Sunday, June 12, 2011

Flandry's Legacy - Poul Anderson

Flandry's Legacy is the conclusion to Baen's project to publish all Anderson's works in the Technic Civilization in chronological order. In total the series covers seven volumes and over 3,000 pages, all published between 1951 and 1985. This last volume contains two novels and four shorter pieces that cover almost four millennia in Anderson's future history. I must admit that after reading the previous volume, Sir Dominic Flandry: The Last Kinight of Terra, I suffered from a bit of a Flandry overdose. I'm not a huge fan of this character, it turns out. In this volume, Flandry makes his final appearance before Anderson takes us into the Long Night and out the other end. I had high hopes for this last part in the sage and indeed, I enjoyed the last stories in the collection a lot.

The collection opens with the last novel in which Flandry is the main character: A Stone in Heaven (1979). Miriam Abrams, the daughter of Flandry's mentor Max Abrams is a xenologist studying a primitive culture on a planet where civilization is time and again cast back into the neolithic by the fluctuating output of its sun. The world is moving towards severe glaciation again but this time, the empire is in a position to fix it and save what Miriam considers to be a fascinating culture. The Duke of Hermes, the imperial noble who'd have to provide this aid, is reluctant to do so however. Miriam is forced to go over his head and asks Flandry for aid. Not surprisingly Flandry thinks the matter smells fishy. Especially when the Duke tries to persuade Flandry form taking his side. Why doesn't he want Flandry nosing around this seemingly insignificant planet?

Another plot against the emperor by a man with megalomaniac tendencies. It suits the James Bond like character Flandry I suppose. You can feel Flandry is tired of it all by now though. In this story he is in his sixties and not in the good graces of the emperor. He feels the Long Night rapidly approaching and it hangs like a dark cloud over the story. Even more than in other stories. To indicate Flandy is ready to call it a day, Anderson even has him stay with Miriam permanently. I suppose the plot isn't too surprising but it is one of the better written Flandry novels. It also includes a very interesting planet (seven times Earth's gravity causes some interesting adaptations). His victory is bitter sweet. A fitting end of the adventures of a hero of the Terran Empire.

I consider A Stone in Heaven the last real Flandry novel but he does make a brief appearance in The Game of Empire (1985), which is set a couple of years later. It's the longest piece in this collection and one of the last stories Anderson wrote in the Technic Civilization setting. Perhaps Anderson meant to come full circle in this novel. The novel has strong ties with Ensign Flandry (1966), the first novel Flandry starred in (see Young Flandry). This time it is his illegitimate daughter Diana who is the star of the show however. As resourceful as her father, she ends up in the middle of yet another rebellion against the weak emperor. Although the rebellions admiral has wide support, some still feel all these civil wars are worse for the empire than poor government. Soon it becomes clear that it isn't a purely internal affair either. The Merseians have a hand in the violence as well.

The Game of Empire is a bit unusual in the sense that is shows us most of the action from the point of view of someone who doesn't have all that much information of what is going on. Flandry is always ferreting out information, his daughter is merely trying to make a living. As a result, the involvement of the Merseians remains unclear right until the very end of the novel. It's another ambitious plot that has taken decades to hatch. You'd think a species with that much foresight and patience would have done in the Terran Empire ages ago. Again it's a plot we've come across before but I must admit feisty Diana is a breath of fresh air into the series.

Next up is A Tragedy of Errors (1967), the first story set in the Long Night. As the title suggests it is a tragedy. Both the Merseian and Technic civilisations have collapsed and the galaxy is overrun by pirates and warlords. Some planets have lost space faring technology altogether. The loss of contact from galactic civilization forces some populations to adapt. This can be physically but language also shifts. Communication with isolated populations remains problematic. Something trader and sometimes pirate Roan Tom is about to find out as he approaches a backwater planet. It's an interesting concept, personally I think the story is a tad too long if one reads it on it's own. It does give the readers of the entire series a good look at what is going on during the Long Night though.

The Night Face (1963) shows us a population who has undergone a physical adaptation to their planet after being trapped there during the collapse of the Commonweath. The population of this planet, Gwydion, missed the entire Terran Empire. Now, one of the local powers emerging from the rubble of the Empire sends an expedition to re-establish contact. The Gwydion have developed a culture in which myth and symbolism are extremely important. The significance of the phrase Night Face is hard to unravel through all the linguistic and cultural interference but the expedition can't shake the feeling that something awful is about to happen. I like this story a lot. It strikes the right balance between detail of the planet's culture and environment and the pace at which the riddle is unravelled. Probably the strongest tale in the collection.

In The Sharing of Flesh (1968) we see an even more extreme survival strategy. Again an isolated planet is visited by an expedition of a more advanced culture to see if they can lift the population out of their confinement on the planet. Things go seriously wrong when one of the scientists, a recently married man, is killed and eaten by one of the natives. Cannibalism it turns out, is engrained in every culture on the planet. The widow's own culture demands revenge but the scientist her husband was, would have pointed out that within their cultural framework, there is nothing unusual about the killing. How much cultural relativism is acceptable? Anderson could not have foreseen it but it's a very relevant question at the moment given the western world's struggle with Islamic extremism. The Sharing of Flesh is a very strong and tragic story. Definitely a close second behind The Night Face.

The last story in the collection makes a three thousand year jump in history and shows us a glimpse of what lies on the other side of the Long Night. In Starfog (1967) a more loosely tied group of words called the Commonality has sent and agent to the outlying planet of Serieve, where the local officials are holding the human crew of a space ship claiming to have come from a different dimension. For the fans of hard science fiction there is a lot of interesting astronomy in this story. I liked the bit where the consequences of not being able to see beyond a certain point in space for the development of theoretical physics and astronomy were discussed. Apart from that I didn't think it was a particularly strong story though. I didn't care for the main character or the way in which he holds the whole expedition hostage to chase his own agenda.

And there we have it, Anderson's entire Technic Civilization sage. It's an impressive body of work. Although Anderson repeats himself a number of times, overall I enjoyed reading these stories. They range from rather pulpish (the 1950s Flandry short stories) to the poetic and slightly fantastical story The Saturn Game, which opens the entire saga (see The Van Rijn Method). Reading through these collections, the various stages in Anderson's development as a write are clear to see. I can't say that I enjoyed very story on this long journey but it certainly is an achievement in 20th century science fiction that is not to be overlooked. Baen did us a service by collecting them all in this manner. For the real Poul Anderson fan this series is a treasure. I wish they'd paid a bit more attention to the cover art however. The Flandy books in particular are graced with some of the worst covers that are out there at the moment.

Book Details
Title: Flandry's Legacy
Author: Poul Anderson
Publisher: Baen
Pages: 574
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-4391-3427-6
First published: 2011

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