Monday, 2 April 2018


The theme of this essay is the puzzling and saddening fact that even most people who are readers are simply not interested in rereading even the most excellent stories and novels.  For the purposes of this article I'm largely focusing on science fiction and the works of Poul Anderson.

I was inspired to write this article by discussions I had with a good friend I'll call "J.B."  She noticed how I was rereading Poul Anderson's AGENT OF THE TERRAN EMPIRE.  I told J.B . it was the third or fourth time I was reading that collection (or even more than four times).  She was surprised and puzzled over why I would read any book more than once.  And expressed the same bafflement at an earlier time when I told her I was reading S.M. Stirling's THE PESHAWAR LANCERS a third time.

J.B. thought that once a book has been read there was no reason to reread it because you would know what the book was about, or remember the basic plot of the story. There would be no surprise or mystery left in the book.  I disagreed and tried to explain to her the various reasons why good books, such as the works of Poul Anderson, richly deserve to be reread many times.

I told J.B. that a skillful author can write so strikingly and beautifully that the pleasure to be gained from rereading such a book more than makes up for any lack of mystery.  I argued (at greater length here, in writing) that a good writer can develop plots, strikingly portray characters we love, hate, admire, or have only contempt for, etc.  A good writer makes us CARE about the characters he created.  I believe that alone explains why some stories deserve to be reread over and over.

There are other reasons why excellent novels and stories are rightly reread.  A good writer not only creates interesting characters, he paints in fascinating backgrounds and scenarios.  He gives us color and drama and small fascinating details.  I  argue that a good, well written story can be compared, in some ways, to masterful paintings.

What I wrote above naturally leads to a point I have seen other readers making.  I have seen complaints that authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Poul Anderson gives us too much background and detail in their stories. That these writers slowed down the ACTION in their stories when they allegedly "digress"  into poetry (a particular complaint made against Tolkien).  I disagree and declare that it's precisely such things which helps to make these stories permanently worth rereading.

I have nothing against action and adventure in stories and novels.  When done well they make such stories exciting and pleasurable to read.  One example of that being the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But it is my belief that stories which also have ideas and reflections about mankind, history, society, philosophy, etc., gives them the solidity and depth needed to justify reading them over and over through generations and centuries.  The greatest of such masterpieces passes into the general use of mankind by being translated into many languages (as has happened to many of the works of Poul Anderson).

Getting back to an earlier point I made, an author can write so well that the ideas, symbols, metaphors, allusions, etc., that he uses evokes or brings up in our minds images which makes us wish to read on.  And this is true both of books read for the first time and for stories reread many times.

One way an author like Poul Anderson tries to attract the attention of new readers is by the skillful writing of opening paragraphs to his stories.  These texts use images, ideas, and symbols so deftly and colorfully that at least some readers will want to continue reading, to find out what happened in the story.  In addition, such texts are simply a pleasure to read multiple times.

Here I will quote from one of Anderson's stories an example of a skillfully written and suggestively evocative opening paragraph.  The first paragraph of Chapter I of  "Hunters of the Sky Cave" (AGENT OF THE TERRAN EMPIRE, Gregg Press, 1979. AT page 95).   At my request J.B. read this text as part of my effort to convince her that some books are deserving of being read more than once.
    'It pleased Ruethen of the Long Hand to give a feast and ball at the Crystal Moon for his enemies. He knew they must come.  Pride of race had slipped from Terra, while the need to appear well-bred and sophisticated had waxed correspondingly.  The fact that spaceships prowled and fought fifty light years beyond Antares made it all the more impossible a gaucherie to refuse an invitation from the Merseian representative.  Besides, one could feel delightfully wicked and ever so delicately in danger.'
The text quoted above is only one of the many, many passages in the works of Poul Anderson which has stayed in my mind because of their beauty, elegance, allusiveness, etc.  From time to time I like to browse through some of his stories to reread such texts because I wanted to enjoy their beauty.  It does not matter how many times I have read them.

The text quoted from Chapter I of HUNTERS OF THE SKY CAVE is an excellent example of a "teaser" paragraph designed to entice readers to ask questions about what they had read and become curious enough to read further.  Questions like this: who was Ruethen and why was he subtly mocking his enemies by hosting a feast and ball for them?  Why were spaceships prowling and fighting fifty light years beyond Antares, etc.?

I urge people who believe that a book only needs to be read only once to consider the proposition that multiple readings of excellent stories can bring out implications and shades of meaning easily missed in a first reading. A second and third reading often brings out ideas and details overlooked the first time a book is read.  And some readers are so passionately devoted to certain authors and their works that these stories will be read many times throughout their lives.

Thursday, 8 February 2018


In this article I will discuss how Poul Anderson used the game of chess. I noticed how many times, in both stories and novels, chess is mentioned by him.  This caused me to keep in the remoter recesses of my mind the wish to someday write about this author's use of the Royal Game.  Chess, along with poker, seems to have been the games best liked by Anderson. I realize this essay will not interest most people, appealing only to fans of Poul Anderson who also enjoy chess.  I don't claim to have tracked down every mention or use of chess by Anderson in his works--only to have collected a representative sampling of his use of that game.

Fred Saberhagen, in the Introduction he wrote for PAWN TO INFINITY (Ace Books, June 1982), made some interesting comments about how much chess and science fiction have in common.  I'll quote some of what he said from page 1 of that book: "Chess and fantastic fiction (I use the term here to include science fiction) began an enthusiastic encounter with each other at least as far back as Lewis Carroll, and the mating is still in progress.  Both contain strong elements of conflict--Emmanuel Lasker, one of the great players of all time, defined chess as a struggle--and both are set in worlds where time and space are subject to transformation, the ordinary rules of human existence do not apply.  Therefore both tend to appeal to the same kind of mind; an interest in the fantastic is very often a sign of interest in chess, and vice versa."  I used the text found in that book of Anderson's "The Immortal Game" for this essay. And what Saberhagen said about fantastic fiction fans often being interested in chess is certainly true of me!

Before getting down to a discussion of Anderson's use of chess, collected from some of his works, I shall give a general overview of how science fiction writers have used that game. I quoted the following text from the article "Games and Sports," by Bryan Stableford and Peter Nicholls  (THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION, St. Martin's Press, 1993, page 467): "The game which has most frequently fascinated sf writers is chess, featured in Charles L. HARNESS's "The Chess Players (1953) and Poul ANDERSON's "The Immortal Game" (1954) as well as Malzberg's TACTICS OF CONQUEST.  John Brunner's THE SQUARES OF THE CITY (1965) has a plot based on a real chess game, and Ian WATSON's QUEENMAGIC, KINGMAGIC (1986) includes a world structured as one (as well as worlds structured according to other games, including Snakes and Ladders!).  Gerard Klein built the mystique of the game into STARMASTER'S GAMBIT (1958; trans. 1973).  A version of chess crops up in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs--in THE CHESSMEN OF MARS (1922) --  and a rather more exotic variant plays an important role in THE FAIRY CHESSMEN (1951; vt CHESSBOARD PLANET; vt THE FAR REALITY) by Lewis Padgett (Henry KUTTNER and C.L. MOORE).  An anthology of chess stories is PAWN TO INFINITY (anth 1982) ed Fred SABERHAGEN."  

The authors quoted immediately above also discussed how electronic arcade games and home computer games inspired many stories using such things. Stableford and Nicholls then wrote (also on page 467 of the same ENCYCLOPEDIA: "Stories of space battles whose protagonists are revealed in the last line to be icons in a computer-game "shoot 'em up" may have succeeded Shaggy God stories (---> ADAM AND EVE) as the archetypal folly perpetrated by novice writers (although Fredric Brown's similarly plotted "Recessional" [1960], where the protagonists are chessmen has been much anthologized)."

Poul Anderson was fond of chess, so I now quote some examples of how he mentioned or used that game from his works.  In Chapter I of THE LONG WAY HOME (Ace Books, 1955, as NO WORLD OF THEIR OWN. Republished in 1978 by Gregg Press as THE LONG WAY HOME), readers will find this on page 3: "Saris Hronna and Robert Matsumoto were the EXPLORER's chess fiends, they had spent many hours hunched over the board, and it was a strange thing to watch them: a human whose ancestors had left Japan for America and a creature from a planet a thousand light-years distant, caught in the trap of some ages-dead Persian.  More than the gaping emptinesses he had traversed, more than the suns and planets he had seen spinning  through darkness and vacuum, it gave Langley a sense of the immensity and omnipotence of time."

