Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Anderson's Flandry Series

Swords and Guns

Much fantasy is classed as "Sword and Sorcery." Some action-adventure science fiction (sf) is "Sword and Science." Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martians had guns and technology but unaccountably fought mainly with swords. Maybe the dying planet was running out of ammunition.

Poul Anderson not only wrote both hard sf and space opera but also often combined them. When Dominic Flandry has adventures on an extra-solar planet (at least after his earliest three short stories), Anderson tells us the planet's size, mass, axial tilt, metallic and atmospheric composition, number of satellites, distance from its primary, nature of that primary and the reasons why life had evolved as it did in that environment. However, the first two Flandry stories not only are pulp space opera but even contain "Sword and Science," although Anderson cleverly rationalizes the use of swords.

In "Tiger by the Tail" (January 1951), Flandry, a Terrestrial secret agent, is kidnapped by the Scothani, barbarians who have acquired spaceships. When he has used modern subversive techniques to undermine their interstellar empire, Flandry is challenged to a sword fight by a Scothanian prince in the appropriate setting of a barbarian castle. The prince thinks that a civilised Terrestrial will be unable to fight with a sword. Flandry demonstrates that, because Terra is not only civilized but also decadent, its nobles have preserved the deliberate archaism of scientific fencing.

In "Honourable Enemies" (May 1951), Terrestrial and Merseian diplomatic delegations contend in the court of the Betelgeusean Sartaz (king). Aycharaych of Chereion, a telepath serving Merseia, having just read Flandry's mind, is about to denounce the Terrans’ duplicity to the Sartaz. Although no one is allowed to bear firearms in the Sartaz's palace, duelling swords are part of full dress. Flandry silences Aycharaych by denouncing him as an assassin and attacking him with his rapier. Telepathy gives Aycharaych little advantage because fencing involves conditioned reflex, not conscious thought. Disarming Aycharaych and holding his sword to the Chereionite's throat, Flandry thinks a warning at Aycharaych so that the latter remains silent while Flandry's colleague continues her dishonest exposition to the Sartaz. The earlier story had explained why a Terrestrial can fence but why can a Chereionite? Did Aycharaych learn this skill from Terrestrial minds in case of need?

In "Warriors from Nowhere" (1954) and "The Game of Glory" (1958), fighting, with guns not with swords, occurs on civilized human, not on barbarian humanoid, planets, as if our present, not our past, is now projected into the future. "Warriors from Nowhere" is mere space opera, comprising mainly gun fights, whereas "The Game of Glory" more plausibly presents a colonial society infiltrated by alien subversion. The remaining stories of the original series present longer and more substantial accounts of extra-solar environments.

In "A Message in Secret" (December 1959), human nomadic motor bikers share a planet with its ice-dwelling natives and herd mutated giant rabbits attacked by mutated giant rats. In "The Plague of Masters" (December 1960), Flandry's subversion of a bio-chemically based human tyranny is more believable than his earlier subversion of a barbarian alien kingdom. In "Tiger by the Tail," he had gained and manipulated the affection of a barbarian princess, humanoid but horned, whereas, at the end of "The Plague of Masters," he leaves behind a merely human lover.

Telepathy and Aycharaych

Flandry explains to a colleague and thus to us that a normal telepath detects mental patterns but must learn a different internal "language" for each telepathic race and even for each individual member of a non-telepathic race because minds lacking contact develop individual "languages." Contradicting this, Aycharaych instantly reads and understands at least the surface thoughts of any member of any species, even an inhabitant of a gas giant planet. Flandry speculates that Aycharaych detects an underlying resonance-pattern or basic life energy but this concept is questionable.

Although Anderson presents at least three attempted accounts of how Aycharaych’s telepathy might work, semantics involves arbitrary associations between symbols and meanings so how can Aycharaych detect meanings behind symbols? Admittedly, he reads living minds, not mere written records, but he must still interpret a "language." The character of Aycharaych was introduced in an early story so that Flandry could learn how to lie to a telepath – he allowed himself to be drugged and persuaded of falsehoods - but Aycharaych was such an interesting character in other ways that he returned and became the principle continuing villain of the series, although Flandry’s opposite number among the Merseians does rise through the ranks like Flandry.

