Imperial Stars, Vol. 1: The Stars at War

The Jerry Pournelle series continues with a look at one of his anthologies that characteristically mixed fiction (not always science fiction either) and nonfiction.

The fiction selections were reprints and writers selected from the slush pile.

Unfortunately, this is the only one of his anthologies I have complete notes on.

Raw Feed (1987): Imperial Stars, Vol 1.: The Stars at War, eds. Jerry Pournelle and John F. Carr, 1986.Imperial Stars

Introduction: Empire”, Jerry Pournelle — Pournelle logically expounds on the thesis that empire is the government most natural to man and that its time, no matter what democracies naively think, is not done. He also well shows the advantages of empire and that empires can take many forms including the possibility the U.S. is heading toward empire.

In Clouds of Glory”, Algis Budrys — Good story but would liked more exploration of how Agency would open way for an Earth empire. Extensive surgery and conditioning of main character was reminiscent (or, rather, predates) Joe Haldeman’s All My Sins Remembered. Would have liked more on future Earth history and how global government founded. Technically, story is interesting in that all military action occurs off-stage and story is a “thought-piece” on historical and political matters. Not as good as other Budrys I’ve read.

The Star Plunderer”, Poul Anderson — First read this story in Brian Aldiss’ excellent anthology Galactic Empires. I only remembered the bit with a slave revolt, but I liked this  story the second time as well. Pournelle, in introduction, goes further with rationalizing space barbarians (How, in story, did they get the tech to begin with?) than Anderson does. Anderson has a talent for invoking flavor of epic in language. Manuel Argos, who brings order out of an environment obviously reminiscent of late Republican Rome though he is personality-wise, no Augustus. He is a cold, manipulative, ruthless character who unsentimentally realizes what desperate measures need to be taken. Not a pleasant character but realistic one. Excitement and desperation and the degradation of servitude were all well-depicted. Nice touch in Earth being liberate, and an empire being established, but this is subordinated to the poignancy of narrator losing his love. The only flaw of story was the rather cliched early description of their romance, and Kathryn “instinctively” choosing a figure like Argos. Love is never so simple or instinctive a matter.

Tribesman, Barbarians and Citizen“, John W. Campbell — Campbell proposes interesting classification system for cultural development: tribesman — tradition dominated (Campbell concedes this rarely exists in pure form); barbarian — individual dominated; citizen — cooperative and dominated by rule of law. Campbell provides good, brief reasons why cultures at different stages clash given world-views. However, he doesn’t really explain how and why cultures evolve from one stage to another — especially given fear of change characterizing tribal stage. Also some cultures don’t neatly fit one of these stages. For instance, was medieval Europe a tribal or citizen stage society?  It certainly had traditions and a hierarchy yet those traditions included a version of a cooperative rule of law. Campbell even maintains Spanish conquistadors were, in South American, barbarians though they came from a “civil” system. He poses an interesting explanation for events in that continent. South Americans, like most civil forms of society, can readily be enslaved — for awhile, till they again gain enough tech to kick barbarians out and set up hybrid civilization. Campbell makes a relatively valid point in characterizing barbarians as looters with little inclination or patience to develop resources.

The Barbarians Within“, John W. Campbell — While Campbell does have very valid criticisms of “socio-liberal” philosophy regarding crime (and contemporaneous race riots), I reject his notion that criminals, the barbarians within, are genetic types. Campbell asks why are not all raised in prosperity productive and inventive? Why are not all successful people from such environment? Why do some “disadvantaged” succeed?). Certainly heredity plays a part in human behavior but does not absolutely dictate success or failure. [With a whole lot more study of the human genome and psychometry since Campbell wrote this, we do actually know that a very significant portion of human behavior and personality is, as they say, hard coded in our DNA.] Nor do I accept notion that “genius” types will always succeed. Also Campbell fails to adequately define members of society. I say, within own context, some criminals are clever, innovative, and hard-working.  I also maintain genetic potential (yes, I accept Campbell’s notion it must first exist so individual can learn — and enjoy — certain activities) is not enough. Most waste theirs and many who succeed probably have far less “genetic potential” but, because of disciplined environment which later instills the vitally important self-discipline, triumph. [Big Five traits, heritable traits, have a lot to do with conscientiousness and neuroticism.] In short, Campbell oversimplifies question of social deviants and social assets. They are not as inherently different in genetic makeup as he maintains.

Hymn of Breaking Strain“, Rudyard Kipling — A poem that didn’t do much for me.  ]I guess the point was, using engineering metaphor, man blames self for his technological disasters but still must press on and triumph. Grand idea but poem didn’t move me.  Maybe a second reading would help.

