Monday, April 25, 2022

Pulp Science Fiction Library: Spartan Planet

For a change of pace, I thought it might be enjoyable if this week's installment of Pulp Fantasy Library were instead an installment of Pulp
Science Fiction Library. I've done this a few times in the past, though probably not often enough. Depending on how well this post is received, I might add more pulp sci-fi to the mix in future, since many of these writers and stories have a had huge influence on the early hobby, even beyond the realm of SF RPGs. Beyond that, I've always been more of a science fiction fan than a fantasy one, so this is a subject near and dear to my heart.

The science fiction stories written by A. Bertram Chandler were significant influences on Traveller. Indeed, Chandler's most famous character, John Grimes, is in many ways an archetypal Traveller player character. He begins his career as lowly ensign in the Federation Survey Service, having many adventures along the way. He slowly rises up the ranks of the Service before taking up the life of an interstellar merchant, which leads to even more adventures. That's pretty close to the career trajectory of many Traveller PCs, the only difference being that Chandler devotes a great many stories to Grimes's time in the Service, rather than leaving those years as backstory.

"Spartan Planet" (as it was known in the USA; its original title was "False Fatherland" in Australia and New Zealand) is, in terms of publication, the second story of the now-Lieutenant Commander John Grimes. Split into two parts, it appeared in the March and May 1968 issues of Fantastic. The following year, it was be published complete as a novel by Dell and featured a cover by legendary illustrator John Berkey. I first read the story in a hardcover collection produced by the Science Fiction Book Club – remember that? – whose cover was done by another remarkable artist, Vincent DiFate.

The novel quickly introduces the reader to several characters, all of whom have names either directly taken from or inspired by Classical Greece: Achron, Brasidus, Heraklion, Telemachus. These characters, when speaking to one another, likewise make references to things normally associated with the ancient Mediterranean world, like Zeus, the Acropolis, or helots. Yet, it's also clear that, while the place where these characters dwell is called Sparta, it cannot be that Sparta or indeed anywhere in Greece. For one, there are references to wristwatches, the Air Navy, and even spaceships. Beyond that, there's something decidedly strange about these Spartans, namely, they reproduce by budding – or, rather, they did in the past, until advanced medical technology was developed that could handle this messy process instead.

Brasidus is a police officer by profession and the viewpoint character of "Spartan Planet," which took me by surprise. When I first read the story, I assumed that John Grimes would be the story's protagonist. Rather, Grimes does not enter the story until Chapter 4, when his starship, the Seeker III, lands at Sparta's spaceport, to which Brasidus had been sent. The spaceport rarely received starships and, when they did, they were one of two annually scheduled vessels that came bring and take cargo. The Seeker III was not one of these vessels and that was cause for concern, hence the need for Brasidus and the spaceport security officers to be present.

From out of this unexpected starship came two men, the first of whom is formally dressed in some kind of uniform – John Grimes, we soon learn.

Another man came out of the airlock, followed the first one to the ground. He, although his uniform was similar, was dressed more sensibly, with a knee-length black kilt instead of the constricting trousers.

But was it a man, or was it some kind of alien? Brasidus once again recalled those imaginative stories, and the assumptions made by some writers that natives of worlds with thin atmospheres would run to abnormal (by Spartan standards) lung development. This being, then, could be deformed, or a mutant, or an alien. Somebody muttered, "What an odd-looking creature!"

[…] Allow me to introduce myself. I am Lieutenant Commander John Grimes, Interstellar Federation Survey Service. This lady is Doctor Margaret Lazenby, our ethnologist …"
Lady, thought Brasidus. Then he must be a member of some other race. The Ladies? I wonder where they come from …

The Spartans are an all-male colony, one settled long ago, and for whom all knowledge of the existence of the female of the species has been lost – or, as events eventually reveal, hidden. The arrival of Grimes and especially Margaret Lazenby sets off a historical and cultural bomb on Sparta that has wide ranging consequences. 

"Spartan Planet" is an odd story, both in terms of its structure and its content. As I stated above, Grimes is present and plays a very important role in the story, but it's Brasidus who is the novel's focal character. Though surprising, it does make narrative sense, since it's his worldview that is tested by the revelations that the crew of the Seeker III inadvertently bring to Sparta. This is the central conflict of the tale and I suspect one's enjoyment of it hinges on what you think of Chandler's portrayal of an all-male society loosely modeled on an idealized vision of ancient Greece. For myself, I don't completely buy into it, but I nevertheless find the clash of cultures compelling, particularly since Chandler makes an effort to show us the Spartans' perspective on their own history and society. Even with its shortcomings, that's the kind of science fiction I've long enjoyed.


  1. For another Traveller reference, the Class-J Seeker was a modified scout ship, used for asteroid mining.

  2. Funny, I was just re-reading To Keep the Ship, which is set much later in Grimes' meandering career. I can't say that I much like him as a character (he's a little too flawed and unlikeable for a protag to me, and so many of his many troubles and reverses are entirely his own fault) but it's impossible to look at Traveller without seeing elements of Chandler. Other big influences would be Murray Leinster, James White, and of course EC Tubbs.

    Spartan Planet (although False Fatherland is a much more clever title) was pretty gutsy scifi for its time, and I like the sort of story that looks at how technology can change society. The central premise (an all-male society lauded as an ideal) reminds me more than a bit of the tale end of "Hitler's" novel-within-a-novel in Iron Dream, where the protag hints at interstellar colonies in the future that won't rely on women to produce strong soldiers for the cosmic Bund. Very creepy that.

    You ought to do more of these, there certainly are plenty of pulp scifi stories to choose from. The Med Ship stories from Leinster might be fertile ground, or find some of the old Bullard of the Space Patrol tales from Jameson.

  3. I've read a couple John Grimes novels, and frankly they didn't make a good impression. With most female characters existing only to be stripped and offered up to Grime's gratification sooner or later, the writing's only slightly above tawdry "Men's Adventure" stories. And I will never forgive the appalling long-form pun that was the book "Broken Cycle."