If Kirk were in Intelligence and Spock served Kling (the Klingon home planet?), then Star Trek would parallel the Flandry series. Aycharaych the telepath is humanoid with pointed ears but descended from flightless birds. In a brilliant conversation between Flandry and Aycharaych, the latter even speculates about what it would be like if they were on the same side:

“Would you protect me if the accidents of history had flung [the Terran] Empire rather than [the Merseian] Rhoidunate around my sun? Or if you had been born into those humans who serve Merseia? Indeed, then you might have lived more whole of heart.” (1)

Flandry assures Aycharaych, himself and us that he prefers cynicism to Leader-worship.

Throughout known space, ruins of an ancient interstellar civilization evoke both scientific curiousity and religious awe. Aycharaych tries to exploit the latter phenomenon in order to divide humanity by inciting a jihad but also claims that the Chereionites were the Ancients. Later, a Wodenite converted to Jerusalem Catholicism gives the religious aspect a Christian slant by seeking among the ruins for evidence of an extraterrestrial Incarnation.

Reading Order

"Tiger by the Tail," "Honorable Enemies," "The Game of Glory" and "Hunters of the Sky Cave" (June 1959) are a continuous sequence because each of these stories refers to the previous one. "The Plague of Masters" is a direct sequel to "A Message in Secret." "Warriors from Nowhere" fits into neither sequence and retroactively became a prologue to A Knight Of Ghosts And Shadows (1974), the first novel about Flandry's later career. Therefore, "Warriors from Nowhere" occurs after the other six stories.

In "Hunters of the Sky Cave," as in "Warriors from Nowhere," Flandry has acquired both an alien servant, the Shalmuan Chives, and a private spaceship whereas, in "A Message in Secret" and its sequel, he still travels alone and buys passage on a spaceship. This may explain why these two stories are placed between "The Game of Glory" and "Hunters of the Sky Cave" in the Chronology of Technic Civilization. (2) I think that it makes sense to read the works as written, first the sequence of four, then the sequence of two, then to think about their chronology.

Like James Blish's Okie and pantropy series, Anderson's Flandry series was written from the centre outwards. Thus, in the completed Flandry Period of the Technic History, the seven original stories are preceded by four novels and one story and succeeded by three novels. These nine volumes (about half the number of volumes in the History of Technic Civilization, although the entire History had never been collected in a complete uniform edition) are preceded and succeeded by other works. Flandry matures from a teenage Ensign to an elderly father, Admiral and Imperial adviser but with physical vigor maintained by calisthenics and antisenescence. The series develops from mere space opera to a serious discussion of the rise and fall of civilizations. Even in the earliest written of the space operas, “Tiger by the Tail," Flandry’s character is more complex than that of the clichéd action-adventure hero. He is not noble and well intentioned but cynical yet doing his job well because someone has to.

Although Flandry first meets Aycharaych in "Honorable Enemies," the later written prequels skillfully introduce the Chereionite to the reader. In The Day Of Their Return (1973), Imperial Commissioner Chunderban Desai meets Aycharaych and reads an Intelligence report on what little is known about Chereion. In A Knight Of Ghosts And Shadows, Desai instructs Flandry in a cyclical theory of history that explains Aycharaych’s strategy: the Terran Empire is in a period of civil strife which facilitates conquest by its major opponent. (Although we know that the Empire later falls, we do not see the Roidhunate filling the vacuum. It seems that the imperia wore each other out.)

In the second Flandry novel, A Circus Of Hells (1970), we learn that Aycharaych has taught mental techniques to Merseians in his castle at Raal, which we never see although Flandry later orders the bombardment of Chereion. Despite ordering a planetary bombardment, Flandry is not guilty of genocide because Aycharaych was the last Chereionite though he had somehow fooled Merseia into thinking otherwise. What Flandry’s bombardment does destroy is the computers that preserve the Chereionite heritage but that also enable Aycharaych to spy and subvert on behalf of Merseia whose Rhoidhunate unfortunately includes Chereion.

By keeping the Merseians off Chereion, Aycharaych had preserved his heritage and had prevented the Roidhunate from adapting Chereionite technology for military use. It is hinted that Aycharaych survives the bombardment but, meanwhile, Anderson had mostly stopped extending this series and had turned his attention to other works. The Lancaster sf book seller, Peter Pinto, suggested to Anderson that Aycharaych should return but in an Aycharaych, not a Flandry, novel. That would have made sense.

