Really good fun: Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade

Note: This review originally appeared on on April 18th of this year and concludes our Poul Anderson tribute. You can find all of the appreciations gathered here.

Poul Anderson was the first science fiction writer I read once I’d discovered science fiction was a genre. (This was because I was starting in alphabetical order.) I have been fond of his work for decades, and I sometimes think that it’s possible to define all of SF as variations on themes from Poul Anderson. The High Crusade (1960) is a short novel, and it’s funny and clever and it works. It’s a quick read, which is good because it’s the kind of book it’s hard to put down.

I always think of it as being in the same category as Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen or Lest Darkness Fall, though it’s not really like that at all. The premise of The High Crusade is that in 1345, just as Sir Roger de Coverley is getting ready to go to France to fight for the king, an alien spaceship lands in a little Lincolnshire village. The medieval army quickly overruns the spaceship and eventually the alien empire, by a mixture of bluff, combining medieval and futuristic tech, fast talk, and deceit, as you would, really. It may not be plausible, but it’s fun, and anyway it’s more plausible than you might imagine. There’s a scene for instance when they use alien bombs in a wooden trebuchet that naturally doesn’t show up on radar.

One of the things that’s so great about this book is the voice of Brother Parvus, a monk with a gift for languages rather out of his depth. The book is his first person chronicle of the events, and the voice is just right. The way he slowly comes to understand the alien view of the universe and reconcile it with his own worldview is lovely. At one point he decides that the biblical “four corners of the world” actually imply a cubical universe, with lots of stars and planets in it. He teaches the alien Latin, which means it can only communicate with the clergy, but hey, it obviously makes sense. The best thing of all is that they lose Earth. Their first thought on capturing the spaceship is how much destruction they can do with it in France, but they are betrayed by their alien prisoner and end up on an alien planet—with no way of getting back. So it’s a secret history—humanity takes over the alien empire and imposes feudalism on the aliens, and they’re still out there. Indeed the frame story is about people in our future discovering them to their amazement.

The medieval tech is very well done, and I’m absolutely sure Anderson knew exactly how much weight an English cavalry charge could knock down, and how much airplane skin an arrow from a longbow could pierce. The alien tech is weird. It’s 1960s tech plus FTL and force shields. The navigation notes that tell where to find Earth that get destroyed were written on paper. The spaceship had an autopilot, but no computer. This makes it much easier for the knights to figure things out—I kept thinking they’re figuring it out more easily than they could if they had our tech, which shows what a long way we’ve come since 1960. This isn’t a problem with reading the book now, it’s just how it is.

This is a fun fast read, and just what you want as a palate cleanser if you’ve just finished Dhalgren. It’s hard to believe they were written on the same planet, never mind in the same genre. And the old British covers—practically identical. The Baen cover is great—it’s an illustration of the novel, and it tells you what you’re going to get, knights on horseback going after green aliens in spaceships. There’s also treachery, intrigue, courtly love, and all packed into a mere 181 pages. I’m an absolute sucker for this kind of thing, and it doesn’t get any better than this.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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