There was a time when my only reliable source of sci-fi was the Baen Free Library. While there is a lot of stuff on there I have no interest in reading, the Library introduced me to David Drake, Eric Flint et al, and got me started on some interesting series. The Library also showcases one of Flint’s lesser known (but very important) side gigs: editing and republishing out of print Golden Age sci-fi. Flint has put two of Christopher Anvil’s books up for download; Pandora’s Legions is today’s subject.
The book itself is a collection of short stories that have been edited together into a novel. The stories track two separate, but related groups throughout, alternately following a group of alien leaders and human mercenaries. The fun in Pandora’s Legions comes from watching Anvil set up a familiar sci-fi premise, then turn it on its head. He runs rampant with expectations, leaving the reader to wonder who exactly we should be cheering for and what it says about us.
As Pandora’s Legions opens, we find ourselves witnessing yet another invasion of earth by superior alien forces. Nothing new here. Within minutes though, it becomes apparent that things are not as they seem. The aliens are in the “Slow and Steady Wins the Race” category mentally, totally at the mercy of the intellectually quicker humans. Not totally, perhaps, since the aliens are from the Centran Empire, which spans the galaxy, and humans are still stuck on one planet, but enough to cause serious setbacks in the alien campaign. The humans, who naturally have our full sympathy, bargain with the Centrans and agree to join their empire after gaining sizable concessions. One particular group of humans agrees to become troubleshooting mercenaries for the Centrans, and the rest of humanity is given more or less carte blanche to roam the empire.
So far, so good. The story splits after this, initially following the mercenaries. These stories are set up to be standard military sci-fi, but it soon becomes clear that it’s much more Golden Age type stuff. The heroes solve the problems by thinking and scheming, not by blowing off limbs and heads. Some of the problems posed were ingenious and the solutions equally so. Those looking for tanks or fighting suits will be disappointed, but the stories are fun puzzles. One could argue that Anvil is subverting expectations here, but I think it’s more an issue of modern readers dealing with Golden Age stories than the author toying with his hapless readers.
Chaos reigns, however, in the other track of stories. The Centran Empire is vast, but it is stable, quiet, conservative, and mellow. Humans … aren’t. Within paragraphs, representatives of our noble race are running amuck, while beleaguered Centran officials compile a hilarious list of scams, swindles, ideologies, political systems and philosophies that sow havoc throughout the Empire. If only Anvil was writing now, he could have included email from Nigerian bank officials, the Bahraini royal family, pharmacies in Mexico, and sundry virility boosters. Instead, we are left with swamp land in Florida and tin pot dictators taking over planets.
At this point, we’re still in familiar territory. Aliens invade, then face defeat at the hands of plucky humanity in plenty of stories (good thing the bad guys in Independence Day used unsecured Macs!), and plenty more have underdog Terrans making their way in a leery, if not outright hostile, galaxy. (David Brin’s Uplift is my choice of these.) Where Pandora’s Legions dumps this trope on its head is the consequences of plucky humanity meeting the rest of the galaxy. The Centrans are convinced that we humans will spice up the Empire a bit, that our unpredictable, madcap ways will stimulate innovation. Instead, the Centrans finds themselves on the defensive almost immediately, with the Empire threatening to blow apart. Giving too many details would spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that most readers’ rooting interests will have flipped 180 degrees by the end of the book.
How to sum up? I found Pandora’s Legions endlessly amusing. It’s Golden Age stuff, so the writing is a bit dated. Not as cringe-worthy as pulps, but not what you’d find on the bestseller list today. Nevertheless, I snorted more than once at the craziness on display. Anvil doesn’t take quite the dim view that, say, Frederick Pohl has about his fellow man, but it’s certainly not all speed ahead for Terra. The book is definitely worth reading for a skewed view of invasions.
Rating: The 2010 Dutch National Team. Long put on a pedestal in world soccer, they suddenly and alarmingly became The Bad Guys against Spain.