Would it also have made sense for the Policy Board to appoint Flandry Emperor if Gerhart Molitor died without an heir? A novel called Emperor Flandry could have book-ended the series with Ensign Flandry. It would seem appropriate for Flandry to exercise the absolute power which he had defended.

The Flandry Period

The Flandry Period is more than the Flandry series. Flandry merely cameos in The Game of Empire (1985) and appears neither in “Outpost of Empire” (1967) nor in The Day of Their Return (1973) although he is quoted in the latter which also presents a complicated colonial society. Seven centuries earlier, scientists wanting to study the unusual natives of the planet Dido which is unsuitable for human habitation colonized another planet in the same system, Aeneas, where they established a University that attracts human and non-human students from other systems. Survival in the sparse Aenean environment required cultivation of large land areas with both native and imported plants and animals. Horses and green six-legged stathas were imported as transport animals. During the Troubles, “Landfolk” relationships became semi-feudal and the University incorporated military training into its curriculum. Near the main University campus is a statue of Brian McCormac who cast out nonhuman invaders.

Later immigrants seeking a refuge or a new start are excluded from the tri-cameral legislature by a property qualification for the franchise but form subcultures: tinerans, Riverfolk, Orcans and highlanders. Orcans guard ruins left by space-traveling “Ancients.” “Lucks,” small pets kept in Tinerans’ caravans, are telepathic parasites left by the Ancients. Most Townfolk, belonging to ancient guilds, identify with scientists and squires. However, industrialization in the urban area known as the Web has produced manufacturers, merchants and managers whose interests are closer to those of the Empire which forcibly annexed Aeneas after the Troubles and re-occupied it after Hugh McCormac’s rebellion. Chunderban Desai, High Commissioner of the Virgilian system, consults Thane of the University and Jowett of the Web about McCormac’s Landfolk nephew who will inherit tri-cameral Speakership but meanwhile attacks Imperial troops, then hides among tinerans before traveling with Riverfolk to meet the new Orcan prophet.

I summarize Aenean society in order to convey the richness of detail in Anderson’s fictitious planets.

General Observations

We know that Flandry must be long dead by the time of the Long Night and the Commonalty although we are not told how he dies. SF presents several ways for a character to survive indefinitely. The last Technic History story, “Starfog” (1967), mentions suspended animation. Other works by Anderson develop the ideas of longevity, time dilation and time travel. However, Anderson never suggested that van Rijn, Falkayn or Flandry would outlast their contemporaries by any of these means. We should imagine them, like the characters in the same author’s historical novels, as living and dying in their successive periods of a longer narrative.

Aycharaych to Flandry:

“The consciousness that dreary death will in a few more decades fold this brightly checkered game board whereon you leap and capture – that keeps you ever in haste.” (3)

Although, after the first two stories, Flandry is Sir Dominic, a knight of the Terran Empire, and although one edition of A Knight Of Ghosts And Shadows was alternatively entitled Knight Flandry, thus making it uniform with the first novel, Ensign Flandry (1966),and with the collection, Flandry of Terra, I think that the real title character of this novel is Aycharaych, perpetrator of multiple deceptions. Flandry thinks that Aycharaych’s “signature” is: “Dreams and shadows and flitting ghosts-” (4)

For me, the Flandry series comes most alive when, in Knight…, Flandry and his fiancée, Kossara, join a march to the tri-cameral Parliament of Kossara’s home planet, Dennitza. This passage reads like something that really happened and conveys the characters’ apprehension as they approach the conflict in Parliament. Kossara’s death while resisting the attempted coup is devastating and Chive’s flippancy when calling for help in the fight:

“‘I say…you chaps might pitch in a bit, don’t you know.’” (5)

seems inappropriate. Later harrowing moments are Flandry’s discovery that his son serves Merseia and Aycharaych’s appeal to Flandry to help him save Chereion, which would have required Flandry to betray his comrades, including Kossara’s family. A less harrowing but no less moving moment is reached when Kossara’s body lies in the Cathedral where she and Flandry would have been married. Knowing that she believed in the hereafter, he asks her for a sign but does not believe that he receives it.