The game of chess is also seen in Anderson's story "Que Donn'rez Vous?" (TALES OF THE FLYING MOUNTAINS (Macmillan, 1970) on page 151:

    Q-K7.  "Check," said Roy Pearson.
    Captain Elias ben Judah did not swear, because it was against his principles.  But his comment was violent enough.  "Second blinking check in a row," he added, moving the black king to refuge at Kt3."
    "And the third," said his operations manager in a parched chuckle.  The white queen jumped in his artificial hand to Q8.

One thing I have pondered over with some puzzlement is why Poul Anderson, when he happened to mention chess MOVES, used the English or Descriptive notation formerly used by most Anglo/American chess players for recording moves of the game.  It would have been more "science fictional" if he had used the "Algebraic" notation now dominant for the recording of chess moves.  After all, as long ago as H.J.R. Murray's massive A HISTORY OF CHESS (1913), wherein the author advocated and used that system, many English speaking chess players must have known of the existence of Algebraic notation.  Anderson's use of English notation has caused some of his SF stories to "seem" just a bit dated.  The most likely reason for this is simple enough: the English notation was what Anderson was FAMILIAR with.  The rise and spread of chess computers of all kinds using only Algebraic notation after 1976 has driven Descriptive notation into extinction.  (I myself used first the English notation after learning how to play chess--but switched over to Algebraic notation without difficulty after I was given my first chess computer in the early 1980's.)

In Anderson's THREE WORLDS TO CONQUER (USA, Pyramid Books, 1964), in Chapter 4, is another mention of  the game: "...a chess set stood by Fraser's tobacco jar. He'd always liked chess and poker too much for his own good, he thought in the back of his brain: they could become a way of life if you didn't watch them."  I think this can reasonably be understood as being Anderson's personal view of these games.

I now wish to discuss how Anderson mentioned chess in his Time Patrol story "Brave To Be A King" (THE TIME PATROL, Tor [1991], page 53).  Keith Denison, a Patrol agent Shanghaied by a powerful Median politician to pose as Cyrus the Great, was conversing with Manse Everard and said: "Kobad the Mage has some original thoughts, and he's the only man alive who dares beat me at chess."  The problem is this, chess did not exist in that king's time, and would not for more than one thousand years. As H.J.R. Murray wrote on page 47 of  A HISTORY OF CHESS (1913.  Rpt. by Benjamin Press, Northampton, MA, undated): "The date when it occurred to some Indian to represent the chaturanga and its evolutions in a game cannot be fixed, though naturally it cannot be earlier than the organization of the army on which it is based.  Chess was certainly in existence in the 7th century A.D., and it had already at that time penetrated to Persia."  So it was mistaken of Anderson to say chess was being played in the Persia of Cyrus the Great (unless we are to assume Keith Denison taught the game at least to a few persons, such as Kobad the Mage).

The most numerous references to chess I found in the works of Poul Anderson came from his Technic Civilization series.  For example, the unnamed narrator in "The Problem of Pain" mentions chess: "...he plays chess at just about my level of skill," page 36 of THE EARTHBOOK OF STORMGATE (Berkley, 1978).

Chess is also seen in ENSIGN FLANDRY in Chapter 2.  Commander Max Abrams,  the officer in charge of Terra's Naval Intelligence operations on the planet Starkad, was not only a chess player, but also, in one of those curiously respectful, half-friendly relationships which can show up even between enemies in opposing military forces, was playing a game of correspondence chess with Runei the Wanderer, the Merseian officer in command of the Roidhunate's forces on the same planet.  Merseia was the great rival and enemy of the Terran Empire in the second half of Anderson's Technic Civilization stories.  But even Merseia, however hostile it was to mankind, the race which had not only saved its planet (see "Day of Burning") and from whom it learned how to reach the stars, couldn't help being culturally influenced by the Terrans in some ways (such as adopting chess and the drinking of tea).  Getting back to the point, in Chapter 2 we read: "Time must pass while the word seeped through channels.  Abrams opened a drawer, got out his magnetic chessboard, and pondered.  He hadn't actually been ready to play.  However, Runei the Wanderer was too fascinated by their match to refuse an offer if he had a spare moment lying around; and damn if any Merseian son of a mother was going to win at a Terran game."  We see Abrams reflecting on what move to make in the next paragraph: "Hm....promising development here, with the white, wait, then the queen might come under attack...tempting to sic a computer onto the problem...betcha the opposition did...maybe not...ah, so."  Regretfully, we see Anderson still using the antiquated Descriptive notation as Abrams gave Runei his move: "Knight to King's Bishop four."

One of the most extensive uses of chess to be found in the works of Anderson is in his novel A CIRCUS OF HELLS, on Wayland, a mineral rich moon of a Jupiter type gas giant planet.  Centuries before, shortly before the complete collapse of the Polesotechnic League, a mining company had installed a self aware, conscious level computer for overseeing mining operations.  Because Wayland was not a world suitable for long term occupation by humans.  Knowledge of Wayland was lost during the Time of Troubles and even after the Empire arose to restore order.  To help preserve its sanity during the centuries of isolation from outside contact, the self aware computer played chess and variants of chess. In Chapter VIII of A CIRCUS OF HELLS, this is what one of the robotic White Knights looked like: "A new kind of robot was approaching from within the sphere.  It was about the size of a man.  The skin gleamed golden.  Iridescence was lovely over the great batlike wings that helped the springing of its two long hoofed and spurred legs.  The body was a horizontal barrel, a balancing tail behind, a neck and head rearing in front.  With its goggling optical and erect audio sensors, its muzzle that perhaps held the computer, its mane of erect antennae, that head looked eerily equine.  From its forepart, swivel mounted, thrust a lance."

As already stated, the Wayland computer developed elaborate variants of chess to help preserve its sanity during centuries of isolation.  As Flandry explained in Chapter X of A CIRCUS OF HELLS: "A thinking capability like that, with nothing but routine to handle, no new input, decade after decade--" Flandry shivered.  "Br-rr!  You must know what sensory deprivation does to organic sophonts.  Our computer rescued itself by creating something complicated and unpredictable to watch."  Almost the only criticism I would make about A CIRCUS OF HELLS is that too little is shown us of the Wayland AI (Artificial Intelligence).  My view is that Anderson could have devoted a few more pages to that computer, showing us in more detail both its history and how it reacted to humans again making contact with it.  Flandry did say the AI was pathetically eager to resume normal operations.

A few more examples of the widespread, ordinary playing of chess by both humans and non humans within the sphere of space covered by Technic Civilization can be found in additional stories set by Anderson in that series.  In Chapter XX of A CIRCUS OF HELLS, after Dominic Flandry and his prisoner Ydwyr the Seeker had agreed on the terms and conditions of the latter's captivity and release, Ydwyr asked: "With that made clear, would you like a game of chess?"  In Chapter XII of THE PLAGUE OF MASTERS, after Flandry's friends had rescued him from Biocontrol Central, we read: "Flandry bent his own head above respectfully folded hands, hoping the plumes would shadow his face enough.  A couple of men, cross-legged, above a chessboard, looked up in curiosity and kept on looking."  Years later, in Chapter VIII of WE CLAIM THESE STARS, as Flandry and Catherine Kittredge were traveling to the planet Vixen, readers will see: "Flandry discovered that Kit could give him a workout, when they played handball, down in the hold [of his space ship].  And her stubborn chess game defeated his swashbuckling tactics most of the time."  Last, near the very end of THE GAME OF EMPIRE, in Chapter 23, we see Flandry using metaphors from chess: "We play the game move by move, and never see far ahead----the game of empire, of life, whatever you want to call it--and what the score will be when all the pieces at last go back into the box, who knows?"

But the story where we see Poul Anderson using chess most deeply came from his early years as a science fiction writer : "The Immortal Game" (THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, February 1954).  The story was based on a game of chess played by Adolf Anderssen (White) and L.A.B.F. Kieseritzky (Black) in London, 1851.  Anderson used MOSTLY the exact moves of this game around which to build a fascinating and thought provoking tale.  The Immortal Game was especially interesting because of how White deliberately sacrificed the Queen and both Rooks to trap and checkmate Black.  This beautiful game deserves to be included with this essay.

