Unpulped #16: Earthman’s Burden by Poul Anderson

Sometimes I think I don’t write about a book immediately after reading it so that the bad feelings have time to fade. If I wrote in books, this one would be furiously underlined, bracketed, and starred. I’d be having one-sided arguments in the minuscule margins. There’s be so many highlights, the pages would become beautiful rainbows.

And then sometimes I think I don’t write about a book immediately after reading it because I hope it’ll transform into something beautiful in hindsight, time and memory sanding away the edges until I can see what’s beautiful hiding underneath. The book as sea glass or driftwood.

Instead, we’ve got “The Adventures of the Incredible Hokas” which are not all that incredible, and generally uninspired and somewhat boring IN ADDITION to being sexist, racist, and imperialist. In all of Poul Anderson’s books-made-of-stories so far, I’ve found no stories which are worth reading, that stand out as memorable rather than workmanlike.

(And, yes, this is a collection co-written by Gordon R. Dickson, but I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between this book and the others I’ve read by Anderson. Does that mean his writing is bland? That it easily takes on the color of whoever he’s writing with? Or that Dickson’s writing is also literary mayonnaise? I don’t know, because I’ve never read Dickson outside of this book, and Anderson’s already so grimed in my eye I don’t think I can judge his writing in an unbiased way anymore.)

The Story: Ensign Alexander Braithwaite Jones of the Interstellar Survey Service crashes on Toka far from where he needs to be in order to rejoin Earth society and be rescued. On his way to safety, he encounters alien teddy bears (the Hokas) acting like they are in the Old West (the movie version) because they are simple-hearted mimics and the first humans on the planet showed them Westerns. Anyway, he helps them commit genocide against the other alien race on the planet, and he becomes the official ambassador/liaison to Toka. Hijinks ensue for the next five stories where, in each, the Hoka attach themselves to another genre, from opera (via Don Giovanni) to space patrol stories (a la the Lensman series).

As you might guess from the above, the Hoka are used for comedy and Braithwaite Jones is the straight man in all the comic scenes. Which might be fine, I suppose, if the comedy was funny. (And who knows, maybe it was funnier in days of yore, but I think it more likely the stories came off like not-terrible SNL sketches: okay in the moment, maybe even eliciting a chuckle or at least acknowledgement that was you just read was a “joke,” but not even worth repeating the next day, forgotten instantly.) But the comedy isn’t funny. And it’s not just the naive and inane Hoka played for laughs, but also women (Isn’t it funny when women (professional women with their own jobs) fight over men, and are just working the job angle in order to get married HAHAHAHAHAHA) and alien races (which are basically non-white person equivalents, dominated for monetary purposes by Earth people).

I mean, there’s an alien race called the Pornians. From Pornia.

And it’s not even good writing. Each story starts off with Braithwaite Jones in the same position. The Hoka take on a role, and he is AMAZED and ASTOUNDED that they would behave so strangely, and oh my God, what will he ever do? (Answer: He’ll bumble along and manage to save the day by accident, then take all the credit.) What we’ve got here is the equivalent of an inoffensive sit-com in SFF story form.

Strangely, there is some self-awareness of the imperialist aspect of the stories in one of the interstitial pieces written (I believe) to connect the stories.

But I have been increasingly nagged by a very basic doubt–a doubt of the value, even the rightness, of the Service’s very raison d’etre. Is it possible that our problem of “civilizing backward planets” is only a subtle form of the old, discredited imperialism of Earth’s brutal past? Have I merely been turning my wards into second-rate humans instead of first-rate Hokas? I don’t know. In spite of all our pretentious psychocultural tests, I doubt if anyone really knows.

I know. And Braithwaite Jones knows, despite all his protesting, just like Poul Anderson knows, even if he hides it behind the ignorance of a fictional persona.

I mean, admitting your doing something shitty doesn’t really matter if you continue doing that shitty thing. Like with the depictions of women (even though there’s never a point where Anderson or Braithwaite Jones admits their sexism) which continues wherever women are present in the stories. For example, the final one where Braithwaite Jones’ wife crash lands on a planet and is desperate for rescue only, apparently, because the local food will make her fat.

No, seriously, that’s her main motivation.

“But there’s something in it! High calories or something. I’m putting on kilos and kilos. Alex, you’ve got to come right away!”

Right. No real fear of, you know, having crashed on an alien planet without a way to return home.

You know, I want to be done with Poul Anderson. And I don’t really think I have much more to say about him–each book pretty much repeats all the faults from the previous books without having any redeeming qualities. So I’m skipping out of three of the four Anderson books I have left in my Unpulped stash.

However, there is one book of Anderson’s which was nominated for a Nebula the same year Dune won that award. This is The Star Fox and it’ll be my final foray into Poul Anderson. It was nominated for a Nebula award, so how bad can it be?

I intend to find out.