and like Flandry in "Tiger by the Tail," Manuel gives an anti-racism speech.  And yet again we've got a guy getting captured and winning a position of influence among his captors, and yet again we've got a love triangle.  But the decrepit space ship is a more interesting setting than those of the earlier stories, the fight scenes are more exciting and the machinations of the hero more believable, and the love triangle story more powerful.  I can recommend this one without reservation.

Besides all the Poul Anderson collections it has appeared in, "The Star Plunderer" has been reprinted in three anthologies: the aforementioned The Stars at War, Brian Aldiss's Galactic Empires, and Martin H. Greenberg and Charles Waugh's Commando Brigade 3000.  



All three of these stories are entertaining, but they all do follow a similar template: a guy gets captured by people who are, in his opinion at least, culturally inferior, and this gives Anderson a chance to compare and contrast different societies.  They all include love triangles that betray a sort of cynicism about sex, and contrive situations in which people in a milieu full of nuclear weapons and firearms kill other people with swords.  To avoid any chance of getting sick of Anderson's early work, I'll take a break from reading him for a while, but I think you can expect to hear more about Planet Stories in our next episode.    

1 comment:

  1. Poul Anderson was one of my favorite SF writers as a kid. I eagerly awaited each new ACE Double with Poul Anderson on one side (or both sides!). I also liked Anderson's short story collections published in the 1960s. In the Seventies, I drifted away from Anderson and found other more challenging SF writers like Jack Vance.