Saturday, 10 May 2014

An Unexpected Contradiction by Sean M Brooks

Originally published on Poul Anderson Appreciation, Mon 19 Aug 2013.

In this essay I would like to comment on an unexpected contradiction I found in two of Poul Anderson's stories: THE DAY OF THEIR RETURN and "Honorable Enemies."  Reading and thinking about these stories caused me to discover a serious contradiction when Chapter 20 of THE DAY OF THEIR RETURN is studied alongside "Honorable Enemies."

Chapter 20 of TDOTR has Aycharaych, the Chereionite master spy working for Merseia, the great rival of the Terran Empire, talking far too freely to Erannath, an agent of the Domain of Ythri also working for the Empire, about his telepathic powers.  As Erannath says: "There is some ultimate quality of the mind which goes deeper than language.  At close range, Aycharaych can read the thoughts of ANY being--any speech, any species, he claims--without needing to know that being's symbolism.  I suspect what he does is almost instantly to analyze the pattern, identify universals of logic and conation, go on from there to reconstruct the whole mental configuration--as if his nervous system included not only sensitivity to the radiations of others, but an organic semantic computer fantastically beyond anything that Technic civilization has built."

However, the text I quoted from Chapter 20 of TDOTR contradicts what we see five years later (in the Technic timeline) in both the original and revised versions of "Honorable Enemies."  In this story both Dominic Flandry and Lady Aline Chang-Lei were shocked and dismayed to discover Aycharaych was a telepath while at Betelgeuse.

Why didn't Imperial Naval Intelligence inform Flandry and Chang-Lei of Aycharaych's telepathic powers before sending them to Betelgeuse?  After all, as we know from reading TDOTR, the Empire's Intelligence service discovered Aycharaych's telepathic abilities.  It would be logical to think its best agents would be informed about Aycharaych's powers.  The simplest explanation I can think of for this contradiction is that Poul Anderson forgot to keep in mind the new information about Aycharaych while he was revising "Honorable Enemies."  And because I believe Anderson wanted to keep the new version as close as possible to the original form of the story (although that meant contradicting what we see in TDOTR).

However, one friend, who prefers to remain anonymous, to whom I sent this essay made an interesting suggestion which helps at rationalizing the contradiction I found from comparing TDOTR with "Honorable Enemies." It was suggested that the reason why Imperial Naval Intelligence failed to inform Flandry and Chang-Lei of Aycharaych's telepathic powers was due to a bureaucratic obsession with guarding valuable information. This concern for security, legitimate in itself, was carried too far when the information about Aycharaych was not revealed at least to a few key field agents who NEEDED to know it, especially Terra's agents at the court of the Sartaz of Betelgeuse, at a time when it was likely the Chereionite master spy was going to be there.

One point which puzzles me is why Sandra Miesel, an excellent commentator on the works of Poul Anderson, did not see how Chapter 20 of TDOTR contradicted "Honorable Enemies."  No mention is made of this contradiction in her two essays about the Flandry stories: her "Introduction" for ENSIGN FLANDRY (Gregg Press, 1979); or, "Afterword: The Price of Buying Time," for A STONE IN HEAVEN (Ace Books, 1979).

I am frankly astonished to realize I may be the first reader or commentator who saw how THE DAY OF THEIR RETURN contradicted "Honorable Enemies" on an important point of plot development.  I was reminded of what Anderson himself said: "Indeed, various eagle-eyed individuals have long since pointed out this or that contradiction to me" ("Concerning Future Histories," BULLETIN OF THE SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS OF AMERICA, Fall 1979, page 13).


  1. Hi, Paul!

    Apologiies for troubling you again, but could you correct two mistakes I made in the fifth paragraph above? I forgot to place a second double quotation mark after "Honorable Enemies" in the first sentence. Also, could you replace the second use of "likely" with "going" in the last sentence of the fifth paragraph? I had it knocked into my head that good writing calls for not repeating words too often in the same sentence!

    Merry Christmas! Sean

  2. Sean,
    Done. The missing quote mark was my mistake.
    Happy Solstice!

  3. Hi, Paul!

    Many thanks for the corrections made!

    Merry Christmas! Sean