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.
Author Christopher Anvil is not widely known today, but in his heyday, he was a prolific author of short stories, many with a witty, tongue-in-cheek tone. Sometimes the satire was a bit heavy-handed, but his stories were always entertaining. Anvil loved to set up a scientific mystery that at first seemed to defy explanation or solution, and then have his characters work through the problem and overcome their challenges. Today I’ll be looking at Interstellar Patrol, a Baen anthology collecting several of his stories about, or at least related to, the eponymous group, which is called in to handle situations that baffle other agencies.
This is another book I picked up containing stories I didn’t remember reading in my youth, although a number seemed awfully familiar. Having served in the Coast Guard, I always imagined there would be a need for a space-based force that enforced laws and treaties, rescued those in need, and facilitated navigation and commerce. I recently reviewed books like the Lensman series and Legion of Space, which—while they were enjoyable—had unrealistic depictions of such organizations. I picked up Interstellar Patrol thinking Anvil might have come up with a more realistic approach. But instead of being a law enforcement organization, the Interstellar Patrol instead turns out to be a special operations force that jumps into the fray when conventional solutions don’t work, often violating laws more than they enforce them.
The book is part of what Anvil called his Colonization Series, which looks at humans expanding into the stars the way Americans spread across North America in our own history. But instead of the anarchic expansion we find in history, this process is being managed by a host of large bureaucracies, which include the Space Force and the Planetary Development Administration (PDA for short). The stories are often satirical, and you can often see glimpses of real-world issues that were being addressed when the stories were written.
About the Author
Christopher Anvil is a pen name used by American science fiction author Harry Christopher Crosby (1925-2009). He was a veteran of World War II. He had a long and prolific writing career, with his first story published in 1952, and he continued writing into the 21st century.
I reviewed Anvil’s work previously in this column, looking at another Baen anthology of his work, Pandora’s Legions. You can find more biographical material in that review. And if you are interested, you can find a couple of his early stories available to view for free on Project Gutenberg.
The Greatest Generation Versus the 1960s
In my review of Anvil’s Pandora’s Legions, I talked about how the attitudes of Anvil’s generation, which we now frequently refer to as the “Greatest Generation,” affected his work. And this volume of reprinted stories is strongly influenced by the 1960s, an era that tried the talents of the generation who spent their youth prevailing in World War II. The generation was now reaching middle age, and moving into positions of authority. One of their own, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had even become president of the United States. But the challenges they now found themselves facing defied straightforward solutions.
The first issue from the 1960s addressed in Interstellar Patrol is urban renewal. In the postwar era, American cities were decaying and crime and unrest were on the rise. The success of highway programs had facilitated a flight from cities to new and expanding suburbs. The government began looking for solutions, and funding programs to reshape city centers. My own personal impressions of these programs were negative: I saw whole blocks of the city where I was born bulldozed. Old wood and brick homes and local small businesses, were replaced by strip malls, and what I saw as impersonal, unattractive glass and cinderblock buildings. A new multiplex theater, with uncomfortable seats and tile floors, replaced the plush old Art Deco theater where I saw my first movies. High-rise apartment buildings, stark and unappealing warehouses for people, were opened to lower income families, who were then blamed for having poor attitudes when they expressed unhappiness about their surroundings. Big bureaucracies, like the Department of Housing and Urban Development, were created to manage these programs, but the impacts of their efforts seemed to defy attempts to control them.
The second contemporary issue that influenced some of the stories in the book is the Vietnam War. In a world where nuclear weapons had made total war unthinkable, the Cold War was instead a period of regional conflicts. America had moved into Vietnam to stop the spread of communism, guided by the “domino theory,” which warned that the fall of even one country could lead to the fall of others. The asymmetrical tactics of irregular warfare had U.S. forces tied up in knots, and the American way of war that had led us to triumph in World War II was not working. The U.S. military bureaucracies and efforts to overwhelm the enemy with bigger and more capable forces were not enough to turn the tide of the conflict.
These challenges, and others that arose in this era, inspired many a tale in science fiction magazines. Reading my father’s Analog magazines, where many of Anvil’s stories appeared, I was exposed to a whole host of ideas about how the world worked—or perhaps I should say, how the writers thought it should work. Even at a young age, it was apparent to me that the situations in many stories were reverse-engineered to match the solutions the authors thought best, and were also adjusted to fit their various political biases.
Like many Baen anthologies, the book contains historical information about the author and stories. There is a nice introduction by author David Weber, and an afterward by the editor, Eric Flint. The stories are most often propelled by puzzles to be solved, as well as by humor and satire. There is little in the way of characterization, and not a female nor a trace of ethnic diversity is to be seen.
The first three stories—“Strangers to Paradise,” “The Dukes of Desire,” and “The King’s Legions”—make up a consistent narrative, and were later combined into the fix-up novel Strangers in Paradise. Freighter captain Vaughn Roberts puts his damaged ship in orbit around a planet that supposedly has a repair facility, but his shuttle crashes as he attempts to seek help. His cargo officer, Hammell, accompanies him, while the communicator, Morrissey, stays with the ship to fix their radio. The planet is mostly jungle, inhabited by a fearsome array of dangerous predators. There is a single, gigantic city, built by a philanthropic foundation to be a utopian paradise, and ruled by a completely impartial computer and robotic police officers.
Unfortunately, the computer also happens to be completely inflexible and incapable of dealing with unpredictable humans, and the surrounding planets sent their least desirable populations to live in the city. Order has broken down, and the city is now a hellhole ravaged by warring gangs. The commentary on urban renewal programs is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. The repair facility has been dismantled and the resources diverted to repair work. The two men head back to their shuttle where Morrissey has made an interesting discovery. The rewired radio does not communicate, but it does manipulate the emotions of people around it. After some tinkering, the men decide to use this “want-generator” to manipulate the people of the city in order to stabilize the situation and enable the reconstruction of the repair facility.