The Miracle of Government“, John Burnham — [Burnham is getting renewed attention in some quarters these days, but this is one of the few pieces of his I’ve read.] An excellent and clear essay that illustrates one basic and often forgotten principle of government — no one system of government has a total, rational claim to be the best. All are prone to abuses and greatness and governments work because governed accept a myth (or principle, if you will) of legitimacy as to who should rule. This is a key point of reality, and, as Pournelle said in his essay The Craft of Science Fiction, important in creating good sf.  Burnham also says a good government is strong (it must be to survive) and just (to use its strength rightly). Burnham also wonderfully evokes exactly what the anarchy some desire has meant in history. His descriptions of life during social and economic breakdown or on the frontier should be kept in mind when describing such societies and those who do and don’t thrive in them.

To a Different Drum“, Reginald Bretnor — This is the story where Bretnor uses his idea from his essay in The Craft of Science Fiction:  a society based on a 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica and its values. This story well illustrates Burnham’s point: the principle of legitimacy creates a strange world in the story. There are reconstructed empires from Earth history and constant, limited war and also limited technology and no desire for space travel. But the society works well because all accept it its myth of legitimacy partly due to the trials of their past. The society has some distinct superiority over ours.

The Whirligig of Time”, Vernor Vinge — A good illustration of the point that all rulers govern by somebody’s opinion. Story is an interesting tale of vengeance though certainly not a great one. The Imperial Court had the right touch of decadence and cruelty. Liked dwarf as a viewpoint character.

The Aristocrat”, Chad Davis — I didn’t find this story as good or disturbing as Pournelle did. Situation of mutants and humans building post-holocaust civilization was mildly interesting. Most of story’s attraction came from question of whether Folk were really fit to rule selves. Arguments for both sides were (sometimes subtely) made. Narrator was guiding Folk to recovery but only to replace them with humans (when they became fit). Also Folk weren’t as unfit and stupid as he thought. This was subtly shown in dialogue and battle when they consider possibilities he didn’t). The bit of humans as future scholar/slaves was disturbing. All right, perhaps Pournelle was right.

The Sons of Martha”, Rudyard Kipling — Mildly entertaining ode to those who build and maintain our technological civilization. Perhaps Pournelle’s point in including this (quote from poem wound up as a chapter epigram for The Legacy of Heorot) is that those who benefit from technological civilization without understanding it or contributing to it are (probably worthless) aristocrats.

Mail Supremacy”, Hayford Pierce — Humorous story that seemed out of place in anthology and not particularly funny. It would have helped if there would have been an explanation of why letters were delivered to distant points quicker. Any babble would have done.

Herbig-Haro”, Harry Turtledove — Relatively good story. Turtledove postulates interesting future for man since he is more technologically advanced than aliens. Characters were well done for such a short story and Herbig-Haro plot device was mildly interesting.

The Fighting Philosopher“, E. B. Cole — In some ways this is sort of an archetypal Campbell Analog/Astounding story with a social science accurately molding society and rehabilitating criminals to not only become productive citizens but the molders (in this case, the Scout service) themselves. (This theme shows up in Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat written under Campbell’s influence. In the novel, as here, the search for novelty by criminals is channeled toward good. Of course, this theme contradicts Campbell’s “The Barbarians Within”. Criminals here are shown to be cunning and useful and with controllable — and not genetically channeled — impulses.) Of course, the classic example of Analog‘s (the very name comes from Campbell’s view of sf as a theoretical modeling tool for thinking about human society) attempt to present a mathematical, predictive science of human behavior as in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Alas, no science like that exists. (Interestingly enough about the time of this story’s publication a classic example of turning a criminal’s brilliant talents and cunning to society’s good was also published: Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man.) That fact hurts Cole because he can’t, unlike Asimov, present good pseudo-scientific babble. His hero talks about brainwashing (“educating”) primitives, but the techniques are never explained even in nonsensical terms nor how these changed primitives are to steer their cultures in new direction. The only real thing of interest in story was thorough refutation of sf cliche of non-interference in primitive culture.