Anderson conveys the sense of living in troubled times in the pre-Flandry novel, Mirkheim (1977), then in The Rebel Worlds (1969), Knight… and The Game of Empire: unrest, rumors, conspiracies and clashing ideologies. Flandry foils a more clandestine conspiracy in his last novel as central character, A Stone in Heaven (1979).

The basic premises of the Technic History are:

easy faster than light travel;
many comprehensible aliens and many humanly habitable planets in our immediate galactic vicinity, part of one spiral arm.

Anderson did acknowledge that some aliens would be incomprehensible to humanity and that even the most “habitable” planet might be hard to adapt to, for example requiring dietary supplements. He did not even assume that grass grows on every terrestroid planet, although he did expect an equivalent, some form of vegetation that can be cropped to ground level without being destroyed. On Aeneas, the underfoot vegetation curls up and loses its odor at night. However, the Technic History premises are optimistic and Anderson questioned them in later works.

If there is no faster than light travel, then any beings crossing an interstellar distance necessarily take their environment with them and therefore do not need to find a habitable environment, which may not even be there, on arrival. Anderson’s later future histories are set in a very different universe where humanity does not encounter alien intelligence but constructs artificial intelligence.

The Flandry section of the History has four additional premises:

first, however its economy is organized, any individual planet can be attacked from space and therefore needs Imperial protection for which it can be modestly taxed without being exploited;
secondly, however, a badly run Empire does become oppressive, for example when an ambitious, unscrupulous Sector Governor enriches himself by plundering planets, then destroys evidence by bombarding planetary surfaces during the ensuing insurrection;
thirdly, two species with similar biochemistries will contend for similar planets so the Empire also has an external problem;
fourthly, unscrupulous traders selling spaceships and nuclear weapons to barbarians cause further external problems.

Like Flandry, I think that, in the circumstances, the Empire should be defended and reformed, not resisted or overthrown. Unlike Flandry, I would want to build a co-operative economy on at least one Imperial planet. If possible, I would also suggest that the head of state be appointed by the Policy Board and not necessarily descended from either Manuel Argos, the Founder, or Hans Molitor, the Usurper. However, powerful vested interests would oppose that idea and further civil war should be avoided. Cairncross and Magnusson learned from Molitor not to accept his dynasty but to declare their own. (Worse, Magnusson, although human, was secretly a Warrior of the God. See below.)

Emerging from the collapse of the previous political and economic institutions, the Commonwealth and the League, the Empire imposed its Pax on a finite volume of space, then stopped expanding, whereas the Merseians, having gained interstellar travel from the League, were still expanding. Thus, Flandry has been born on what seems to be the losing side and even, from a “might makes right” viewpoint, the wrong side. However, since the Merseians are militarists and racial supremacists, other value judgements are applicable. Characters in other Anderson works might remark that defeat is rarely inevitable and that, even if it were, it is better to die fighting on the right side with Father Odin.

Terra and Merseia exchange ambassadors, an entirely Terrestrial custom, but Anderson rationalizes this by telling us that, since the Merseians had had less experience in such matters, the two races agreed, in the Covenant of Alfzar, that the rules of diplomacy developed on Earth would govern Terran-Merseian relationships. As with the swords, Anderson presents a deliberate archaism but also a rationale for it. This is not serious futurology. Anderson is not predicting the future but projecting the past into the future for story purposes. But serious social theory does appear when Desai analyses Terrestrial history for Flandry. Anderson uses “the Terran Empire” for two literary purposes in a single series: space opera and social commentary.

Another obvious archaism is slavery, re-introduced to make criminals and debtors do useful work or provide personal services. Flandry sympathizes with a semi-aristocrat sold to him for debt but (thinks that) he can do nothing about the system. Of course, he treats her well, gets her willing help with an assignment and then frees her.

Although Flandry and his mentor, Max Abrams, defend civilization, it is a civilization that no longer recognizes basic human rights or equality before the law. Nobles and commons are treated differently. However, these injustices could theoretically be corrected without ending the Pax.


The Game Of Empire starts like a Heinlein juvenile with the young heroine, Flandry’s daughter, watching a multi-species crowd on a colonized planet and meeting an intelligent quadruped. A reference to a recent Merseian onslaught tells us which universe we are in and an overheard Navy conversation about “Merseian bastards” makes this universe real. The Merseians, no longer standard villains but familiar adversaries, have come a long way since “Honorable Enemies.”