Their attempts are clumsy at first, and generate bloody gang warfare. Here, the ethics of what they are doing becomes offensive, and the satire less humorous. Eventually they succeed, and are able to leave the planet. But they feel guilty that their intervention has left the planet unstable, and decide to return.
The second story brings the three back to the planet, this time with a surplus Interstellar Patrol craft Roberts purchased—a ship with a remarkably intelligent computer that doesn’t always obey orders. They decide the people of the planet need a common enemy to unite them, so they pretend to be nobles of a star empire, chasing the evil wizard Oggbad. They use the want-generator to rile up the wildlife and predators and send them to attack the city, blaming it on the wizard. And sure enough, the gangs start working together with the government, and the planet is finally at peace. Roberts and his crew go off to gather more supplies, having grown to enjoy their role as feudal lords.
The third story starts with an encounter with space pirates, who have set up operation in the system’s asteroid belt. Roberts uses his remarkably capable and fully armed Interstellar Patrol ship to fight them off (which made me wonder what organization would leave a ship armed as they sell it for surplus). They then find the bureaucratic Planetary Development Administration has arrived, and their progressive ideas and lack of punishment for lawbreakers is causing Paradise to slip back into chaos (a bit more sledge-hammer satire). Roberts and company oppose the PDA, only to have the Space Force called in. And when they meet the Space Force in orbit, they are surprised when a warship from their fictional empire shows up to aid them. It turns out the warship is a disguised Interstellar Patrol ship, and the provision of a “surplus” ship was a test to see if Roberts has what it takes to join the Patrol.
The next series of stories present some of the Interstellar Patrol’s unorthodox training methods, intermixed with some of Roberts’ early missions. The first is “A Question of Attitude,” where a recruit named Bergen experiences virtual training scenarios that make him miss the stockade the Patrol plucked him from.
In “The Royal Road,” the short-handed Colonel Valentine Sanders takes Roberts, Hammell, and Morrissey on a field mission, even though their training is incomplete. Boschock III is a perfect planet for a repair facility, but they need permission from the planet’s humanoid inhabitants to do so. The warring despots ruling the planet are too factionalized to grant agreement, so the Patrol is sent in on a secret mission to unify them. They introduce improved roads to the world, which almost create mass starvation before they’re able to unify the planet’s governments.
Countering unconventional warfare is the theme of “The Nitrocellulose Doormat.” The Space Force infantry is tied up in knots fighting on a primitive planet. Colonel Sanders sends in forces masquerading as a detective agency, who booby-trap weapons being stolen and sold to the enemy on the illegal market, and then watch in satisfaction as the enemy is destroyed without a fight. If there was ever a story based on Vietnam-era wish fulfillment, this is it.
Both “Basic” and “Test Ultimate” involve virtual reality training scenarios, the first testing a recruit’s creativity, and the second testing their ability to disobey orders (the Interstellar Patrol is not your standard military organization).
The rest of the volume contains tales in the same milieu, some involving the Interstellar Patrol, but many other organizations as well.
In “Compound Interest,” Nels Krojac is an entrepreneur who has won a contract to develop an alien world, only to find it inhabited by giant carnivorous felines who at first seem unintelligent, but prove much more formidable than expected. Plus the local PDA representative proves to be a thorn in his side. Driven by the need to keep his company afloat, Krojac takes big risks, but his insight ends up saving the day.
The story “Experts in the Field” tells the same tale as the previous one, but from the perspective of the infantry colonel and PDA representative who clash with Krojac. Refreshingly, the PDA representative, while having a different mission and objectives, proves to be correct in his assessment of the planet and his inhabitants. Too often such stories contain the cliché that the bureaucrat is wrong, and the soldiers and entrepreneurs are right.
“The Hunch” introduces us to Stellar Scout James Connelly and Chief Scout MacIntyre, who are flying a new model ship armed with the latest intelligent navigational and weapon systems, and find that untested gear can be as dangerous as alien beings.
“Star Tiger” follows the Space Force as they find a supposedly benign planet where all the colonists have disappeared. Then they find themselves attacked by a variety of fierce creatures of all sizes. The answer to this entertaining puzzle of a story proves to be rooted in native beings with an unusual life cycle and reproductive methods.
The story “Revolt!” is a more traditional tale of a PDA bureaucrat so sure of himself that he refuses a Space Force officer’s requirement to hold some of his advanced ore-collecting mechs in reserve. But the PDA man’s hubris has gotten the best of him, because his “perfect” new gear is not as good as he thought. Much of the story unfolds in an epistolary format with an interchange of ever-increasingly angry missives between the bureaucrat and officer, a format that has blessedly fallen out of favor in recent years.
The volume’s final tale, “Stranglehold,” rejoins Stellar Scouts Connelly and MacIntyre, who are on a mission to rescue a compatriot from a planet where the inhabitants have psychic powers so strong they seem to warp reality itself, and where accordingly, without a single objective source of truth, the scientific method has never taken hold.
The stories in this volume are somewhat dated, and the satire sometimes heavy-handed, but if you like stories that present a puzzle to the reader, and don’t take themselves too seriously, there is a lot to enjoy here.
Now, I’d like to hear from you. If you’ve read Christopher Anvil’s work, I’d be interested in your opinions. And if you’ve read any more realistic tales of law enforcement set in space, I’d love some recommendations!
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.