Monday, December 5, 2011

Pulp Science Fiction Library: Tiger by the Tail

No, that's not a mistake in the title of this post. For the month of December, Pulp Fantasy Library has become Pulp Science Fiction Library, with a special emphasis on authors who have been particularly influential on me over the years. That's why I inaugurate this special feature with Poul Anderson's 1951 short story "Tiger by the Tail," which marks the first appearance of one of his most memorable characters, Captain Sir Dominic Flandry of the Imperial Naval Intelligence Corps. Flandry is often described as a "science fiction James Bond," which, while apt, is somewhat anachronistic, given that Ian Fleming wouldn't start writing Casino Royale until 1952 and the novel wouldn't appear in print until 1953. Similarly, the plot of "Tiger by the Tail" is sometimes described as "Yojimbo in space," which, again, is apt but anachronistic as Kurosawa's classic film appeared a decade after Anderson's short story.

"Tiger by the Tail" begins with Captain Flandry having been drugged and captured by unknown assailants. As Flandry regains consciousness and contemplates his predicament, he quickly comes to some conclusions about them:
They were barbarians, all right. But no tribe that he knew about.
That wasn’t too surprising, since the Terrestrial Empire and the half-dozen other civilized states in the known Galaxy ruled over several thousands of intelligent races and had some contact with nobody knew how many thousands more. Many of the others were, of course, still planet-bound, but quite a few tribes along the Imperial borders had mastered a lot of human technology without changing their fundamental outlook on things. Which is what comes of hiring barbarian mercenaries.
The peripheral tribes were still raiders, menaces to the border planets and merely nuisances to the Empire as a whole. Periodically they were bought off, or played off against each other—or the Empire might even send a punitive expedition out. But if one day a strong barbarian race under a strong leader should form a reliable coalition—then vae victis!
If the above passage makes Anderson's 31st century setting sound a bit like the late Roman Empire, there's a good reason for that. His stories of Flandry are about the interstellar spy's efforts to stave off "the Long Night," the Dark Age that will inevitably fall across civilized space should the tottering Terran Empire finally fall. Flandry knows he cannot stop the Long Night but he hopes he can delay it another generation or more -- or at least long enough not to have experience it himself. That's the overarching theme of all the tales of Flandry, which SF writer Theodore Cogswell elucidates eloquently in his introduction to a later collection of Anderson's Flandry stories.
The wildest adventures seem to come at two different stages in the life of a civilization. First the adventures come when the civilization is fresh, vigorous, and aggressively expanding. But there is also the time when the civilization is old, when it wants nothing but to be left in peace. Then the ruthless new peoples arise, beyond the imperial borders or even within them. It happened to Egypt, Persia, India, China, Greece, Rome. Someday it may happen to all Earth.
In those eras, someone must man the ramparts. He may be a Roman legionnaire, or he may be an intelligence agent of Terra’s empire among the stars. But he is always a lonely man. Sir Dominic, no grim and humorless professional hero, can crack a joke, hoist a bottle, or kiss a girl with the best of them. But he sees the barbarians pressing inward through the stellar marches. He sees the purpose of the powerful, nonhuman Merseian Empire—to end the uneasy peace with mankind by sweeping mankind aside. And he sees corruption and cowardice at home. If the Long Night is not to come in his own lifetime, if the things he cares about are to be saved, he must do what he can.
In "Tiger by the Tail," Flandry soon learns that his captors are an alien race called the Scothani, who'd somehow acquired sufficient technology to establish a little empire of their own, oppressing other aliens and impinging on the Empire's borders. Believing Flandry to be "another worthless younger son, given a high-paying sinecure so [he] can wear a fancy uniform and play soldier," the Scothani figured him an easy to target for kidnapping. And while they doubt his worth in the grand scheme of things, they still think him likely to know sufficient classified information to be useful and easily intimidated to hand over what he knows. Though on some level insulted by his "hosts'" estimation of his character and ability, Flandry nevertheless plays along. In doing so, he learns a great deal about not only the Scothians' culture, but also their politics, including rivalries within their leadership. It's through the keen understanding of the latter that the main plot of the short story unfolds -- and the comparisons to Yojimbo are made.

Compared to later Flandry stories, "Tiger by the Tail" is exceedingly pulpish. The Scothians, for example, are little more than Celtic/Nordic barbarians in space with a slightly inhuman skin color. They're a far cry from the more complex and believable aliens Anderson would create later in his career. Likewise, the plot, while exuberant, is a little unbelievable in the way that Flandry navigates it, even given his remarkable professional skills and personal talents. Despite that, there's something incredibly compelling about the idea of a man doing his level best to prop up a decadent and dying empire lest darkness fall across the galaxy. It's one I've always found very potent, even moreso as I get older. I guess it's no surprise, then, that most of my SF RPG campaigns over the years have employed it to one degree or another and that Thousand Suns includes it as a major pillar of its meta-setting.

9 comments:

  1. Thank you. I'd never heard of Flandry and his adventures before, despite their having such a famous author. I'll be sure to take a look.

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  2. Actually it was the 1929' crime novel Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett that inspired Yojimbo.

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  3. "But there is also the time when the civilization is old, when it wants nothing but to be left in peace"

    I don't think that's exactly right. Non-universalist civilisations like ancient Egypt and China may fundamentally wish to be 'left in peace', but universalist empires often have great difficulty in moving to a status-quo paradigm. An empire may be both decadent and still have pretensions to universal rule; whether Roman, Arab, Turk, or the modern US and (in its way) the EU.

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  4. What have the Space-Romans ever done for us?

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  5. Actually it was the 1929' crime novel Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett that inspired Yojimbo.

    True, but my point was only that "Tiger by the Tail" couldn't have been inspired by Yojimbo any more than by James Bond, since both works post-date this short story.

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  6. "But there is also the time when the civilization is old, when it wants nothing but to be left in peace"

    I suspect (though cannot know) that what Cogswell meant was something along the lines of "left alone," i.e. allowed to continue as it is at present without interference. It's a desire to wall off change and preserve things as they are, which certainly describes Anderson's Terran Empire.

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  7. I've enjoyed Anderson's stories, but, for some reason, never read any Flandry tales. Is there a particular collection you'd recommend?

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  8. Is there a particular collection you'd recommend?

    Baen has collected all of Anderson's Flandry stories into four trade paperbacks. They're all good in my opinion, but I'd especially recommend the first three -- Young Flandry, Captain Flandry, and Sir Dominic Flandry -- as must-reads.

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  9. Thanks. I may well have to treat myself while Christmas shopping at Amazon. :)

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