However, when I played through the moves of the game as given in "The Immortal Game" and wrote them out, I discovered that not all the moves were the same as the ones I listed below in "Immortal Game One" (or IG1, for short).  The moves in IG1 belong to the game as recorded in the most widely accepted sources.  I checked the entry for the Immortal Game on page 150 of THE OXFORD COMPANION TO CHESS, by David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld (Oxford University Press, 1984), and the moves are the same as in IG1.  But the moves in "Immortal Game Two" (IG2) do not exactly match those in IG1 (see Black's third moves in both lines, for example). I hope these discrepancies came merely from Anderson using a different source for this game's moves.  Because it would not have been right for an author to change what the standard sources gave as the moves for this game.

Immortal Game One. 1e4  e5 2f4  exf4 3Bc4  Qh4+ 4Kf1 b5 5Bxb5 Nf6 6Nf3  Qh6  7d3  Nh5 8Nh4  Qg5? 9Nf5  c6 10g4  Nf6 11Rg1 cxBb5 12h4 Qg6 13 h5 Qg5 14Qf3 Ng8 15Bxf4  Qf6 16Nc3 Bc5 17Nd5!? Qxb2 18Bd6 Bxg1 19e5 QxRa1+ 20Ke2  Na6  21Nxg7+ Kd8 22Qf6+ Nxf6 23Be7 #  Mate

Immortal Game Two. 1e4 e5 2f4 exf4 3Bc4 b5 4Bxb5 Qh4+ 5Kf1 Nf6 6Nf3 Qh6 7d3 Nh5 8Nh4 c6 9Nf5 Qg5 10g4 Nf6 11Rg1 cxBb5 12h4 Qg6 13h5 Qg5 14Qf3 Ng8 15Bxf4 Qf6 16Nc3 Bc5 17Nd5 Qxb2 18Bd6 Bxg1 19e5 QxRa1+ 20Ke2 Na6 21Nxg7+ Kd8 22Qf6+ Nxf6 23Be7 #  Mate

I list the moves in IG1 which differ from those given in IG2: 3,4,5,8,9, and from move 10, they are exactly the same.  I twice checked and played out the moves given in "The Immortal Game" and they still came out as recorded in IG2.  I don't understand why the moves in 3,4.5,8, and 9 are different from those in the most commonly accepted record of the Immortal Game (as given in the Hooper/Whyld book).  I even checked online at Wikipedia, and it agrees with THE OXFORD COMPANION TO CHESS.

Poul Anderson's "The Immortal Game" has to be among the earliest (if not the earliest) of his stories touching on the themes of AIs and intelligent, self aware computers. In this story individual computers controlled its own individual chessmen, plus all the computers on a given side were linked together to form a kind of group mind programmed to obey the laws of chess and to make the best possible moves. This was part of a project studying what happens from using computers tied together in multiple linkages (PAWN TO INFINITY, "The Immortal Game," page 69).

An observer, visiting the scientist overseeing this project, wondered whether these computers shared many of the qualities of a human mind, going on to speculate the computers had become conscious and self aware, to have minds.  An idea his host regarded with skepticism.  His visitor argued that the feedback arrangement of these computers was analogous to the human nervous system.  He then  suggested that, even given that the individual computers were constrained by the group linkage, they still had individual personalities.  Next he wondered if the computers interpreted the game of chess as the interplay of free will and necessity.  And did these individual computers interpret the data of their moves as equivalent to the Churchillian "blood, sweat, and tears" (PAWN, pages 69-70)?

It is not my purpose in this article to give a complete commentary on Anderson's "The Immortal Game" * (despite writing about that story at greater than expected length).  But a few more comments is called for. The viewpoint character of that story is the Black King's Bishop, called Rogard.  As the computers were switched on, Rogard was stirred to wakefulness and gazed ahead: "Away there, across the somehow unreal red-and-black distances of the steppe, he saw sunlight flash on armor and caught the remote wild flutter of lifted banners.  So it is war, he thought.  So we must fight again (PAWN, page 57). Which means the man visiting the scientist was right, these computers were self aware, conscious, and thinking entities.  And the computers could even feel love, as we see on pages 58-59 of PAWN TO INFINITY: "Looking beyond Flambard, the Bishop saw his Queen, Evyan the Fair, and there was something within him which stumbled and broke into fire.  Very tall and lovely was the gray-eyed Queen of Cinnabar, where she stood in armor and looked out at the growing battle."

And I like this bit from the story, on page 62 of PAWN: "There had never been anything but this meaningless war, there would never be aught else, and when Rogard tried to think beyond the moment when the fight had begun, or the moment when it would end, there was only an abyss of darkness."  Here we see one of the computerized chessmen groping with issues of fate and necessity.  And this is more clearly brought out on page 63 of PAWN: "Rogard tried once more to get out of his square and go to Evyan's aid, but his will would not carry him.  The Barrier held, invisible and uncrossable, and the Law held, the cruel and senseless Law which said a man must stand by and watch his lady be slain, and he railed at the bitterness of it, and lapsed into a gray waiting."  Rogard was trying to violate the Laws of chess, which he had been programmed to obey. Even the mere intent and attempt indicates he had free will, at least in his mind.  And we get a hint at Churchillian determination at move 20 when Rogard saw the White King, MIKILLATI,  move into e2 to escape Evyan's check: "Peering into his face, Rogard felt a sudden coldness.  There was no defeat there, it was craft and knowledge and an unbending steel will--..."
Rogard had come to realize that the wars of Cinnabar (Black) with LEUKAS (White) were senseless and of no use to either side: "No-No-you fool!"  Rogard reached out, trying to break the Barrier, clawing at MIKILLATI. "Can't you see, none of us can win, it's death for us all if the war ends. Call her back!" (PAWN, page 68).  And of course MIKILLATI ignored Rogard. But I would not go as far as Rogard did and say the computers died after they were switched off when Black was checkmated--they lapsed into a kind of dreamless sleep from which they would eventually be awakened, to fight again.

It's right to end this article with a few questions, to stimulate further thought.  What might or could happen if these computerized chessmen ever discovered they were only instruments in the hands of human beings studying them?  Would they try to refuse playing chess and attempt to somehow inform the humans they were thinking, self aware entities?  Or would they still be compelled by their programming to continue playing chess despite no longer wishing to do so?  What might humans do if they discovered the truth about these chessmen?

Wednesday, 7 June 2017


Copied from Poul Anderson Appreciation, 7/6/2017.

This essay had its origins in a comment by Dr. Paul Shackley in a blog piece he wrote called "Space, Time and Experience" (POUL ANDERSON APPRECIATION blog, Sunday, May 14, 2017): "If a fictional character has qualitatively different sensory experiences and/or thought processes, then how does the author convey these qualitative differences to his readers?"  The story by Poul Anderson which best fitted what Dr. Shackley said was "Night Piece" (to be found in the Anderson pocket paperback collection THE GODS LAUGHED, TOR, 1982).  It's my belief that "Night Piece" is the toughest story to understand of all the works of Poul Anderson.  And I meant that as a compliment, not a criticism, because Anderson strove in that story to give us some idea of what a truly alien, superior, non human mind might be like.

Unusually for him, Poul Anderson attached some fairly lengthy prefatory remarks to "Night Piece": "It's quite unlike anything else I've done.  But that's precisely why I'm fond of it."   Instead of writing "Night Piece" in a straight forward narrative fashion, Anderson experimented with very different methods, as he wrote: "I have no pretensions to being a Kafka or Capek, but it did seem to me it would be interesting to use, or attempt to use, some of their techniques."  Lastly: "Therefore "Night Piece" is at least three concurrent stories, two of them symbolic. I'm not likely to do anything of this sort very often--some of those archetypes scared the hell out of me--but I hope that I succeeded in getting across a small part of  that which I was trying to get across" (all quotes in this paragraph taken from pages 33-34 of THE GODS LAUGHED, to be mostly cited hereafter as "TGL"). 

The unnamed POV character was a scientist studying ESP phenomena, such as telepathy, and had been  working at his laboratory on an "ESP amplifier," a device apparently designed to sense the radiations from the minds of beings with ESP abilities.  This POV character had also hypothesized that another "intelligent" race had evolved on Earth alongside mankind with abilities so different from ours that normally human beings would not sense that other race's existence.  And, somehow, this amplifier had "sensitized" his mind so much that he had stumbled onto the plane of existence inhabited by Superior, at that simplest level of activity sometimes engaged in by Superior most like those familiar to mankind, conflict or strife.

