Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Young Flandry - Poul Anderson

This book is part four in Baen's ongoing project to publish all of Anderson's work in the Technic Civilization in chronological order. The cover of this book is so hideous that I almost gave up on this project. It left Aiden at A Dribble of Ink speechless. After reading the first three, none of which were graced by particularly good cover art, I thought it would be a shame to give up now though. In part three, Rise of the Terran Empire, we witnessed the last adventures of Nicolas van Rijn and David Falkayn, marking the end of the Polesotechnic league era of Anderson's future history. We also see humanity slip into a dark age and witness the rise of the Terran Empire. In this Terran Empire phase of history most of the remaining stories in the Technic civilization is set. As the title of the book suggests a new hero enters the stage. Dominic Flandry.

Young Flandry contains three full length novels depicting Fandry in his younger years. As the cover suggests Flandry is something of a James Bond in space so I was not entirely sure I wanted to read this book. I must say, the James Bond thing was not quite as bad as I feared. In the first novel Ensign Flandry (1966) we meet naval pilot Fandry fresh out of the academy and posted on the planet Starkad where the Empire and the Merseians are at a stand off. Each is supporting one of the two primitive sentient species living on the planet. Each supporting one species in a conflict over resources. The fate of these two species is of course not why the Terran Empire bothers with a planet that offers little in the way of resources. They are merely trying to block Merseian expansion. Merseia on the other hand seems to be heading for outright conflict, gradually scaling up the level of hostilities on the planet. Nobody quite understands why. Flandry will be instrumental in finding out.

I liked this first novel more than I expected I would. The Merseian plot turns out to be quite complicated and it helps open Flandry's eyes to the faults of the Empire and it's inevitable demise. The instruction he receives from Max Abrams, an intelligence officer who recognizes competence when he sees it. This encounter on Starkad will determine the shape of Flandry's career. It sets the tone for the rest of this volume, introducing a tired and decadent empire but also pointing out why it is still useful and why men like Flandry can still make their fortune serving it. Interesting politics, interesting description of the planet and the Bond theme not too obvious. A good start of this book.

In A Circus of Hells (1970) we fast-forward a couple of years. Flandry has gained a bit of a reputation on Starkad and has received additional training for service as an intelligence officer. Two years after the events in Ensign Flandry he has been promoted to Lieutenant stationed on the planet Ironclaw. Flandry finds himself with what looks like quite a shady business opportunity when one of the local underworld figures asks him to swing by a rogue planet on one of the patrols he's scheduled on. This would of course be reason for a court martial if his superiors learnt of it but the deal is sweetened by a female companion and a heap of cash. Flandry accepts, but not for the obvious reasons as we'll find out.

This novel contains a lot of references to stories in the Polesothechnic League phase of the Technic Civilization which was one of the more interesting parts. On the whole I didn't like this book much. Flandry's female companion annoyed me to no end. I thought she was a very unconvincing character. For someone who's had a pretty rough life she's painfully naive at times. She combines phases of competence with hysterics and is frequently used by the author to offer Flandry a chance to be hero. Anderson makes up for some of this by introducing one of the more interesting planets I've come across in his work. A world with such and elliptic orbit that temperatures change dramatically during the seasons. The way life has adapted to such an environment is one of the more interesting aspects of the novel. It doesn't save it from being mediocre though.

The final novel contained in this book is The Rebel Worlds (1969). In this novel Flandry deals with a different kind of threat to the empire. As always the Merseians are causing trouble on the border and most of the attention of the empire is directed in that direction. On the other side of the empire a cruel governor has managed to spark a rebellion against imperial rule. Lead by one of the empire's most respected admirals it poses a serious risk to the stability of the empire. It must be crushed quickly no matter what the grievances that caused it. With most of the fleet on the Merseian border not many men are available to take on the job. Flandry, for the occasion raised to commander, is sent to the region to investigate.

I guess this novel shows the choice Flandry has made to work to maintain the empire as long as possible best of all three novels in this book. It's an interesting choice, for most heroes in such tales it would be more obvious to look ahead. Flandry only sees the Long Night, an alternative worse than anything the empire can throw at its people. It also shows that Flandry will not shun ethically dubious actions to prolong the empire's life. His attitude towards the rebellion is one of the things I found most interesting about this novel. It does include a woman of course, Flandry stories can't seem to do without, but this time she is portrayed as unfailingly competent. Their relationship contains some unnecessary drama but it does not have quite as much impact on the novel as a whole as in A Circus of Hells. I'd rate this one somewhere between the first and second novel in Young Flandry.

A tired old empire doomed to go under and a young hero fighting to maintain it. Besides the parallel with James Bond I wonder if there is a connection with Asimov's Foundation series. The first book in this series was published in 1951, the same year as Anderson's first Flandry story, although short stories that eventually lead to the novel were published as early as 1942. I guess I am going to have to read Asimov some time to find out. I have mixed feelings about this book, in part I quite enjoyed it but Flandry's Wein, Weib und Gesang attitude does become annoying at times. I think I'll stick around to see how Anderson manages Flandry in shorter works though. Captain Flandry, the next volume in this project, contains some of the earliest Flandry stories and will also introduce his Blofeld, a Merseian agent by the name of Ayrcharaych. In other words, to be continued when I get around to reading the next volume.

Book Details
Title: Young Flandry
Author: Poul Anderson
Publisher: Baen
Pages: 526
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-4391-3327-9
First published: 2010

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