In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
In 1974, I was a sophomore in college, and always looking for a good paperback to distract me from my homework. I found one that looked promising, with a rather audacious cover blurb: “In a holocaust world of strange beasts and savage men, he rode out. As fantastic a chronicle as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.” (It’s almost impossible to read that without doing an impression of the guy who used to do voiceovers for all the blockbuster action movie trailers.) So, I decided to give it a try, and was glad I did. It became an instant favorite: a fast-paced adventure built around a compelling character facing impossible odds.
As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, each year, warmer weather finds me searching for good books to read or re-read on a summer day. I have a marvelous backyard full of trees, backing up on woodland, and a nice chaise lounge which I can move into the sun or shade as appropriate. It is a great environment for reading adventure stories—especially those with outdoor settings, like the examples discussed in Thoraiya Dyer’s account of 8 Fictional Forests.
Recently, when perusing an internet site (possibly even this one), I noticed a mention of Hiero’s Journey, and said, “Now there’s a name I’ve not heard in a long, long time.” I remembered the book fondly, so I set out to find it, and eventually did, on a high shelf in my den. In this case, I enjoyed the book as much during this re-read as I did the first time around.
I think it was the aforementioned cover blurb that sold me on the book when I first saw it (that, and its designation as “A Frederik Pohl Selection,” always a sign of a good story). The uncredited cover was nothing special, featuring a generic Godzilla-like monster surrounded by ruins. I saw a far better cover on a later edition, painted by Darrell K. Sweet, which presented Hiero perfectly as described in the book (seen above, the cover furthest right). I did get a kick out of a hero named Hiero, although I wasn’t yet familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell, and ignorant of the full significance of the term “hero’s journey.” And it was only recently that I realized his last name, Desteen, was a variant on the French word for destiny. It is probably the most ironic character’s name I encountered as a reader before crossing paths with Hiro Protagonist from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.
About the Author
Sterling E. Lanier (1927-2007) was an editor, an author, and also a noted sculptor, whose work was exhibited in venues such as the Smithsonian Institution. His name is not so widely known today, but those who do remember his work generally do so fondly. His most profound impact on the field of science fiction was probably as an editor. After it had been rejected by many publishing houses, he is the one who bought and edited Dune, by Frank Herbert. At the time, Lanier worked for a publisher, Chilton Books, which was known more for its car repair manuals than for fiction, and the book did not do well for the company.
While Lanier’s fiction was always of high quality, he was not the most prolific of authors. He wrote a series of humorous and entertaining stories about an adventurer named Brigadier Ffellowes, most which appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He also wrote a children’s book, The War for the Lot. Hiero’s Journey was perhaps his most popular book. There was a single sequel, Unforsaken Hiero, and many fans were disappointed there weren’t more. Lanier also wrote one further novel, Menace Under Marswood.
You can find an early example of Lanier’s work, a sturdy tale of contact with an alien race, on Project Gutenberg.
There Goes the Neighborhood!
Post-apocalyptic stories have long held the interest of science fiction writers and readers. As with rubbernecking at a traffic accident, there is a fascination in reading about the misfortunes and calamities of others. Disasters create a fresh canvas for writers to explore, taking our current world and transforming it into a space for new adventures without the need for any travel through space or time. I have covered post-apocalyptic science fiction tales before, including my column on “The Many Incarnations of Buck Rogers,” and in my reviews of books that include The Yngling by John Dalmas, City by Clifford D. Simak, The Sharing Knife: Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold, Armageddon Blues by Daniel Keys Moran, and in a more recent column, Gryphon by Crawford Kilian. These tales show the broad range of the post-apocalyptic subgenre. In the Buck Rogers stories, the United States has been destroyed by evil invaders. In The Yngling (the story that most resembles Hiero’s Journey, it is a plague that has destroyed civilization, leaving a thinly populated medieval world behind. In City, it is not a disaster that destroys civilization, but rather a choice by humans to start new and simpler lives in alien bodies on another world. The Sharing Knife stories may or may not be set on our world, and exactly what destroyed civilization is a mystery. Armageddon Blues features a once common, but now outdated, theme of nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Soviet Union. And Gryphon finds the Earth laid to waste by human neglect followed by an alien invasion.
Hiero’s Journey is also rooted in a world ravaged by nuclear exchange, with descriptions of radioactive wastelands and ruins called “First Strike” cities. There were also plagues, but whether these were due to deliberate actions is not clear. But the real root case of the collapse of civilization was a contempt toward nature, with pollution, overcrowding, and competition driving the destruction of the ecology, and the war simply being the icing on the cake. Like many stories of its kind, the novel is a cautionary tale, warning the readers what might happen “if this goes on.” The small and scattered remnants of humanity compete with a wide range of animals that have become intelligent, with more than a few of them having grown to gigantic proportions. Moreover, there is an evil death cult that’s eager to finish the job and destroy all forms of life not under their control. The book is an example of what the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, or SFE, calls “Ruined Earth” stories.