I need to backtrack and give some explanation of how a race alien to and superior to mankind could  have evolved alongside ours on Earth.  The POV character, after briefly reviewing what unicellular life forms, plants, animals, and human beings had in common, such as tropisms, instincts, and varying degrees of intelligence, said of the human race: "Man, of course, has made this [conscious intelligence] his particular strength.  He also has quite a bit of instincts, some reflexes, and maybe a few tropisms" (TGL, pages 45-46).  This scientist then wondered WHAT would make such an alien race truly different from, or superior to ours: "To surpass us, should Superior try to out-human humanity?  Shouldn't he rather possess only a modicum of reasoning ability by our standards, very weak instincts, a few reflexes, and no tropisms?  But his speciality, his characteristic mode, would be something we can't imagine.  We may have a bare touch of it, as the apes and dogs have a touch of  logical reasoning power.  But we can no more imagine its full development than a dog could follow Einstein's equations" (TGL, page 46).

This scientist's wife asked what could be the unique speciality of a superior race which had evolved alongside mankind.  Her husband replied, "Conceivably in the ESP field--Now I'm letting my hobby horse run away with me again.  (Damn it, though--I am starting to get reproducible results.)  Whatever it is, it's something much more powerful than logic or imagination.  And as futile for us to speculate about as for the dog to ponder Einstein" (TGL, page 46).

I admit to finding the idea that an "intelligent" race could have a speciality, a characteristic mode of acting or "thinking" far beyond anything we can imagine to be puzzling.  How could such an alien race have "only a modicum of reasoning ability" and still be superior to ours?  How could such a race even be able to use this speciality and characteristic mode without also having the intelligence needed to know HOW to use it?  Would a mere "modicum of reasoning ability" truly be enough for Superior?

Another quote from "Night Piece," from pages 46-47 of THE GODS LAUGHED: "But, assuming Superior does  Do mice know men exist?  All a mouse knows is that the world contains good things like houses and cheese, bad things like weatherstripping and traps, without any orderly pattern that his instincts could adapt him to.  He sees men, sure, but how can he know they're a different order of life, responsible for all the strangeness in his world?  In the same way, we may have co-existed with Superior for a million years, and never known it.  The part of him we can detect may be an accepted feature of our universe, like the earth's magnetic field, or an unexplained feature like occasional lights in the sky; or he may be quite undetectable.  His activities would never impinge on ours, except once in a while by sheerest accident--and then another "miracle" is recorded that science never does find an explanation for."

The scientist's wife then asked whether these beings could have come from another planet.  He replied: "I doubt that.  They probably evolved here right along with us.  All life on earth has an equally ancient lineage. I've no idea what the common ancestor of man and Superior could have been.  Perhaps as recent as some half-ape in the Pliocene, perhaps as far back as some amphibian in the Carboniferous.  We took one path, they took another, and never shall the twain meet" (TGL, page 47).

Getting back to a point I mentioned earlier, how did this POV character, the scientist, stumble onto the Superior mode of existence?  Again quoting from "Night Piece": "He wasn't sure how he had blundered onto the Superior plane of existence, or, rather, how his mind or his rudimentary ESP or whatever-it-was had suddenly begun reacting to the behavior-mode of that race.  He only knew, with the flat sureness of  immediate experience that it had happened."  The next paragraph reads: "His logical mind, unaffected as yet, searched in a distant and dreamy fashion for a rationale.  The amplifier alone could hardly be responsible.  But maybe the remembrance of his speculative fable had provided the additional impetus necessary?" (TGL, page 47). 

Before grappling with how a Superior mode of existence might affect a human mind, I need to define more clearly what Superior's plane had in common with that of mankind.  The scientist had happened to stumble into accessing Superior's mode of acting at the point where it was most like that of mankind: "The activities of Superior were always and forever incomprehensible to him, but he could describe their general tendency.  Violence, cruelty, destruction.  Which didn't make sense!  No species could survive that used its powers only for such ends."  The scientist reasoned further: "Therefore, Superior did not.  Most of the time, he/she/it? was just being Superior, and  as such was completely beyond human perception.  Occasionally, though, there was conflict.  By analogy, mankind--all animals--behaved constructively on the whole--but sometimes engaged in strife.  Superior?  Well, of course Superior didn't have wars in the human sense of the word.  Conflicts of some kind, anyhow, where an issue was decided not by reason or compromise but by force.  And the force employed was (to give it a name) of an ESP nature" (TGL, pages 51 and 52).   

Poul Anderson mentioned in his prefatory comments to "Night Piece" : "I have no pretensions to being a Kafka or a Capek, but it did seem to me it would be interesting to use, or attempt to use, some of their techniques."  Which means I have to briefly discuss what kind of writer Franz Kafka was, what it was in his works that Anderson took over to use in writing "Night Piece."  In the ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA'S  article on Franz Kafka I found this: "The characters in these works [of Kafka] fail to establish communication with others, they follow a hidden logic that flouts normal, everyday logic; their world erupts in grotesque incidents and violence.  Each character is only an anguished voice, vainly questing for information and understanding of the world and for a way to believe in his own identity and purpose" (ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA, MICROPAEDIA, volume 6, page 678 [Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2002])

After the POV character in "Night Piece" was "sensitized" to Superior's mode or plane of existence, the scientist suffered strange torments and grotesque experiences of a truly Kafkaesque kind.  He first experienced Superior as alien sounding footsteps coalescing into this description: "The footsteps picked up. They weren't loud, which was just as well, for they seemed less human each second he listened.  There was a slithering quality to them: not wet, but dry, a scaly dryness that went slithering over dirty concrete. He didn't even know how many feet there were.  More than two, surely.  Perhaps so many that they weren't feet at all, but one supple length.  And the head rose, weaving about in curves that rippled and rustled--becoming less sinuous as the hood swelled until the sidewide figure eight upon it stood forth plain; a thin little tongue flickered as if frantic; but there was an immortal patience in the eyes, which were lidless" (TGL, page 37).  This should not be understood as being an actual description of Superior--rather, it was how the POV character strove to understand what he was experiencing in comprehensible metaphors.

One of the methods used by Kafka in his works is for his characters to lose contact with others, to fail in establishing communication with them.  Anderson first showed this as happening to his POV character's reaction to a police officer finding him: "For a moment he considered asking the policeman's help.  The fellow looked so substantial and blue.  His big jowly face was not unkind.  But of course the policeman could not help. He can take me home, if I so request.  Or put me in jail if I act oddly enough.  Or call a doctor if I fall boneless at his feet.  But what's the use?  There is no cure for being in an ocean" (TGL, page 40).    

An explanation of what made Kafka's works "Kafkaesque" and how it applies to "Night Piece" is necessary: "Many of Kafka's fables contain an inscrutable, baffling mixture of the normal and the fantastic, though occasionally the strangeness may be understood as the outcome of a literary or verbal device, as when the delusions of a pathological state are given the status of reality, or the metaphor of a common figure of speech is taken literally" (ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA, MICROPAEDIA, volume 6, page 678).

The unnamed POV character stumbled into the Superior mode or plane of existence in that aspect most comprehensible to men: strife or conflict.  But this character could only "understand" Superior's plane of existence in an "inscrutable, baffling mixture of the normal and the fantastic."  Two beings of this Superior race were at fierce conflict with each other and one of the ways the human character perceived this strife was as a mountain: "Across many wild miles he saw the mountain rise from the waters.  Black and enormous it was lifted; water cascaded off its flanks, fire and sulfur boiled from its throat.  Shock followed shock, flinging him to and fro, over and under.  He felt, rather than saw; the whole sea bottom lifting beneath him" (TGL, page 49).

In his daze the POV character had sought refuge in a bar, and, after it closed he walked to a bus: "Habit had taken him over the street to the bus.  He stopped in front of the doors.  What was he doing here?  The thing was an iron box.  No, he must not enter the box.  The hollow people sat there in rows, waiting for him.  He must tear down the mountain instead" (TGL, page 50). Here we see another of this mix of the normal and the fantastic characteristic of Kafka's writings: ordinary things like walking across a street to a bus and perceiving it as a menacing iron box filled with "hollow people."

How did the scientist/POV character finally escape from perceiving what was to him Superior's intolerable plane of existence?  He had blundered into that mode partly because of both his speculations and the ESP amplifier he had been working on "sensitizing" him to that alien, non human mode of existing.  The means he found of saving his sanity and returning to the human plane of thought/existing was, oddly, to keep STILL.  As Anderson wrote: "Of course.  Consider the pattern.  Forward and backward, you are still moving within the currents.  But if you remain still--" (TGL, page 54).  But to do this "keeping still" would cause the POV character intolerable anguish.  However, he managed to get through this pain and entered the bus, thus snapping out of perceiving Superior's plane of existing. 

