Book Review: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson is another of those classic sci-fi writers who I’ve read before, but not recently– so here we are! The High Crusade was in the big pile o’ books my brother in law foisted on me a few months ago, and so here we are!

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Published in 1960 (first serialized in Astounding magazine, and later as a stand-alone volume), The High Crusade is a pretty standard book of that era. It’s a short and punchy adventure with a heck of a premise.

Told from the perspective of a Brother Pavrus, a Fransiscan monk, The High Crusade starts in 14th century England. Sir Roger, a feudal baron, is mustering his troops to go help invade France (which is about as English of a pastime as watching Dr. Who reruns). But, the process is interrupted when weird blue-skinned aliens land their spaceship nearby. And so, Sir Roger and his various knights and men at arms go to investigate. When the little blue men start shooting rayguns, the Englishmen respond with a hail of arrows and a cavalry charge. The aliens are quickly overwhelmed, since the aliens (called the Wesgorix) are so technologically advanced, they’re not trained in hand to hand combat. So Sir Roger captures the spaceship fairly easily … at which point he loads up all his troops, not to mention the entire population of his town (around 2,000 people or so) with the intent of flying over to France for conquest. As you do. Unfortunately, the one surviving Wesgorix turns the ship’s autopilot on instead, and whisks everyone across the galaxy to another planet! Sir Roger, being a practical kind of guy, decides to make lemons from the proverbial lemonade, and sets out to conquer the galaxy with his small army.

And he does.

See, the central gimmick of The High Crusade is human superiority– first in the thing about hand to hand combat, and then in various matters of strategy or espionage, because apparently the Wesgorix have reached such a point of technological and military superiority that they’ve gotten lazy, allowing Sir Roger & company to kick their asses over and over again. It’s contrived, yes, but the whole point of the book is “Knights vs. Space Aliens,” and Anderson delivers on that part. There are a few rather amusing mashups of medieval and sci-fi technology, such as a part where the knights use a trebuchet to chuck small atomic bombs at the Wesgorix. This in turn throws the aliens off since the trebuchet’s made of mostly wood, and is therefore invisible to their magnetic-based sensors.

Really, with the whole high-concept historical/sci-fi matchup going on here, The High Crusade is the sort of thing you’d expect from Baen books … except for the fact that Baen Books didn’t become a thing until 1980. Naturally, Baen went ahead and re-published the book some years later, which is where the edition I read came from. Whoo?

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So yeah, The High Crusade is on the one hand a straightforward (and often surprisingly funny) adventure. On the other hand, as something written in 1960 (not to mention published by Baen), it has some problematic aspects as well. The only female character to speak of is Sir Roger’s wife, Lady Catherine, and she spends most of the book being cold and shrewish until she finally takes her place at her conquering husband’s side. Or, there’s the whole “crusade” aspect, in which one could easily read the whole “Humans conquer the galaxy!” thing with a colonialist bent. And, unsurprisingly, The High Crusade ends with space-feudalism and space-monarchy being portrayed as a Good Thing(tm), in that Sir Roger’s space-empire endures with its vaguely knightly trappings for centuries to come.

Still, while these undercurrents are certainly there, they don’t dominate the book: Anderson is less interested in socio-political commentary than coming up with ways for knights to get in swordfights with aliens. And sometimes, that’s enough.

Oh, and apparently they made a goofy-ass movie of The High Crusade in 1994, starring John Rhys-Davies, of all people. It looks terrible.

I must watch it someday.

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    1. Throwback SF Thursday: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

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