Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The High Crusade

Poul Anderson The High Crusade (1960)

The universe has been chucking Poul Anderson at me with some frequency of late, a trend which reached its peak when the writer turned up as a character in a short story by Philip K. Dick, and then The High Crusade was mentioned somewhere online in relation to Philip Purser-Hallard's The Pendragon Protocol - a more recent example of science-fiction with knights in armour - although I can't recall whether it was Andrew Hickey or Philip himself who made the reference. Anyway, the point is that I'd never before heard of The High Crusade, so when I noticed it sat perkily upon the shelf of a second hand book store I hadn't quite intended to enter, it seemed like the decision had already been made on my behalf; besides which, excepting the later and somewhat disappointing Genesis, I have the idea that I generally enjoy Poul Anderson's writing and I'm not sure why I haven't read more of it.

The High Crusade is probably intended for a younger audience, given the ludicrous premise and generally wholesome turn of phrase, but that isn't a problem. Blue skinned invaders land their spacecraft in mediaeval England, only to have said craft appropriated by the entire population of the local village who then go off to have adventures in space, as eventually recounted by the local monk in one of those illuminated manuscripts. Apparently they were itching to go off on the crusades just as the alien craft turned up, and this seemed like the next best thing...

It's hokey and is written in a sort of clean-cut American approximation of old English - two parts Marvel Shakespearian to one part Disney's Camelot, and regular protestations of the world actually being flat serve to remind us that these people will one day turn up in the crowd scenes of Black Adder, although I seem to recall the supposed mediaeval belief in a flat Earth being mostly bollocks. Inevitably, given the premise of the story - not least its underlying imperialism - there's a lot of this which doesn't really work if you think about it too hard, or even at all; but sufficient liberal concessions are nevertheless made so as to avoid anything too unsavoury, and our knights regard of the races they encounter can probably be justified as genuine Christian compassion - as distinct from the sort of Christian compassion which extends no further than one's own kind which one might reasonably expect of our heroes, given their cultural heritage. It also helps that Anderson writes with an understated wit which does its job without digging you in the ribs and winking every two minutes as Douglas Adams tended to:

Sir Roger himself conferred with two other emissaries. These were the representatives of the other starfaring nations, Ashenkoghli and Pr?*tans. The odd letters in the latter name are my own, standing respectively for a whistle and a grunt. I will let one such conversation stand for the many that took place.

As usual, it was in the Wersgor language. I had more trouble interpreting than I was wont, since Pr?*tan was in a box which maintained the heat and poisonous air he needed, and talked through a loudspeaker with an accent worse than my own. I never even tried to know his personal name or rank, for these involved concepts more subtle to the human mind than the books of Maimonides. I thought of him as Tertiary Eggmaster of the Northwest Hive, and privately I named him Ethelbert.

The High Crusade falls a long way short of being the greatest science-fiction novel ever written, and truthfully Anderson probably could have done better with the basic concepts, but it's short and relatively sweet with enough going on to keep it interesting, and is as such hard to fault.

1 comment:

  1. Dang. I wrote a long comment and the Internet ate it. Basically, I like this one a whole lot.