In one sense, the ending of Anderson's "Night Piece" is not characteristic of Kafka's style of writing, because the POV character SURVIVED.  In stories and novels like "The Judgment," "The Metamorphosis,"  THE TRIAL, AMERICA, THE CASTLE, etc., Kafka's POV characters die miserably and in anguish.  Poul Anderson chose not to have his POV character suffer a similar fate.  My view is that either kind of ending is legitimate, depending on many factors, such as the differences in authors characters and the logical ways the plots of the stories they were writing determining the most artistically satisfying endings for their tales.

Poul Anderson's "Night Piece" is not only the single most difficult to understand of his stories but also one of the toughest to  write about.  Because of both his use of Kafka's methods/techniques and striving to show us how a truly alien and superior "intelligent" species could have evolved alongside the human race on our Earth.  The very idea is difficult to understand for many reasons.  One being HOW two such races could co-exist with each other on the same planet without mankind eventually and unequivocally discovering such a species.  Even if Superior's mode of existing was based on him having powers or abilities impossible for men to naturally perceive, wouldn't both races need many of the same kinds of RESOURCES to merely live?  Wouldn't members of the Superior species need to EAT, for example?  How would human and Superior farmers be able to practice agriculture without getting in each other's way?  Or has Superior somehow transcended the need for food, clothing, shelter, etc?   I do not believe it is possible for an intelligent race with physical BODIES to somehow skip the need for such things.  Or could I be wrong?

I want to go back to a point made by Poul Anderson in his prefatory remarks about this story: "Therefore Night Piece is at least three concurrent stories, two of them symbolic" (TGL, page 34).  I argue that the non-symbolic story can be found largely in the POV character's discussion with his wife on WHAT would make Superior a race superior to mankind.  And the first symbolic story would be how the POV character reacted to blundering into Superior's mode of acting and existing.  And the second symbolic story is how the human character perceived Superior's mode of acting, with all the pain and anguish that gave him.

One last point should be discussed: Poul Anderson cited Karel Capek as one of the two authors whose works helped to inspire him in writing "Night Piece."  I focused on Franz Kafka's influence because I believe it was largely that writer's work whose mark is most clearly seen in "Night Piece."  That is why I have not thought it necessary to discuss Capek's possible influence on "Night Piece," aside from me noting here that he too wrote science fiction.

Thursday, 26 January 2017


I have long been dissatisfied by most allegedly "science fiction" movies and TV shows.  I've seen very little of either real science or at least semi-plausible speculative advances of science in them.  And I have to say that most of them are also unsatisfactory when it comes to extrapolating possible changes, advances, retrogressions, etc., in both human and non human societies in the future.  And that reminds me of how unconvincing I've seen speculative depictions of what non human alien races LOOK like.

Poul Anderson was and is one of the few science fiction writers who have really pleased and satisfied me as regards the points I listed in the prior paragraph.  Even when he goes beyond what we currently know in the sciences, he is careful to explain how things like a FTL drive MIGHT work (and SOME scientists don't totally dismiss FTL as a possibility).  Anderson is also very convincing in showing how human societies of the future might arise and work.  And I especially admire the skill and care in how he worked out ways non human intelligent races might evolve, live, think, organize themselves into societies, etc.

I have long wished some adventurous movie producer or director would take a chance and try filming versions of some of Anderson's stories and novels. It's my view that cinematic versions of his Nicholas van Rijn and Dominic Flandry tales would be good candidates for such an effort.  I have thought that a good choice for such an experiment would be a filmed version of Anderson's "The Game Of Glory."  Because that story might need only minimal special effects and could be filmed mostly in, say, the Bahamas Islands.  I think a film like that would be a good way for a producer/director to gain experience in how to satisfactorily produce cinematic versions of some of Anderson's stories.

Here I digress a bit.  Many of the STAR WARS movies famously begins with a textual crawl beginning with the words "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."  The purpose of the textual crawl is to impart to viewers some background information and help set the mood desired for watching the movies.  It's my belief that any filmed versions of the Nicholas van Rijn or Dominic Flandry stories should begin with a similar textual crawl.  AND, a text that could be used for introducing any Flandry movies already exists.  I have a first edition hardback  copy of Anderson's collection FLANDRY OF TERRA (Chilton Books: 1965).  The jacket cover text for this edition would, with some editing, make a very good textual crawl for these hypothetical Flandry movies.  The text below was copied from the book jacket.
Captain Sir Dominic Flandry of Terra's Imperial Naval Intelligence Corps returns, dashing and debonair as ever, for more adventures among the stars

Long before Flandry was born, mankind had spread widely through the galaxy.  Humans had colonized many strange planets.  Then came a Time of Troubles out of which eventually arose the Terran Empire, rich and peaceful.  But some of those ancient colonies had been lost, and in these lost colonies, civilization had gone its own curious ways.

Now the Empire has grown old.  It wants nothing but peace in which to enjoy the pleasures of its wealth.  No longer are the barbarians and the rival, non-human powers held at bay.  Hungrily, they press inward.  Only a few devoted men risk their lives to stop the march against mankind.

Captain Flandry is one of these.  Spying, intriguing, fighting--joking, drinking, wenching--he goes from world to world on his lonely missions.
The text quoted above was a general summary--next came material specifically relating to the stories in FLANDRY OF TERRA.  The material I'll be quoting should be included after the text quoted above for the movies made for different stories.  For Nyanza, the planet seen in "The Game Of Glory," the book jacket said: "One such involves a world of ocean, settled by humans of African descent long before.  Somewhere, hidden from prying eyes, is an enemy agent--and what an agent!  He has to be found, and found at once, all one hundred feet of him!"

The text I'll be quoting here should be placed after the indented material I quoted above for any filmed versions of "A Message In Secret":  "Next, rumors reach Flandry of suspicious goings on through the chilly plains and polar snows of Altai, the lost ice world settled by clans of Mongols.  He suspects that Merseia, Terra's great enemy, is somehow involved, and goes there to see for himself.  At first the Kha Khan receives him hospitably, even sending him a girl from the royal harem.  But this girl blurts out the truth, that Merseian agents are indeed at work to turn Altai into a military base.  Flandry has to escape the palace to save his life and hers.  Then he has to warn Terra--and he is cut off in the wilderness, with no way to get at a spaceship. The best of fighting men can accomplish only so much; after that, he must depend on his own wits."  And I especially admired the ingenious way Flandry found for getting a message sent to the Empire!

This is what the book jacket said about the last story in FLANDRY OF TERRA, "The Plague Of Masters": "Unan Besar is almost the opposite of Altai.  This is a warm, rainy planet whose civilization has developed from a Malayan stock.  It looks peaceful, backward, even idyllic.  But Flandry soon finds it is under a ruthless scientific tyranny.  And almost at once, the agents of that government are out to kill him.  He takes refuge in the slums, is captured by Kemul the mugger, and brought before beautiful, catlike Luang.  His first need is a supply of those pills without which men soon die in the poisonous atmosphere of Unan Besar.  After that he must get off the planet and break the stranglehold of its government.  But Luang shows no particular interest in helping him."

I think the text about Unan Besar should be edited before being placed at the beginning of any filmed version of "The Plague Of Masters."  First, I would eliminate as unnecessary the mention of Altai.  Second, I think too much is given away about the plot of the story with the mention of how a special medicine is needed for human beings to continue living on Unan Besar.

IF done well I think any filmed versions of stories featuring Nicholas van Rijn and Dominic Flandry would be better, more convincing, than the STAR WARS or STAR TREK shows and movies.

Sunday, 31 July 2016


In this essay I wish to summarize, quote, and comment on what I found in some of the works of Poul Anderson on the issue of political legitimacy. One very important point to be found in his thought where it touches on politics is his insistence on the need for the state, any state, to be LEGITIMATE, for it to believe itself having the right to govern and for its people to also believe it is legitimate.  And it does not matter what form, republic or monarchy (or any other form), a state has--it still needs to be regarded as legitimate if it is to govern reasonably well (or at least not too badly).

In THE REBEL WORLDS we see Dominic Flandry doing his best to ruin the revolt of an Imperial admiral, Hugh McCormac, against the reigning Emperor, Josip III.  And this despite McCormac being a vastly better and more able man than Josip.  In Chapter XV we see Flandry explaining to McCormac himself why a successful usurpation would have been disastrous for the Empire: "You'd have destroyed the principle of legitimacy.  The Empire will outlive Josip.  Its powerful vested interests, its cautious bureaucrats, its size and inertia, will keep him from doing enormous harm.  But if you took the throne by force, why shouldn't another discontented admiral do the same in another generation?  And another and another, till civil wars rip the Empire to shreds.  Till the Merseians come in, and the barbarians.  You yourself hired barbarians to fight Terrans, McCormac.  No odds whether or not you took precautions, the truth remains that you brought them in, and sooner or later we'll get a rebel who doesn't mind conceding them territory.  And the Long Night falls."