The novel opens with Per Hiero Desteen, Secondary Priest-Exorcist, Primary Rover and Senior Killman of the Church Universal, traveling through a swamp with his Bull Morse, Klootz (a morse being a moose bred to be ridden like a horse). Hiero has telepathic powers, which include telepathy and weak powers of precognition. He has a telepathic rapport with Klootz, who has a sardonic and delightfully non-anthropomorphic personality. Lanier does a good job of describing the pair, bringing them instantly to life for the reader. And he describes the swamp and the problem of hungry insects in a way that makes the outdoor setting particularly vivid. Lanier has a light touch, and even the most threatening of situations often have a humorous aspect.
Hiero and Klootz move deeper into the swamp to avoid a herd of buffer (many of the words used in the book are variations on current words, a nice way of hinting at the long passage of time since our present day; for example, Hiero’s title “Per” is a variation on the French word for Father, “Père.”). Hiero and Klootz then encounter a three-ton snapping turtle, an indication that the dangers of wildlife in forests have been dialed up to 11.
Hiero has been sent by his Abbey on a mission to find lost secrets that might aid his homeland, the Metz Republic (which comprises a large area in the former Canada’s Northwest Territories, with the name of the republic coming from the word “Métis,” denoting indigenous people of mixed First Nations and European heritage). While it is not stated, I suspect that his Abbey is descended from the Jesuit Order, since they have some similar characteristics, including the emphasis on the priests being “soldiers of God” (literally, in this case), and a focus on science and education. Hiero soon meets a young bear named Gorm, another delightful non-human character; Hiero eventually realizes that Gorm has been sent on a mission by his own elders that’s similar to Hiero’s assignment.
This interesting party soon meets S’nerg, a repulsive bald man who is a representative of the Unclean, an evil order that controls evil animals called Leemutes, short for “lethal mutations,” a term that once meant mutants that died an early death, but came to be applied to mutants that brought death to others. Thanks to Gorm, Hiero is able to break free of the evil man’s mind-control, and they escape with some of his foul devices. With this excitement out of the way, and having whetted our appetites, Lanier offers some historical information that describes the transition from our world to the world Hiero inhabits.
Hiero, Klootz, and Gorm take part in several other adventures and encounters with the threats of the forest, learning to work together as a team. Then they come upon a primitive tribe who is going to sacrifice a beautiful young woman to some gigantic birds, and without thinking of the consequences, Hiero charges to the rescue. The woman, Luchare, is from the far-off land of D’Alwah, on the shores of the Lantik Ocean. We find Hiero is prone to sexism, and he is initially dismissive of Luchare. He scoffs at the idea that she is a princess who fled her homeland to avoid an arranged marriage to an evil ruler, even though that later proves to be true.
There are other encounters with the Unclean, each with increasingly high stakes. Hiero finds new aspects to his mental powers that allow him to survive, and also becomes humbler as he realizes how much he still has to learn. He and Luchare do the old traditional romantic dance where they are falling in love, but remain afraid to admit it, and undergo a series of misunderstandings that prevent them from sharing their feelings. To the relief of Klootz and Gorm, the two humans finally figure things out. The team finds new allies, and need all the help they can get to foil the evil plans of the Unclean.
A simple recap doesn’t begin to capture the charm of this book: Although Hiero is not an inexperienced youth like the protagonists of some hero’s journeys, he is a bit shallow when it begins and grows as time goes on. His animal companions are always entertaining. Luchare is a compelling character in her own right, one who is more than just a love interest. The villains are fairly one-dimensional, but offer a threat that grows more challenging over time. The message that mankind should take care of the Earth runs throughout the story, but it is a sentiment that is hard to disagree with, and the moral never seems heavy-handed. Unlike many other science fiction stories, the story has withstood the test of time, and the environmental message is just as relevant today as it was when the book was written. If you are looking for a good old-fashioned, enjoyable adventure story in a creative setting, then this is the book for you.
Sterling Lanier didn’t write much science fiction, but made up for the lack of output with the quality of his writing. His work is accessible and entertaining, but makes you think at the same time. If you haven’t seen his name before, remember it, and if you see it on a book, consider picking it up! His work can often be found in used bookstores, and has become available in electronic format as well. Hiero’s Journey is a great read from cover to cover.
And now, it’s your turn to chime in: If you’ve read it, what are your thoughts on Hiero’s Journey? And if you haven’t encountered this particular book, what other post-apocalyptic adventures have you enjoyed?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.