Hallowread 2016! Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos.
It’s October! That one month of the year devoted to varying levels of spooky and terrifying stuff. And, to get into the Halloween spirit, I shall once again launch into my clunkily-named “Hallowread” series, in which, well, I read various Horror novels.
Or, uh, Horror-adjacent novels. Because while Operation Chaos may have a werewolf and a witch as the main characters, it’s really more Urban Fantasy than Horror, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
Operation Chaos is a collection of four novellas by Poul Anderson, all of which center around Steven Mautchek (a werewolf) and the love of his life, Virginia Greylock (a witch). I actually read “Operation Afreet,” the first of these short stories, many many years ago in a werewolf sci-fi anthology called Tomorrow Bites (which in turn was a follow up to a Vampire sci-fi anthology called Tomorrow Sucks).
“Operation Afreet” centers around how Steve meets Virginia during World War II– only it’s not “our” WWII. Rather, the world of Operation Chaos is one in which magic is an everyday thing, used pretty much like we use electricity. It’s also kind of interesting in that he prefaces the novel with a little note that basically explains “oh hey, this is an alternate reality which is why we have magic!” Given the prevalence of Urban Fantasy in today’s market, that kind of explanation is really one a modern reader would just assume as granted whenever they cracked a book like this.
The way Anderson applies scientific thought to magic is one of the things that makes this story really stand out. For example, Steve carries a little Polaroid photo-flash around his neck that simulates the wavelength of moonlight, allowing him to turn into a wolf whenever he wants. Then you get into stuff like telescoping ball-point wands, Cadillac flying brooms, and casting emergency spells in Pig-Latin. It’s silly, but in a fun (but thought out) way.
So yeah. “A werewolf and a witch go on a commando raid in magic WWII” is an awesome premise. Only, the thing is, “Operation Afreet” is also ridiculously problematic (as a lot of Sci-Fi written in the 50’s tends to be). Because instead of fighting Magic Nazis, the big bad of the conflict is the “Sacaren Caliphate.” It’s a total brown-peril scenario, complete with turbaned emirs bragging about their harems and stuff. To be fair, Anderson notes that the Sacarens are a heretic sect of Islam, and that there are several Islamic countries fighting against them. Still, given the current Islamaphobia sweeping the world today, I could easily see somebody coming away with the wrong ideas about “Operation Afreet.” (I mean, heck, Tomorrow Bites was even put out by Baen, which says something).
Thankfully, Operation Chaos isn’t entirely about werewolves biting the heads off of jihadists. The “magic WWII” thing is only for the first quarter of the book, as the next few combined novellas follow Steve and Virginia as they go on with their life.
Really, each of the four novellas deals with one subject or another. It has a War → College (Steve studies Engineering under the GI bill) → Marriage → Children trajectory. Combine this with the magic, and you might as well call the book “Harry Potter and the Long List of Baby Boomer Anxieties.” Hell, Virginia’s even called “Ginny,” and Steve occasionally uses an invisibility cloak. Just saying, guys.
So yeah, over the years (and over the stories) Steve and Ginny get into various kinds of trouble. There’s somewhat of a conservative/libertarian bent to the stories. For one, a lot of Ginny’s magic power is linked to her virginity, which leads to all kinds of weird interpretations. She learns different magic later, but still, it’s something to quirk an eyebrow at. Additionally, Anderson takes various digs at pretentious academics who don’t pay enough attention to Hard Science, or even long-haired peace-protestors who are inevitably being manipulated by a more nefarious power. (It’s worth noting that “Operation Changeling,” the last of the novellas, was published in 1969). On top of that, more often than not the ‘proper authorities’ are slow-acting at best, incompetent at worst, so it’s up to Steve and Ginny to save the day.
“Operation Changeling” is the longest of the novellas, taking up the last half of the book … and honestly, it’s also the weakest. It rambles from here to there, and lacks the short-story punch of the previous three adventures. Again, it’s a case of a super-punchy premise (“our baby has been kidnapped by Hell!”) that gets bogged down by duller and more problematic stuff.
In addition to the whole “misguided hippies” thing, Anderson also decides to go super in-depth with Golden-Age Sci-Fi style explanations of the minutiae of how spells work, blah blah blah. This culminates in Steve and Ginny and their friends having to summon the spirits of Nikolai Lobachevsky and Janos Bolyai, two 19th century mathematicians to help them invade hell. Yeeaah. It honestly doesn’t contribute much to the plot, and just comes off as either some idea that Anderson fell in love with and had to include, or something he just worked in to pad out the word count. Oh, and at the end, it’s revealed that the Evil Adversary who’s been mucking around with Steve and Ginny their whole lives is … HITLER. (Spoiler alert, I guess). Because why not?
Again, it’s a delicious premise. “A witch and a werewolf run a commando raid on hell to rescue their baby and fight Hitler” is the sort of thing you could write a rollicking adventure novel about, or even base a gloriously cheesy movie on. However, like a lot of old science fiction, Operation Chaos is chock full of “period problematics.” I don’t get the sense that Anderson is particularly racist or misogynist, but there’s definitely enough there to make a reader go “huh.” The silver lining is, the werewolf-commando adventures are still fun, but I could definitely understand if a reader wasn’t exactly thrilled with the book’s politics.
And hey, it looks like Anderson even wrote a sequel, Operation Luna, in 1999. Maybe I’ll track that one down next October.