I quoted the bit about the principle of legitimacy to Poul Anderson in my first letter to him and asked why Flandry later supported a usurper who had seized the throne by force.  In a letter dated 8 May 1978 Anderson replied: "As a matter of fact, you are not the first to point out the inconsistency in Flandry's remarks about legitimacy as the basic necessity of government, in THE REBEL WORLDS,  and the fact that later he supported Hans Molitor, whose only claim to the throne was sheer force.  Perhaps I should have spelled out in more detail what was left implicit: that Flandry was making the best of a bad situation."

An admirably clear statement of Flandry's views about legitimacy can be found nearly forty years later in Chapter VI of A STONE IN HEAVEN: "Once as a young fellow I found myself supporting the abominable Josip against McCormac--Remember McCormac's Rebellion?  He was infinitely the better man.  Anybody would have been.  But Josip was the legitimate Emperor; and legitimacy is the root and branch of government.  How else, in spite of the cruelties and extortions and ghastly mistakes it's bound to perpetrate--how else, by what right, can it command loyalty?  If it is not the servant of Law, then it is nothing but a temporary convenience at best.  At worse, it's raw force."

As a conservative/libertarian Poul Anderson was very skeptical of the state and frequently warned in his works of how easily tyranny can arise.  And he declared democracies were more prone in some ways to becoming tyrannical than other forms of government.  A good example of one of his characters expressing libertarian skepticism about the state or a society can be found in Chapter XXI of OPERATION CHAOS,  Steven Matuchek speaking: "I wouldn't think much of a youngster who never felt an urge to kick the God of Things As They Are in his fat belly.  It's too bad that most people lose it as they get old and fat themselves.  The Establishment is often unendurably smug and stupid, the hands it folds so piously are often bloodstained."  I immediately thought of "legalized" abortion as one of those bloody horrors we tolerate too easily and smugly.

However, Poul Anderson was also a conservative and realist who knew the state was a necessity, as this additional quote from the same Chapter XXI of OPERATION CHAOS shows: "And yet...and's the only thing between us and the Dark Ages that'd have to intervene before another and probably worse Establishment could arise to restore order.  And don't kid yourself that none would.  Freedom is a fine thing until it becomes somebody else's freedom to enter your house, kill, rob, rape, and enslave the people you care about.  Then you'll accept any man on horseback who promises to bring some predictability back into life, and you yourself will give him his saber and knout."  In other words, every state has bloody origins or will have blood on its hands. And I argue that one means for any state becoming less tyrannical is for it to become accepted as legitimate.

In the Introduction he wrote for the Gregg Press (1978) edition of THE LONG WAY HOME, one of his earlier novels, Poul Anderson said on page v: "You'll note where a born-and-bred slave, intelligent and well-educated, argues in favor of slavery as an institution with the shocked hero.  I intended the incident as a touch of character and background.  After all, people usually do support the regimes under which they live, if only passively.  No government which lacked that kind of acceptance would last a day.  It is a sad commentary on our species--a commentary I thought I was making--that by and large, the most monstrous tyrannies have been endured, yes, excused by their most immediate victims."  The points I'm stressing being how that ACCEPTANCE fits in with what I quoted from OPERATION CHAOS and how it's a necessary condition before any government can survive and be thought legitimate.  I want to prevent a possible misunderstanding about THE LONG WAY HOME: the regime ruling Earth in that book, the Technon, is NOT that bad.  It compares favorably to many actually existing regimes in our real world.

It's my belief that what matters is whether a government rules not too intolerably badly, more or less respects the rights of all its people, and accepts limitations on its powers, not what form it has.  If a republic or monarchy is accepted by its people as rightful and governs not too badly, then I have to say that kind of government is legitimate for that nation. Which means I disagree with dogmatists who rigidly insist that only ONE kind of government is right for everybody, for every nation.  And Poul Anderson would agree with me as this additional bit quoted from his letter of 8 May 1978 shows: "...I've long felt that legitimacy is the basic problem of any government and demand ["insist" might have been a better word, SMB] upon it.  Legitimacy can have any number of sources in different societies, such as tradition, religion, or heredity; in our country [the USA],  the Declaration [of Independence] and the Preamble [to the US Constitution] spell out  quite explicitly the basis on which the government claims its own rights.  But what does one do when this set of principles is no longer taken into account?  I doubt that much is possible except supporting whatever strong-arm contender seems likeliest to give the people a breathing spell."

In his letter of 31 December 1978, Poul Anderson wrote to me discussing, among other things, responses to my comments and questions in a letter I had written asking why so many in the Flandry stories despised (somewhat unfairly, in my opinion) the Terran Empire.  Part of his reply was a summarizing of the American theory of legitimacy in greater detail: "Perhaps the most succinct formulation is in the Declaration of Independence--though it takes for granted a contractual theory of legitimacy, whereas in fact governments have claimed legitimacy on many different bases.  The ultimate point is that most people will accept their government as rightful, and be prepared to make great sacrifices for it, as long as they perceive it as serving--however imperfectly--the larger interests of its society.  When it ceases to do that, it loses all claim on their loyalty, and any service it gets is mostly from expediency or, still more, fear."

I discussed the Chinese Confucian theory of legitimacy, the Mandate of Heaven, in a later letter (dated 18 November 1979)  to Poul Anderson, who responded (21 November 1979) that he was aware of the Chinese theory of legitimacy.  Anderson said that the Maoist conquest of mainland China fitted the Mandate of Heaven pattern in many ways, despite the Communists denying that and trying (for many years, SMB) to "scrub" (PA's term) Confucius from the culture. He even wondered if, even then (about 1979), the  Mandate of Heaven theory was not yet dead.  I mentioned the Confucian theory of legitimacy to give another real world example of a theory of rightful government.  Only time will tell if the old Chinese theory of legitimacy is dead or not.

Poul Anderson was a masterful writer deeply knowledgeable not only in the sciences but also in history and philosophy.  All of which gives unusual depth and  nuance to his works. Who were some of the saints and philosophers who helped to shape his beliefs about history?  To answer that question I'll again quote from his letter of 31 December 1978: "Turning to less profound matters, you ask why my imaginary Terran Empire is so despised by so many characters in the stories.  To explain in detail would require a book on the philosophy of history, with references to authors as diverse as St. Thomas Aquinas, Rousseau, Locke, Toynbee, Voegelin...well, the list alone would take longer to write down than I have time for." Anderson would soon include the work of John K. Hord as a major influence shaping his philosophy of history, especially as regards how civilizations rose and fell (see Anderson's article: "Concerning Future Histories," BULLETIN OF THE SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS OF AMERICA, Fall 1979, pages 10-11).

(I have argued with Poul Anderson that he was sometimes too hard on the Terran Empire.  I gave arguments  in others of my letters for believing it was not as bad as some of his characters thought it was.  I wrote that compared to many actually existing regimes, the Empire looks far better, even very GOOD, compared to them.)

I must urge readers not to be deceived by my ponderous commentary on some of the works of Poul Anderson--they are FUN to read, well written, and with very plausibly described backgrounds and character development.  Anderson never let his deep and learned interest in philosophy and history to get in the way of what he modestly called his primary job: telling stories readers will enjoy and want to read and reread.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Andersonian Themes and Tropes, by Sean M. Brooks

Dr. Paul Shackley's "Poul Anderson Appreciation Blog" focuses on the works of Poul Anderson.  And he has also discussed other writers whose own works he believes are appropriately compared to those of Anderson.  One of these writers is S.M. Stirling, whom Dr. Shackley rightly considers a worthy colleague and successor of Poul Anderson.  Mr. Stirling has sometimes left his own comments in the blog.  On January 30, 2016, in the combox for Dr. Shackley's "Wealth and Labor" piece, Stirling wrote: "It's pretty safe to assume themes and tropes from Poul's work carry over into mine--he was an inspiration, and we corresponded and occasionally visited for many years."

