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.
It might seem counterintuitive, but there are many books about warfare that take a comedic approach. This is probably rooted in the kind of grim gallows humor often shared by people in a dark and dangerous situation. In Pandora’s Legions, the Earth is invaded by aliens who, despite some lucky scientific discoveries that gave them the capacity for interstellar travel, are less intelligent than the earthlings. Hilarity ensues when the invaders attempt to subdue an enemy that confounds their every effort—and when their policies of assimilation spread those pesky humans throughout their empire, they indeed begin to feel like they have opened the Pandora’s Box of human legend.
This collection is an expansion of a series of stories I first read in Analog during my boyhood, and have remembered fondly ever since. I couldn’t wait to see my father’s Analog magazines arrive in the mail every month, and quickly devoured them. The volume was assembled by Eric Flint, who has long been an author and editor for Baen Books. I suspect Flint, who is just a few years older than me, also grew up reading Analog, because one of the things he has done in his role as editor is put together several reprints and anthologies featuring some of my favorite Analog authors, including not only Christopher Anvil, but Murray Leinster, Randall Garrett, James H. Schmitz, and others.
Pandora’s Legions is very much a product of its time. The author is from what many call the “Greatest Generation,” the people who were called to serve in World War II and whose attitudes were shaped by the conflict. There are a few mentions of women, but no female characters who are active in the story, which strikes us as odd today, but would have been considered a normal state of affairs to those who served in an almost entirely male military and worked in male-dominated workplaces. There is a cynical tone to the book that often arises among those who were swept up in the impersonal bureaucracy of the war era, and then dropped back into civilian society at the end of the conflict. And there is sense of superiority that is understandable among a generation that saved the world from fascism.
Editor John Campbell had a fondness for tales of clever and plucky earthlings outwitting aliens, and the Pandora’s Legions stories are a good example. Another, which I liked so much I featured it in the inaugural review in this series, was Sleeping Planet by William R. Burkett, Jr.
About the Author
Christopher Anvil is the pen name of American science fiction author Harry Christopher Crosby (1925-2009). He attended a military high school, was studying chemistry when World War II broke out, and was drafted into the military, serving overseas. His first story was published in 1952, and he had a long and prolific career, which continued into the 21st century. He was largely a writer of short fiction, and might have been largely forgotten today had it not been for a series of Baen anthologies presenting his work to a new generation.
Anvil was known for the sense of humor that permeated many of his works, which were often satirical. His stories were also fast-paced and full of adventure. His most widely known tales were the Federation of Humanity series, including stories of the Interstellar Patrol, and the Pandora’s Planet series, which has been assembled in a single volume as Pandora’s Legion. Like many authors whose careers started in the early 20th century, you can find a couple of his stories on Project Gutenberg.
The G.I. Generation
To put Pandora’s Legion into context for modern readers, I’m going to take a short detour into sociological theory. Please bear with me, as I think it helps put the book into proper perspective.
Back in the 1990s, I read a book that had a profound impact on my thinking. It was written by William Strauss and Neil Howe, called Generations, and had the audacious subtitle: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. The authors found there was a cyclical nature in the attitudes of different generations, often shaped by large events, usually wars or “great awakenings,” times of spiritual questioning and renewal. They identified four general types of generational attitudes—Idealist, Reactive, Civic and Adaptive—which repeated throughout American history. At the time I was growing up in the 1960s, we had the reactive Lost Generation of WWI in their elder years, members of the civic G.I. Generation of WWII (the Greatest Generation mentioned above) in charge of society, the adaptive Silent Generation in their early to middle adult years, and the idealist Boom Generation as restless youth. The authors make the case that history itself is shaped by the attitudes of the various generations who are at various stages of their development at a particular point in time. And certainly, I have realized writers and their books are shaped by these same attitudes—and that the generation of the reader also affects how the books are perceived.
Since Generations was published in 1991, Strauss and Howe’s work has been widely debated and adopted in popular culture. When you hear people talk about the personalities of “Baby Boomers,” “Millennials,” “Gen X,” and “Gen Z,” you are encountering theories built upon their work. And while that work is very useful in predicting general trends and tendency, it is also applied too often and too broadly to individuals, and oversimplified to the point where the generational labels become stereotypes and caricatures.
With that caveat in mind, in the case of Pandora’s Planet, I believe you can see the extent to which Anvil’s attitudes mirror those of the G.I. Generation to which he belonged, those who served and prevailed in World War II. The book shows the military tying the enemy up in knots, largely due to creativity and intelligence. There is a cynical attitude toward civilian society, including advertising, consumerism, lawyers, real estate salesmen, bankers, and the like. When humans become involved with the politics of other planets, the results can be disastrous, except for one planet, named Columbia, which is based on the best parts of U.S. society. The narrative is infused with an attitude of American exceptionalism. Modern readers may be surprised with how heavy-handed the satire is, and feel there is a certain arrogance to the narrative, but the book reflects American attitudes at the time it was written, and specifically the attitudes of Anvil’s generation. This is a tale written when a nation, and a specific generation, was basking in satisfaction of victory in a great war to save the world from evil, and “feeling its oats,” filled with a sense of confidence and superiority.
