Monday, 12 May 2014

The Imperial Gardener by Sean M Brooks

This revision of an earlier article was published on Poul Anderson Appreciation on Monday 3 March 2014.

This note focuses on one aspect of Poul Anderson's Terran Empire stories usually passed over quite quickly by commentators, Josip III.  The twenty years reign of this Emperor was crucial because this period saw the Empire reaching the end of its Principate phase.

ENSIGN FLANDRY is set three years before Emperor Georgios, the father of then Crown Prince Josip, died.  Chapter 1 of that book, the only time in the Flandry stories that we see him in person, shows Josip as weak, self indulgent, homosexual, and mentioned as having a notoriously short memory. The best summing up we have of Josip's character is from Admiral Kheraskov's briefing of Dominic Flandry in Chapter II of THE REBEL WORLDS.
"Three years, now, since poor old Emperor Georgios died and Josip III succeeded. Everybody knows what Josip is: too weak and stupid for his viciousness to be highly effective.  We all assumed the Dowager Empress will keep him on a reasonably short leash while she lives.  And he won't outlast her by much, the way he treats his organism.  And he won't have children--not him!  And the Policy Board, the General Staff, the civil service, the officers corps, the Solar and extra-Solar aristocracies...they hold more crooks and incompetents than they did in former days, but we have a few good ones left, a few...

"I've told you nothing new, have I?"  Flandry barely had time to shake his head. Kheraskov kept on prowling and talking.  "I'm sure you made the same quiet evaluation as most informed citizens.  The Empire is so huge that no one individual can do critical damage, no matter if he's theoretically all powerful.  Whatever harm came from Josip would almost certainly be confined to a relative handful of courtiers, politicians, plutocrats, and their sort, concentrated on and around Terra--no great loss.  We've survived other bad Emperors."
The plot of THE REBEL WORLDS revolves around how Flandry neutralized a danger to the Empire from a favorite of Josip who was not an ordinary courtier or politician.  And how Flandry then thwarted a fleet admiral deliberately goaded into rebellion by that favorite.

Here I wish to pause and briefly comment on the Dowager Empress and widow of Emperor Georgios mentioned by Admiral Kheraskov in the text I quoted from THE REBEL WORLDS.  Plainly, this lady was a woman of some force and strength of character if she was able to restrain Josip.  And, of course, Josip would at least sometimes heed the wishes and advice of his own mother (who was probably one of the few persons who could talk firmly in a no nonsense way to him).  At least while Aaron Snelund, the chief villain of THE REBEL WORLDS, was not at court to counteract her influence.

Josip III was a bad, weak, and irresponsible Emperor.  One example of that last quality being his refusal to do his dynastic duty of assuring the succession by marrying and begetting children.  As Flandry told Miriam Abrams 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."

Josip was thus, despite his vices and flaws, supported by men like Flandry due to the urgent need to uphold Law and legitimacy.  However, in one or two other texts I found hints of something better than degeneracy and incompetence in Josip.

WE CLAIM  THESE STARS! is set late in Josip's reign, during the Syrax crisis.  In this confrontation with Merseia the Empire was forced to concentrate so much of the Navy at the Syrax cluster that Merseia was able to use its Ardazirho clients to attack Terra at another frontier.  E.g., the Ardazirho seized the border colony planet Vixen.  While discussing the Syrax/Vixen crisis with Flandry, Admiral Fenross said of the fleet commander sent to Vixen (in Chapter VI): "The Emperor himself gave Admiral Walton what amounts to carte blanche."  Which made Flandry think: "It must have been one of His Majesty's off days, decided Flandry.  Actually doing the sensible thing."  Meaning there were times when Josip had the wit to make the right decision.

Next, also in Chapter VI of WE CLAIM THESE STARS!, Fenross mentioned how the Vixenite who brought the news of the colony's seizure by Ardazir asked to meet the Emperor.  Flandry sardonically said: "And didn't get it," foretold Flandry.  "His Majesty is much too busy gardening to waste time on a mere commoner representing a mere planet."  Fenross expressed surprise by asking "Gardening?," Flandry replied ironically, "I'm told His Majesty cultivates beautiful pansies."

When I finally paid attention to this bit of dialogue my thought was that if an Emperor as bad as Josip had enough appreciation of beauty to grow his own flowers, then there was some good in him.

However, I then wondered what Flandry had meant by "pansies."  THE RANDOM HOUSE HOUSE DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE (1973) had this as the third definition for the word "pansy": "3. Slang. a. a male homosexual."  If that was what Flandry meant, it explains why Fenross reacted so nervously to Flandry's comment: "Fenross gulped and said in great haste..."  It would also be an example of some slang words retaining their meanings over a millennium from now.

It can thus be seen how "The Imperial Gardener" is an ironic title for this essay.  I admire as well the technical skill shown by Anderson in deftly inserting works set early in Flandry's life (such as THE REBEL WORLDS, 1969) into a series including works placed later in his life (one example being WE CLAIM THESE STARS, 1959).

I absolutely agree with what Flandry said in Chapter VI of A STONE IN HEAVEN about how "legitimacy is the root and branch of government." Lacking that, any government is likely to be nothing but "raw force."  And this applies to all governments, whatever their forms may be.  To preserve and defend legitimacy, it may well be necessary to support rulers a person privately despises.  Many examples from history could be listed here of weak, foolish, and contemptible leaders from Chinese, Roman, Byzantine, French, British, and American history.  Leaders it was better to accept if they held power legitimately.

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