Thursday, September 20, 2012
REBELS, ALIENS AND FIGURING OUT WHO THE GOOD GUY IS
Poul Anderson is probably my favorite writer of hard science fiction (he was equally adept at fantasy, by the way) and his Technic Civilization future history is well-constructed and used as the basis for a admirable variety of adventure stories.
Take The Rebel Worlds (1969), for instance, which recounts a chronologically early adventure of Dominic Flandry, an Intelligence officer serving a vast interstellar empire.
He’s a cynical womanizer willing to use ruthless and often unethical methods to get his job done, but he turns out to be the good guy anyways. Flandry recognizes that the Empire is decaying. He knows that when it falls, a violent Dark Age will inflict itself on literally thousands of inhabited worlds. So he does what he can—no matter what that might be—to stave off the inevitable Long Night.
In The Rebel Worlds, the sadistic and power hungry governor of a remote sector is about to be reported by his top general. So he has the general—and the general’s beautiful wife—arrested. The general’s loyal officers spring him from the slammer and declare him Emperor. He has no choice but to go along—he certainly can’t allow a decadent Emperor to continue to rule—not while that Emperor allows swine like the governor to abuse power, murdering and enslaving to line his own pockets.
But there’s no chance to rescue his wife, who remains a personal prisoner of the governor.
Flandry is given command of a small warship and an independent commission to investigate and perhaps head off what would be a devastating civil war. He uses a broad interpretation of his orders to sneak Kathryn—the general’s wife—away from the governor. He has a half-formed plan to use her to negotiate with the rebels, but things go awry when his ship is shot down and he crashes on a rebel-held world.
But Flandry might just have a plan to turn certain defeat into victory. If only this plan wasn’t hindered by the fact that he was falling in love with Kathryn.
Flandry is in an interesting quandary. He loathes the governor because of his mistreatment (to phrase it far too mildly) of Kathryn and won’t turn her back over to him no matter what. He sympathizes with the motives of the rebels, but knows that a civil war would bring the Empire down no matter who won. If Kathryn’s husband won the throne and ruled well, he’ll still have established a precedent for any other discontented general to do the same thing. That would be the end of stability and the beginning of the Long Night. So, no matter what, the rebels have to be stopped.
It all allows for some powerfully emotional character moments woven expertly into the action-adventure plot. I especially like the character of Kathryn, who is intelligent, capable and completely loyal to her husband even when presented with some severe temptations to act otherwise.
Poul Anderson had a talent for creating self-consistent alien worlds—inhabited by species whose biology and culture made sense in context to that world. Often, his stories would center around the human protagonists deducing some aspect of the alien culture or psychology in order to complete their mission or save themselves from danger. “The Man Who Counts” (1958—titled War of the Wing-Men in later printings) is perhaps my favorite example of this.
In The Rebel Worlds,
up with an interesting race that inhabits the planet on which Flandry and is
crew is stranded. Each “individual” in this race is actually three separate
species—each one of limited intelligence alone, but who become a tool-using
intelligent being when symbiotically joined together. In fact, the different components can join up
in different combinations, making a variety of “individual” persons with a
wide-range of memories and skills.
This time, the aliens are mostly a side-issue rather than the main focus of the story. But all the same, Flandry might just be able to make use of this unique race as part of a clever plan to stop the rebellion without sacrificing the woman he loves.
The Rebel Worlds is enjoyable and intelligent science fiction; a book that presents a hard-science setting without sacrificing very human characterizations. Anderson’s view of history was that it is cyclical—that civilizations rise and give stability and safety for a time, then fall into chaos until something else rises up to take its place. It’s a view that his Technic future history is very much built upon and he used this premise to construct some truly engrossing stories.