Interstellar Patrol

Interstellar Patrol I-II
Christopher Anvil

Baen Books is mostly known as a purveyor of right-wing military SF, and with good reason, but this reputation obscures a much broader menu of genre offerings. Among Baen’s saving graces are the reprints they churn out of yesteryear’s mid-list, often with Eric Flint at the editorial helm. Thanks to Baen and Flint, intrepid readers can easily acquire near complete bibliographies of authors like Keith Laumer, Murray Leinster, James Schmitz, etc. In this case, I’ve finally plowed through the entirety of the Interstellar Patrol series, all 1500+ pages. Vintage SF Month seems like the best time to talk about it.

Anvil is the consummate Campbellian, with compact stories about competent Anglo-Saxons solving problems. The Interstellar Patrol defends freedom and right across the galaxy by outwitting dastardly villains, generally by being smarter and/or technically superior to the bad guys. Violence is rarely the answer for Anvil’s heroes; victory goes to those who can reason, not blast, their way to a solution. The Patrol in this series recruits a group of resourceful con-men, subverting their wiles and using them for good. The results are usually logically convoluted, lightly funny, and always entertaining. For my money, Anvil is one of the best places to start with Golden Age SF, warts and all.

There are flaws there for the picking of course. The future is nothing but white dudes named John or Harold, the women are suitably obedient (but at least they are there, unlike colored folk), and various governments are basically the 1950s transported into space. This is pretty much a given with Campbell however, so I guess it is up to us as readers to resolve our own attitudes to the era. With Anvil however, glimmers of hope do emerge. The women are not always completely hopeless, and he keeps up a wry, self-aware meta-commentary suggesting that, deep down, he’s fully cognizant of some of the absurdity. I could be projecting, but to me much of the humor in these books stems from Anvil poking fun at SF conventions. He never rises fully above them though, more’s the pity. There’s a line at the end of Anvil’s SF Encyclopedia entry briefly mourning the author’s seeming contentment at Campbell’s restrictions, since he seems capable of much more. I agree whole-heartedly.

The last couple hundred pages of book two are stories set in the same universe, but not involving the Interstellar Patrol. All follow the usual pattern of smart men solving problems, and many deal with the challenges of colonizing hostile planets. In these, another Campbellian trope rises from the deep like be-tentacled Cthulhu. Invariably, the heroes of these stories are rugged individualists who have thrown off the effeminate shackles of civilization and stride boldly through the landscape, chopping their own wood and whatnot. This self-actualization through mortal danger and/or physical labor isn’t exactly dead now, but I have to think it’s a dated way of visualizing planetary colonization. Or maybe not, considering the mad success of The Martian. At least he is dealing more or less realistically with the environment though, rather than romping about in shorts and a t-shirt while battling with man-eating creatures. The stories are entertaining though, since Anvil maintains a sardonic distance throughout and many a stupid person earns his deserved demise.

I would tell the curious reader to start his or her Anvil exploration with Pandora’s Legions, then pick up the first volume of Interstellar Patrol stories. Volume Two is more for completists, as I find the stories to have a diminishing rate of return. They’re all of consistent quality though, so no loss for the reading, even if ambition is somewhat lacking.