In the Betelgeusean System, their ambassador was Lord Korvash. In later written works, we learn that Merseian realms are “Vachs” and that their leaders are called “Hands," not Heads. In Knight..., we learn that Korvash, who has recently become Hand of the Vach Rueth, corresponds with a member of the Dennitzan House of the Zmayi, beings of Merseian species living on a human colony planet and loyal to the Emperor, not to the Roidhun. The Dennitzan Houses of the Lords and the Folk are human. Thus, the name “Korvash” recurs but the word “Lord” reverts to a purely human application.

(Added, 13th May, 2012: In the revised text, Korvash loses the "Lord" and gains a standard Merseian description or nickname, "...the Farseeing.")

Merseians are bald, green humanoids like Dan Dare’s Treens but with tails on which they sit. A member of another species visiting a Merseian household must sit on the table. When one Merseian character does use a stool, either Anderson has temporarily forgotten that they sit on their tails or the implication is that they do sometimes use stools but cannot use chairs. (6) We learn that they are monotheists and racists. The God favors the Race. Merseians, incapable of ecumenism towards human or Ythrian monotheists, instead transmit mere propaganda to Terrestrial pacifists and religious organizations. They begin to sound like the American idea of Communists.

In “Honorable Enemies,” Flandry thinks that the Merseian aim is a single galactic empire. We later learn that their aim is Merseian galactic hegemony but, more realistically, to be exercised through several autonomous realms. “Honorable Enemies” tells us that they are mammals but with overt traces of reptilian ancestry whereas Knight… tells us that they are warm-blooded and give live birth but are not mammals. These could be different view-point characters’ biological classifications. Anderson’s standard reply to inconsistency-spotters was:

“Perfect consistency is possible only to God Himself, and a close study of Scripture will show that He doesn’t always make it.” (7)


The collected edition of “Honorable Enemies” also mentions the rival empire of Ythri. The Ythrians first appeared in “Wings of Victory” (1972). I do not know whether, in 1972, Anderson decided to use a name first introduced in 1951 or whether the reference to Ythri was retroactively added to the collected version of “Honorable Enemies”. Either way, what we read is a long and detailed future history.

“The Problem of Pain,” “Lodestar,” “Wingless,” “Rescue on Avalon,” The People of the Wind and The Day Of Their Return, all featuring Ythrians, were published in a single year, 1973. Only the last of these works is set during Flandry’s life time. Knight…, in which winged Diomedeans, introduced in the Nicholas van Rijn novel, The Man Who Counts (1958), hope for an anti-Imperial alliance with winged Ythrians, was serialized in 1974. Thus, this major part of the History, Ythri, springs from a single creative period in Anderson’s career, although the “earliest” and “latest” references to Ythrians are separated by nine centuries of fictitious history, from the Grand Survey of the twenty second century to Flandry’s later career in the thirty first century.

The End

Near the end of A Stone in Heaven, the reader believes that Flandry and Chives will die in space. Flandry remembers…then they are rescued. While he remembers, he assesses his life: he had wrought evil but enjoyed life and saved more lives than he ruined. Is it true that he sold his soul to prolong the doomed Empire? (8) Flandry himself does not put it as strongly as that and neither would I. He does contemplate the erosion of his spirit but not the loss of his soul.

Flandry both defends the Empire and enjoys life within it. He defends the status quo either because he enjoys its decadence or because he enjoys defending it, or both. Therefore, he:

practices deceptions as an Intelligence Officer;
participates in the conquest of the planet Brae;
has many casual affairs and abandons many women;
uses some women not only sexually but also by involving them in his machinations;
does want to marry Kathryn McCormac and, later, Kossara Vymezal but can’t;
eventually settles down with Miriam Abrams whose father had got him into Intelligence back in Ensign Flandry.

“The Game of Glory” begins with a cynical reference to: “A murdered man on a winter planet [Brae]…” (9) (The Empire calls it “murder” when a Braean kills an attacking Imperial.)

