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July 15, 2005

I See the Stars at Bloody Warrs in the Wounded Welkin Weeping

Teresa Nielsen Hayden writes about Poul Anderson:

Making Light: Loss of suspension: ...that terrible moment when you see too far into the emotional strategies of a work of fiction, and it falls dead for you. There's no retrieving it. That moment of insight recolors all your previous readings, so that what was once fascinating is now just painful.

I've only ever seen one instance where it was salvaged. When I was a kid, I happily read Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry stories. When I got older they turned to ashes in my mouth,1 around the time I noticed what a shallow manipulative SOB Flandry is, and how often his exploits are paid for by the women in his vicinity. Then, much later, Poul Anderson paid off the series's debts in full with the stark and (in my opinion) underrated A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows.

I was long past being a kid by then, certainly past believing that writers have any obligation to deserve the trust we give them; so the sense of relief and reassurance I felt came as a complete surprise. It surprises me still....

I had always thought that being a shallow manipulative SOB was part of the main point of the Flandry stories. He is cynical, corrupt, shallow, decadent, self-absorbed, lecherous. Yet when the choice comes--when there is a chance to do something that will delay by a month or so the Long Night of the barbarians that will come after the fall of the cruel, unjust, murderous, rapacious Terran Empire--Flandry does find that he is a patriot, and that truly dulce et decorum pro patria mori. The decadent sybarite stands up like Horatius at the Gate, grabs his spear to face impossible odds, and declaims:

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods...?"

For me, the frustrating narrative hole was always Flandry's insufficient motivation: Why is this decadent sybarite also Horatius at the Gate? (Let's not ask why Macaulay is impelled to write the poems that Romans would have written had the Romans been illiterate Scots.)

So for me, A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows did not lift any burden, but seemed more like a bizarre hall of mirrors. Dominic Flandry falling in True Love? The lifetime appreciator of High Culture and defender of the possibility of civilization turning into the Greatest Vandal of All Time? Flandry in this book is a different man from the Flandry in earlier books. It's not good to write a story in which a new character inhabits the skin and bears the name of an old one.

And what possible reason--save that of transparent plot device to set up a cruel dilemma--could Flandry's son ever have had to learn the location of Aycharaych's homeworld? Not to mention the disproportion of the response: to answer an uncovered espionage-and-assassination plot with large cross-border destructive raids by battlefleets is a dangerous climbing of the ladder of escalation. It is not something that the Roidhunate of Merseia would ever have taken lying down.

The jerky clockwork was, to me at least, much more visible and the suspension of disbelief much less possible in A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows than in the other Flandry stories.

Yet more evidence that reading is something that takes place between the ears. Your mileage can and will vary widely...

By contrast, Tau Zero. Now there is a science-fiction novel!


1They turned to ashes in my mouth too, but for very different reasons. For me, it was the cheap Cold War polemics. Flandry is fighting to delay the victory of the barbarians--to keep the star-spanning civilization alive a little longer, so that life can be less nasty, brutish, and short. Enter the Roidhunate of Merseia, a young expanding civilization and species confident in itself: strong and aggressive. Who better to pass the torch too? Who better to hold back the Long Night? Yes, the Roidhunate has enormous flaws. But are they worse than the flaws of the Terran Empire?

That's not how Poul Anderson plays it. He plays it like this: Merseia = Russia. "Peaceful coexistence" is impossible. Those who say that Brezhnev is not Stalin = deluded fools. Those who propose detente with Merseia or even a watchful peace rather that recognizing that permanent, total war has already begun = Commie-loving unpatriotic American liberals like Henry Kissinger.

Thus what starts as a meditation on variations on themes from the Age of Septimius Severus turns into a John Birch Society tract. It simply does not fit. If the major theme is that defending the Bad is necessary to hold back the Worst, you cannot suddenly intrude American Angels vs. Russian Commie Devils without causing... laughter.

Yet more evidence that reading is something that takes place between the ears...

Posted by DeLong at July 15, 2005 11:44 AM