Poul Anderson


Ensign Flandry


Having relished a couple of Anderson’s short stories (and understandably confused him with Fredrick Pohl and blown some time on Outnumbering the Dead) I thought I’d give a novel of his a go.


Pity, that.


It wasn’t awful, but I’d hope that this wasn’t what he was showered in Hugos and Nebulas for. Sure the general space vibe is workable, and there’s some action and exotic locations – but Ensign Flandry’s James Bond style antics get a bit silly at times – no more so than when Anderson is trying to be taken seriously on some political stance.


The politics of the book are pretty wiffy – almost laughable. It’s your standard right wing Tom Clancy jingoist fare – bleeding heart appeasers are weak ambitious fools who should just hand over control to the hard-headed clear thinking generals. And of it’s time: it’s hardly a coincidence that a book written in 1966 by an American sets two superpowers against each other in a cold war environment as they dice around each other offering ‘support and advice’ to opposing factions on an undeveloped minor planet, while the military who are engaged must grind their teeth at the brinkmanship diplomacy that means they only have a portion of the resources their governments could supply. Blimey, I wonder where he got an idea for a situation like that? Extrapolate and the lesson is quite hypocritical. Ensign Flandry, our hero from the human side, can shake his head in superior bemusement at the tragedy that the two barbarian cultures of Starkad can’t see past their immature prejudices to realise that their ‘enemies’ really aren’t so bad, and actually have a lot to respect, and even a lot in common. Anderson, however, is totally blind to the irony that the moral to Flandry’s story is realising that his enemy, the empire of the Merseians, is evil to the core, and that the only hope of humanity is to cease any attempt at negotiation, to get fighting, and, with any luck, to destroy them. They’re not a foe to be underestimated, but it is ultimately us or them: something those stupid self-seeking peaceniks will never realise.


So instead of perhaps enjoying the mentor-apprentice relationship between Abrams and Flandry, I found the former’s pompous (but meant to be unquestionable) pronouncements hard going. Unlike Starship Troopers where at least Heinlein actually formulates an argument, Anderson just has Abrams drop a few impressive sounding names – Aristotle, Machiavelli, Jefferson (as if there aren’t some alternative names such as Plato, Francis of Assisi or Martin Luther-King) – in the expectation that the reader won’t actually have engaged with these writers and will feel they dare not challenge someone who drops them. It’s a cheap and underhand technique: if these guys have a good case and you understand it – present it. If you’ve won people over just by waving some iconic figures they haven’t even read, what sort of a victory is that?


It’s not all shallow pamphleteering and bedroom farce, there are some usable action scenes. The hardest bit, again, is having to deal with the author regularly telling us who the really smart people and actions are, when they’re patently not. Why, for example, did Flandry work so hard to keep the Merseian’s evil secret rather than simply broadcast the coordinates the moment he had them – this is hardly the action of a supposedly precociously intelligent agent. It is just possible to ignore these sorts of dodgy aspects, but as background noise they do detract from the pleasures Pohl has to offer.


I notice this is the first of a series. I won’t be back – maybe I’ll try to find something where Pohl’s politics are less to the fore.


June 2006