Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ensign Flandry

Baen Books might be the most important current publisher of science fiction, since they have been making a determined effort to keep many science fiction writers of the past in print in comprehensive collections. Writers they have rescued from oblivion include Christopher Anvil, Murray Leinster A. Bertram Chandler, Keith Laumer, Andre Norton, Cordwainer Smith, James H. Schmitz, and, perhaps most importantly, Poul Anderson. Baen is nearing the end of publishing all of Anderson’s Polesotechnic League and Terran Empire stories in 7 huge books. While I had a decent selection of those stories previously in my collection, the lure of having all of them in chronological order was too good to pass by.

I decided to start reading the four Flandry books first, since I have much more familiarity with the Van Rijn stories, so figured they could wait awhile. The first volume is entitled Young Flandry and contains three novels detailing the early years of his career. The first novel is suitably entitled Ensign Flandry and discusses one of the earliest incidents of his career, perhaps the earliest. As a 19-year old ensign, Flandry is part of a group attached to Commodore Mark Abrams who are sent to the planet Starkad where the alien Merseian (who are the enemies of the Terran Empire throughout the series) have established a stronghold and are interfering in the natural rivalry between a land-based race and an ocean-based race.

The main plot concerns a high dignitary Lord Hauksberg from Earth who is convinced that the Merseians desire peace as much as the Terran Empire does, and who considers Abrams a warlike radical who refuses to accept the Merseians as peace-loving. The novel is partly a power struggle between Hauksberg and Abrams that inevitably involves Flandry who (and this is a bit of a SPOILER) gets branded as a traitor to the empire when he uncovers hidden evidence of precisely why the Merseians are on Starkold and why their negotiation tactics are deliberately stalling.

Somebody without prior knowledge of Poul Anderson’s fiction might presume that a series of stories involving a military man in the Terran Empire was basically military fiction, with the plot little more than an excuse for elaborate scenes of warfare. In fact, there is as much pacifism evident in the philosophy of Ensign Flandry as there is war. Flandry is not a hawk, and neither is his mentor Abrams, but they are realists. So much of the novel is a philosophical battle between Hauksberg’s naivité in refusing to admit that an alien race might have a different philosophy than the Terran Empire, which at its heart is not warlike, and Abrams’ hard-nosed reality that the facts do not support Hauksberg’s claims.

Ironically, Hauksberg does not have any particular feelings for the two races on Starkold, treating them as little more than pawns in a power struggle, while Flandry realizes they are breathing, thinking beings who deserve survival for their own sake.

There is only one battle scene in the novel, a battle between space-traveling destroyers, and during most of it Flandry is hidden deep inside a ship, a non-participant. And when the Merseians’ plans are ultimately foiled, Flandry is too emotionally involved with one alien race whose lives have been totally uprooted to feel any pleasure at what has happened.

Ensign Flandry deals well with the realities of war from the viewpoint of a military officer who desires peace moreso than fighting, and features a well-thought-out plot that is both absorbing and interesting throughout. All in all, typical high-level Anderson fiction.


  • Articles like this keep me checking your site. The Flandry series helped introduce me to science fiction magazines. The first issue of Worlds of IF I received on my subscription featured "A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows". Unfortunately it was one of the last issues.

    Anderson's future history is one of my all time favorites.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 6:28 AM  

  • I picked up a copy of this first book, Ensign Flandry, last year. Seems like I might need to move that up on my list. My only experience with Poul Anderson is with shorter fiction, but I've been very much impressed by that.

    I didn't realize Baen had published any of Cordwainer Smith's work. That's great. He is one of my favorite classic authors and I'm excited about anything that keeps his work in print. While I'm not always thrilled with the direction Baen takes with their art direction for the book cover illustrations, I do praise them for keeping so many deserving authors in print.

    By Blogger Carl V., At 6:32 PM  

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