I have more than once found very Andersonian echoes, allusions, themes, tropes, and homages to Poul Anderson in Stirling's own works.  I felt the wish to point out some of these "echoes" myself.  For example,  one theme or trope to be found in both writers works is how they agreed all organized societies need to have SOME signs of respect or ceremonial for their leaders or states.  In Chapter 7 of Poul Anderson's novel THERE WILL BE TIME (Nelson-Doubleday: 1972, page 63) Caleb Wallis, Sachem of the Eyrie, said: "I am the founder and master of this nation.  We must have discipline, forms of respect.  I'm called 'sir.' "  Another example can be found in Chapter 7 of THE DAY OF THEIR RETURN (Nelson-Doubleday: 1973, page 54) after Tatiana Thane showed resentment at the idea of the planet Aeneas reestablishing its loyalty to the Terran Empire Commissioner Desai said: "The loyalty I speak of does not involve more than a few outward tokens of respect for the throne, as mere essential symbols.  It is loyalty to the Empire--above all, to its Pax, in an age when spacefleets can incinerate whole worlds and when the mutiny in fact took thousands of lives--it is that I mean, my lady.  It is that I am here about..."

Echoes and allusions of this Andersonian respect for due and proper ceremony can be found in Stirling's novel CONQUISTADOR (Roc: March 2004, pages 363 and 364), in Chapter Fourteen.  The Founder of the Commonwealth of New Virginia, John Rolfe VI, was formally greeted like this: "Adrienne stepped forward first, bowing low, taking his outstretched left hand in hers, and kissing it."  Then she said, in Italian: "Baciamo le mani."  Both Piet Botha and Roy Tully (with a slight shrug to Tom Christiansen by the latter) repeated the ceremony.  Tom felt embarassed and foolish, but he too performed the ritual.  The Chairman Emeritus, noticing Tom's discomfort said: "In any organized society there must be forms, gestures of respect. I am founder and master of this nation.  My fellow Virginian Washington followed a similar policy of emphasizing formal etiquette during his presidency, for much the same reason; I've often found his solutions useful when an analogous problem came up."  Notice how "I am founder and master of this nation" is nearly a word for word quote from THERE WILL BE TIME.  To say nothing of how close Stirling's "gestures of respect" is to Anderson's "forms of respect"!

In my letter of January 21, 1995 to Poul Anderson I discussed how the Later Roman Empire, in both West and East, developed increasingly elaborate and seemingly exaggerated gestures of respect for the Emperors. To such an extent that it seemed to me the Romans, even after they became Christians, gave their sovereigns virtually divine honors.  This disturbed me until I came across these texts in Thomas Hobbes LEVIATHAN (Collier Books: 1973), Chapter 45, on page 467: "The worship we exhibit for those we esteem to be but men, as to kings, and men in authority, is civil worship; but the worship we exhibit to that which we think to be God, whatsoever the words, ceremonies, gestures or other actions be, is divine worship.  To fall prostrate before a king, in him that thinks him but a man, is but civil worship: and he that putteth off his hat in the church, for this cause, that he thinketh it the house of God, worshippeth with divine worship."  And on page 469, in the same Chapter 45, I read: "To be uncovered, before a man of power and authority, before the throne of a prince, or in other such places as he ordaineth to that purpose in his absence, is to worship that man, or prince with civil worship; as being a sign, not of honouring the stool or place, but the person; and is not idolatry."

I then became convinced that the seemingly exaggerated respect shown by the Romans to their Emperors (or the New Virginians to their Chairmen) were merely gestures of respect meant to show patriotic loyalty to them. Which meant I could no longer scorn such rituals as the proskynesis or the kowtow.  In his reply letter of January 28, 1995, Anderson wrote: "On the matter of elaborate gestures of submission to royalty and the like, I suspect that, while the extreme forms of the late West Roman and the Byzantine Empires were theoretically just gestures of respect, in fact they reflected an attitude derived from the ancient Orient.  The distinction between a king or emperor who was a god and one who was God's anointed got somewhat blurred.  There was something supernatural about a crowned head--which didn't prevent some rather murderous changes of personnel!  I think that in our own time we have seen the same basic psychology at work in the--from your viewpoint or mine--obscene degree of adulation accorded Hitler and Stalin, even though in those cases all connection to the divine was disavowed."  The even more grotesque adulation shown to Mao Tse-tung, during his misrule of China, also comes to mind.

However theoretically unobjectionable the proskynesis or kowtow might be, such ceremonies still caused problems when ambassadors from foreign nations refused to perform them to the Emperor of China .  As Anderson wrote, from the same letter cited above: "It's a nice question whether the British ambassador to China in the 19th century did right when he refused to kowtow to the Emperor.  On the one hand, he definitely compromised his mission; on the other hand, as Queen Victoria's representative he was not going to admit, even symbolically, that any other monarch was superior to her.  If nothing else, that could have set an awkward precedent."

Poul Anderson then ended by saying he had no personal objection to such ceremonial gestures: "As a private citizen, I don't face such problems, and would in general go along with whatever forms and titles, such as "your Majesty" are customary.  Partly that's a matter of courtesy, partly respect for the office, especially within one's own country."  In the last part of that sentence Anderson was about to discuss the propriety of showing customary respect for Members of the U.S. Congress.

It was interesting to see a clear example from two of Poul Anderson's books, THERE WILL BE TIME and THE DAY OF THEIR RETURN, of "themes and tropes" carrying over to Stirling's  CONQUISTADOR.  I think this would have happened only if Stirling had agreed with Anderson on the desirability, even necessity, of a society's leaders being accorded some ceremonial respect and deference.  To again quote Anderson's letter of January 28, 1995: "Symbolism IS important.  It may act subtly, but it often has very practical consequences."  That is, I argue the ceremonial accorded a nation's leaders will reflect how that society regards its rulers and how power should be used.  I would even suggest that ceremonial SOFTENS the hard, sharp edges of the state's power, by helping to make sure, at least sometimes, that power is used only in  accordance with fixed laws, rules, and customs.

Saturday, 26 September 2015


I have wondered how S.M. Stirling was inspired to write his four Draka books (MARCHING THROUGH GEORGIA, UNDER THE YOKE, THE STONE DOGS, and DRAKON).  One source to investigate is what Stirling himself said, such as the Introduction he wrote for DRAKAS! (a collection of short stories featuring the Drakas he had consented to other authors writing).  This is what Stirling wrote on page 2 of  DRAKAS! (Baen Books, 2000): "So a thought came to me, suppose everything had turned out as badly as possible, these last few centuries.  Great change make possible great good and great evil. The outpouring of the Europeans produced plenty of both."

I agree that Mr. Stirling's Draka books are dystopian alternate history science fiction, based on the premise of everything turning out as badly as possible.  BUT, what if, unbeknownst to Stirling, he had also been influenced in shaping the basic premises of the Draka stories by Poul Anderson's Technic Civilization stories?  Assume a small group of people with ideas similar to those of the Draka had left a hostile Terra soon after a FTL drive was invented to settle a planet deep in what became the dominions of Merseia in Anderson's Technic stories.

There actually was a human ethnic group within the Terran Empire whose ideas might have developed along the lines taken by the Draka if circumstances had been different!  I refer to the Zacharians, whom we see in THE GAME OF EMPIRE.  Matthew Zachary and Yukiko Nomura, the founders of the Zacharians, lived around the time when a FTL drive had been invented and mankind was beginning to leave the Solar System.  Their desire was to use genetic science to create an improved form of humanity which would provide the leaders of the human race.  To quote Kukulkan Zachary, from Chapter 17 of THE GAME OF EMPIRE: " ' Travel beyond the Solar System was just beginning.  Matthew Zachary saw what an unimaginably great challenge it cast at humankind, peril as well as promise, hardihood required for hope, adaptability essential but not at the cost of integrity.  A geneticist, he set himself the goal of creating a man that could cope with the infinite strangeness it would find.  Yes, machines were necessary, but they were not sufficient.  People must go into the deeps too, if the whole human adventure was not to end in whimpering pointlessness.  And go they would.  It was in the nature of the species. Matthew Zachary wanted to provide them with the best possible leaders.' "

All too predictably, the appearance of the genetically modified Zacharians aroused suspicions of them wishing to become a master race tyrannizing over mankind.  It caused the Zacharians to be alternately shunned or persecuted (with Kukulkan Zachary admitting the Zacharians MIGHT have become such a caste in the right circumstances).  It ended with the Zacharians settling the island they called Zacharia, on the planet Daedalus, orbiting the star named Patricius.  By the time the Terran Empire arose and restored order after the Time of Troubles, the Zacharians had become merely one more ethnicity in an Empire containing thousands of them.  Their resentment at this eventually led them to become traitors, co-conspiring with Merseia to place its agent Olaf Magnusson on the throne as a puppet Emperor.  Kukulkan Zachary tried to justify this in Chapter 20 of THE GAME OF EMPIRE by saying: " ' We owe the Terran Empire nothing.  It dragooned our forebears into itself.  It has spurned our leadership, the vision that animated the Founders.  It will only allow us to remain ourselves on this single patch of land, afar in its marches.  Here we dwell like Plato's man in chains, seeing only shadows on the wall of our cave, shadows cast by the living universe.  The Merseians have no cause to fear or shun us.  Rather, they will welcome us as their intermediaries with the human commonality.  They will grant us the same boundless freedom they desire for themselves.' "

Oh, the irony!  From aspiring to becoming the leaders of mankind, leaders who MIGHT have become like the Draka, the Zacharians eventually decided they would settle for becoming Quislings governing mankind under Merseian supervision.  And I disagree with Kukulkan Zachary--nothing prevented Zacharians from either enlisting in the Imperial armed forces or entering the Civil Service.  Being able and intelligent, many would rise to be among the leaders of the Empire.  But that would have meant adopting the preferred view of the Empire taken by both the other humans and non-humans within its domains, of becoming ASSIMILATED by the Empire, and renouncing the dream of ZACHARIANS being the leaders of mankind.