At the very end of A Stone in Heaven, Dominic and Miriam: “…walked on into the autumn.” (10)

Before that, Flandry has suffered the consequences of his actions. An early used and abandoned mistress was psychic and cursed him never to have the woman he really wanted. His illegitimate son by an even earlier mistress became a traitor and was responsible for the death of his fiancee, Kossara. Flandry knows that, despite his lecture to Hugh McCormac, he would have joined the McCormac rebellion if its leader’s wife had committed adultery with him. Self-knowledge like that is bound to erode his Imperialist spirit.

If Flandry had stayed with the psychic mistress, she would not have cursed him. If he had stayed with his son’s mother, the son would have been less likely to betray him. In either case, he would have been less likely to want an affair with Kathryn and would probably not have met Kossara. But he would still have been able to save the Fleet at Starkad, to foil Merseian Intelligence on Talwin, to defeat McCormac in Sector Alpha Crucis, to sabotage Scothanian imperialism etc.

Many of his missions were beneficial. Despite participating in the brutal annexation of Brae, he also liberated Unan Besar from tyrants and Vixen from invaders and saved the lives of entire Starkadian and Ramnuan populations. His illegitimate daughter later helped to foil the Magnusson insurrection. I question whether Flandry’s bad treatment of women is directly related to his efforts to prop up the Empire.

The Game of Empire, in which the married Flandry cameos, potentially opens a new series about his illegitimate daughter and her companions but only potentially. The next, and last, Technic History novel, The Night Face (1963), is set in a very different period, centuries later. The last story, “Starfog," set millennia later, refers to an ancient conflict which regular readers recognize from The Rebel Worlds, although the “Starfog” characters know only that the losers of a conflict fled across two spiral arms and through a dark nebula into an opaque cluster where they colonized a planet but lost the ability to build spaceships. Thus, the nine volumes of the Flandry series shrink and recede in cosmic history.

    1. Anderson, Poul, A Knight Of Ghosts And Shadows, London 1978, p. 106.
    2. Miesel, Sandra, "Chronology of Technic Civilization," in Anderson, Poul, The Technic Civilization Saga: The Van Rijn Method, compiled by Hank Davis, New York 2008, pp. 445-450.
    3. Anderson, op. cit., p. 102.
    4. ibid, p. 96.
    5. ibid, p. 186.
    6. ibid, p. 113.
    7. Anderson, Poul, private letter to Paul Shackley, dated 14 March 1992, and Anderson, Poul, “Concerning Future Histories,” Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America, Vol. 14, No. 3, Whole No. 71, Fall 1979, pp. 7-14, at p. 13.
    8. Miesel Sandra, “Afterword: The Price of Buying Time,” in Anderson, Poul, A Stone in Heaven, New York 1979, pp. 237-251 at p. 237.
   9. Anderson, Poul, Agent Of The Terran Empire, London 1977, p. 9.
  10. Anderson, A Stone In Heaven, p. 234.


Kate Kaye Christie said...

"If Flandry had stayed with the psychic mistress, she would not have cursed him."
Eh... emotional blackmail. ick

"If he had stayed with his son’s mother, the son would have been less likely to betray him."
As I recall she was a back-stabbing crazy person herself but hey, let's stay together for the sake of the kids. Cause that's a great idea.

Ella should have been more than a one-shot character. She was cool.

Paul Shackley said...

Hi Kate,
I think Dominic Junior's mother was Persis d'Io in ENSIGN FLANDRY?

Jon D. said...

Just started this series in Ensign Flandry and wrote up a review that's pretty detailed -- I leave out some of the spoiler points as best I can.

Wow this is a breath of fresh air. It's got a fun factor like I've seen in very few books and I'm jazzed about a new character like I would have been in high school or younger when I discover someone cool. It's been awhile since I've got this feeling from a book and I can't wait to grab the Baen omnibuses (which Paul so nicely recommended to me) to grab the rest of the series.

I tried not to read too far into this post to not spoil things, but will come back as I go on in this series :)

Paul Shackley said...

Thank you, Jon D.,

Paul Shackley said...

Hi, Jon!

I'm glad you discovered the works of Poul Anderson and I hope you have fun with them. For me, part of that fun was writing letters to PA (when he was alive) and more recently articles or essays inspired by his stories. So I hope you jump in!


Paul Shackley said...

If you go to delarroz. com, you will find Jon's review of ENSIGN FLANDRY.