The book has been edited, both by Eric Flint and Christopher Anvil, to take a series of stories that had never appeared in a single volume together and collect them into a single narrative. The initial section appeared in Astounding in 1956 as “Pandora’s Planet,” and is the most light-hearted part of the story. The Centran Integral Union, which is slowly and methodically conquering every planet they find, has reached the Earth. Planetary Integrator Klide Horsip has arrived a few weeks after the invasion to find efforts in chaos. Military Overseer Brak Moffis briefs him on the situation. The local humanoids (Earth humans, that is) have been defeated, but refuse to be pacified. Every time the Centrans think they have things well in hand, the humanoids undermine their efforts, both militarily and through subterfuge. The effort ends in an uneasy truce, with the Centrans thinking maybe these clever humans can have a positive impact when they are integrated into their society.
The second part of the story introduces an innovative humanoid officer, Brigadier General John Towers, who was unappreciated by his peers and is willing to fight for the Centrans, as long as it is not against his own people. His efforts on behalf of the Centrans make up three sections of the novel, and are classic Analog puzzle-solving stories. In his first adventure on a far-away planet being invaded by the Centrans, Towers uses kites to deploy wasps into the battlefield, and soon the enemy is afraid to deploy anywhere they see kites. His men also send small rafts down the river to deploy explosives, use decoy forces to fool their opponents, and disperse propaganda leaflets to undermine morale. In the end, these unconventional measures allow the stodgy Centrans to finally win the day.
In the next section, Horsip and Moffis find that the Centrans have allowed humans to spread through their empire, and are beginning to regret it. Human salesmen lock Centrans into a variety of installment loans, and crime and confidence games are introduced into their streets, while lawyers further amplify the chaos they are creating.
The following section has John Towers, now a Centran colonel in charge of the “Independent Division III of the Special Effects Team,” is deployed to a planet where the locals are completely savage, and every one of them is pitted against the other in a harsh Darwinian struggle for survival. And worse than their hatred for each other, they abhor the Centrans who have retreated to a few high plateaus, where they have established barricades to keep the enemy away. There is some low comedy as the human Towers deals with Centrans unused to his kind, and then a couple of close calls with the savage inhabitants of the world. Towers is able to reinforce the defenses of the Centrans so they are not constantly harassed by the enemy. And then he sets up conditions to force the native population to begin cooperating with each other, reasoning that if they can learn to work with each other, they can eventually learn to cooperate with the Centrans. By the end, however, I felt a nagging concern that teaching these formidable opponents to work together might be the worst thing he could have done.
After this, we are back to the long-suffering Horsip and Moffis, who see the impact of humanity on the Centran Integral Union, where consumerism is now a minor irritation compared to more recent political developments. Guided by humans, in addition to individual planets following all sorts of fringe philosophies, two blocs of planets are now ruled by totalitarian states and becoming increasingly bellicose toward their neighbors. These are modeled on Soviet communism and Nazi fascism, clearly models for America’s opponents in World War II and the years that followed. The Centrans, rather than dampening the spread of these ideas, prove to be gullible followers for those with dictatorial aspirations. And there are appearances of Mikerels, hideous monsters most Centrans believed to be the stuff of ancient legends.
In the final independent adventure of John Towers, he and his team must deal with a race of teleporting aliens, capable of teleporting to any place where there is something familiar to them. To make matters worse, the aliens are virulently xenophobic, and attack any outsiders with great ferocity. When the aliens become familiar with a component within spaceship, that means they can now go anywhere the ship goes. First, Towers and his men have to keep the aliens from killing the Centran forces that have landed on their planet, as well as fighting for their own survival. And then they must find a way to stop the aliens from spreading beyond the planet, thus becoming a threat to the entire galaxy.
Horsip and Moffis, now seen as experts on the pesky humans, are summoned to help the Supreme Staff, and to Horsip’s dismay, he is put in charge of the entire Centran armed forces to deal with the crisis. His forces are not strong enough to defeat any individual enemy, so he must be clever and play the communist and fascist forces against each other, and also solve the mystery of the monstrous Mikerels, who threaten to destroy the very society he is working to preserve. There are massive space battles, upsets and reversals, and until the very end, it is far from clear whether the forces of stability can prevail.
The book ends with a little bonus, a short story, “Sweet Reason,” that takes place in the same setting as the other tales, but is not connected to the main narrative.
When I was young, I loved these stories for their adventure, the clever challenges the protagonists had to think their way out of, and the snarky humor. The book represents a worldview that for better or worse feels a bit dated, but readers who can look beyond that will find much to enjoy here.
And now I look forward to hearing from you: if you’ve encountered them, what are your thoughts on the tales making up Pandora’s Legion? And of course I’d also love to hear of other books in this vein that might be of interest.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.