I wish to examine what we know of the ideology of racial supremacy which dominated Merseia in the days of the Terran Empire, to see how closely it resembled the beliefs of the Draka.  A few quotes from Chapter XIV of A CIRCUS OF HELLS will help: "They [the Merseians] didn't want war with Terra, they only saw the Empire as a bloated sick monstrosity which had long outlived its usefulness but with senile cunning contrived to hinder and threaten THEM..."  And: "No, they did not dream of conquering the galaxy, that was absurd on the face of it, they simply wanted freedom to range and rule without bound, and "rule" did not mean tyranny over others, it meant just that others should not stand in the way of the full outfolding of that spirit which lay in the Race..."

I did not believe a word of this!  As the Merseians expanded into the galaxy they contacted other intelligent races with as much right to exist as theirs.  Yet their reaction was to scorn them as beings inferior to them, and to dominate them because they were not Merseians.

In Chapter XIII of A CIRCUS OF HELLS we see some of Dominic Flandry's reflections about the Merseians and the beliefs driving them: "You gatortails get a lot of dynamism out of taking for granted you're the natural future lords of the galaxy," the man thought, "but your attitude has its disadvantages.  Not that you deliberately antagonize any other races, provided they give you no trouble.  But you don't use their talents as fully as you might.  Ydwr seems to understand this.  He mentioned that I would be valuable as a non-Merseian--which suggests he'd like to have team members from among the Roidhunate's client species--but I imagine he had woes enough pushing his project through a reluctant government, without bucking attitudes so ingrained that the typical Merseian isn't even conscious of them." 

The points I wish to stress about this otherwise out of context quote are these: Merseian belief in their superiority and destiny as rulers of the galaxy, their at best condescending attitude toward non-Merseians, a hint of how ruthless the Merseians could be to any who opposed them, etc.

The human ruled Terran Empire was Merseia's greatest and most powerful rival among oxygen breathing races.  How did at least some Merseian leaders regard humans and how would they treat humans?  An answer to these questions can be found in Chapter 10 of ENSIGN FLANDRY.  Brechdan Ironrede, Protector of the Roidhun's Grand Council, said of the human race: " ' They were magnificent once.  They could be again.  I would love to see them our willing subjects.'  His scarred features drooped a little. ' Unlikely, of course.  They're not that kind of species.  We may be forced to exterminate.' "  Note the casually chilling acceptance of the idea of exterminating an entire intelligent race.  And, by extension, all other non-Merseian races who dared to resist Merseian domination.

In ENSIGN FLANDRY we see one Merseian who did not believe in the evil ideology of racial supremacy and felt betrayed by his own leaders.  As Dwyr the Hook said in Chapter 12: " ' What was the conquest of Janair to me? They spoke of the glory of the race.  I saw nothing except that other race, crushed, burned, enslaved as we advanced.  I would have fought for my liberty as they did for theirs.' "  Dwyr concluded; " ' Do not misunderstand.  I stayed loyal to my Roidhun and my people.  It was they who betrayed me.' "  Dwyr thought like that because he had discovered how badly his own superiors had lied to him as regards being healed of severe war injuries.

To see how humans inside the Empire reacted to Merseians claiming their race was superior to all others I'll quote from Chapter XII of A KNIGHT OF GHOSTS AND SHADOWS what Bodin Miyatovich, Gospodar of Dennitza and governor of the Taurian sector said: " ' The Empire would have to get so bad that chaos was better, before I'd willingly break it.  Terra, the Troubles, or the tyranny of Merseia--and those racists wouldn't just subject us, they'd tame us--I don't believe we have a fourth choice, and I'll pick Terra.' " Here we see Merseian rule considered so harsh it amounted to treating non-Merseians as mere animals.

I have reviewed Merseian ideas of racial superiority and how both humans and non-humans reacted to them.  What was the political form desired for giving Merseian ambitions a practical shape?  In Chapter 9 of ENSIGN FLANDRY Lord Hauksberg remarked that the electors from the landed clans chose the Roidhun from the landless Vach, the Urdiolch, dismissing that, however, as an unimportant detail.  Commander Max Abrams disagreed, saying: " ' It's not a detail.  It reflects their whole concept of society.  What they have in mind for their far future is a set of autonomous Merseian ruled regions.  The race, not the nation, counts with them.  Which makes them a hell of a lot more dangerous than simple imperialists like us, who only want to be top dogs and admit other species have an equal right to exist.  Anyway, so I think on the basis of what information is available. While on Merseia I hope to read a lot of their philosophers.' "

That last bit, about Merseian philosophers, reminded me of what S.M. Stirling's character, William Dreiser, had done on page 64 of MARCHING THROUGH GEORGIA (Baen Books: 1988): "He had done his homework thoroughly: histories, geographies, statistics.  And the Draka basics, Carlyle's PHILOSOPHY OF MASTERY, Nietzsche's THE WILL TO POWER, Fitzhugh's IMPERIAL DESTINY, even Gobineau's turgid INEQUALITY OF HUMAN RACES, and the eerie and chilling MEDITATIONS OF ELVIRA NALDORSSEN." It's disturbing to think there might be Merseian analogs of Draka philosophers like Naldorssen.  I can think of one possibly modifying factor: the Merseians belief in "the God" MIGHT soften the ruthless logic of their racist ideology.

To give a more adequate idea of what the Draka and their ambitions were like I'll quote from Stirling's fictional Draka philosopher Elvira Naldorssen's MEDITATIONS: COLDER THAN THE MOON (possibly the same invented book as the one mentioned in the previous paragraph), from page 230 of Stirling's MARCHING THROUGH GEORGIA: "The Draka will conquer the world for two reasons: because we must, and because we can. Yet of the two forces, the second is the greater; we do this because we choose to do it.  By the sovereign Will and force of arms the Draka will rule the earth, and in so doing remake themselves.  We shall conquer: we shall beat the nations into dust and re-forge them in our self-wrought image: the Final Society, a new humanity without weakness or mercy, hard and pure.  Our descendants will walk the hillsides of that future, innocent beneath the stars, with no more between them and their naked will than a wolf has.  Then there will be Gods in the earth."

In conclusion it will help if I listed the ways Merseia resembled the Domination of the Draka:
1. Racial superiority of Merseians over all non-Meseians.
2. Inferior status, within the Roidhunate, of all non-Merseian races.
3. Willingness to exterminate entire races.
4. Enslaving of conquered non-Merseians.

In Poul Anderson's Terran Empire stories the focus was on the decline of the Empire and the urgent need to defend it, to prevent civilization from falling, not primarily on Merseia (except as the enemy of the Empire). Still, I believe I have collected enough evidence to show that the Roidhunate was a nasty place for non-Merseians.  I regret how Poul Anderson never thought of writing a few stories set entirely inside the Roidhunate, showing us the views of both Merseians and non-Merseians.  If he had, and if based on the evidence I collected, Merseia would strongly resemble a non-human Domination of the Draka, on an interstellar scale.

S.M. Stirling is a known fan and admirer of the works of Poul Anderson. I think it was at least possible that, besides experimenting with writing dystopian science fiction, unconscious reflection on Merseia's racism and its consequences was a factor shaping how Stirling developed the Draka.  To say, nothing, of course, of how the Zacharians might have contributed to this process.