The Voodoo Sciences”, Jerry Pournelle — While I’ve never had a high opinion of the “sciences” of economics and psychology, this essay provides new ammunition for that belief.  (I suspect that part of Pournelle’s severe disillusionment with the social sciences is the result of his extensive study of them after coming to them expecting so much and getting so little real science.) Pournelle not only shows the falsity of economics and psychology as sciences but the harm inflicted from this view. He shows psychologists’ damage to our legal and educational system (not to mention the waste caused by their views and unwillingness to test controversial views like a race/IQ corollary). More importantly he shows economics as being the most damaging. Its practitioners seem like a scientists with their graphs and charts but are politically motivated usually and unable to describe or (as would follow naturally) predict economics conditions. Pournelle shows the harm to the space program of short-term management practices fueled by the modern pseudo-science of economics. Interestingly, he gives a rationale for expenditures on the space program in an age of budget deficits — something dire is going to happen anyway so we might as well spend on the space program in the hopes we can see a return. Finally, Pournelle gives a proposal for allocating university funds to professions society needs most. There is some moral and practical basis for this though I’m not sure I agree. [Older self is fine with this.] Pournelle, though he constantly talks about the need to study hard math and sciences and history, does not disdain those who don’t. Rather he holds those who call themselves scientists and well-educated to a high standard.

Pax Galactica”, Ralph Williams — I’m surprised this isn’t known as a minor classic. I couldn’t find any reference to Williams in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. [There is nowThis story uses one of those enduring (and somewhat endearing) cliches: what if aliens came down and forced us to be peaceful with each other? In this case, they take away our ability to use nuclear forces or strong chemical explosions. Williams sidesteps the tech how-to and concentrates on the social effects. That has always been a favorite type of story for me: the complete working out of one event or technology (whether it’s good or a disaster). The story was ironic in that aliens seem good at beginning and humans irresponsible. At story’s end, the aliens come off as irresponsible, paternalistic, and lacking the very science of ethics they want us to get a chance to develop. Liked philosophical speculation on how man’s efforts swing between developing understanding of human behavior and physical universe (emphasis since Renaissance). Use of multiple viewpoint characters (and their ruminations) was good and effective. I liked the science of tactics (and tidbit about von Neumann mathematics used at Inchon) and how it was a natural progression of developing social science.

The Proper Study of Mankind“, J. E. Pournelle — In this essay, Pournelle relates his own experience in political science (which he considers valuable when it restricts itself to political philosophy and history but not when it calls itself a science) and psychology and why they are such dismal failures. He blames lack of real scientific method and willingness to apply real mathematical analysis and not the cookbook statistics which make social sciences notoriously easy majors There is, he said, too much debating theorems and too little testing theorems. The essay contains a lot of bio material including Pournelle’s statement he went to school with goal of becoming the “Hari Seldon of the XXth Century”. Pournelle makes point that most of the money we spend on social programs and education seems to have been wasted since we spend it on the advice of “experts” who know little. His arguments are, generally, persuasive. Pournelle (as Baen Books editor Jim Baen explains in an appendix) devised system of political taxonomy that classified political philosophies on basis of attitude to planned progress (Pournelle is a self-admitted optimist in rational solutions to man’s woes though he calls the extreme stance on this “whacky”) and attitude toward state (loathing to worship). This is certainly a quantum leap above the silly “left-right” model which he criticizes (and gives the interesting origins for).

Finger Trouble“, Edward P. Hughes — I’m not sure there’s any thematic justification for including this essay in the book, but it’s still a fairly good story. (Alright, maybe Pournelle wanted to show “old” aristocratic governments in terms of genetic engineering and a high-tech setting. I liked being plunged into strange setting, but I would still have liked to see some background on world’s history and geneticist character. Also would have liked some physical descriptions of genetic wonders. I liked the polite, ruthless, sometimes confused duke and dogkins.

Yellow Rain and Space Wars“, Adrian Berry — Due to the newspaper column origins of these pieces, they don’t pack a lot of information, but they’re still provocative overviews.  Berry talks about the extensive Soviet utilization of natural poisons for chemical warfare, and the frightening possibilities genetic engineering makes possible in this area. Berry talks about the possible course of space militarization and of an armored base on the moon. He rightly says this might be a good thing since it will further our ability to live in space, and civilian settlement will follow military occupation.

That Share of Glory”, C. M. Kornbluth — I liked this story. It had many humorous  moments: blustery “trader”, legal bantering with judge, evasion of the Eyolfian by intimate knowledge of culture. In fact, main attraction of story was binding many diverse human worlds together with commerce. There is a pseudo-religious order (much like medieval monks in flavor if not in purpose) with some similarity between utility of Catholic Church in Middle Ages and Orders’ utilitarian ideal. it was an interesting and solid idea. Liked its members’ expertise in language, accounting, diplomacy, Machiavellian intrigue. Pournelle’s and Burnham’s comments at beginning of story were very interesting. Perhaps we hate Machiavelli because he told us the way things — and politicians — are.  Kornbluth handled cliche of metal-poor planet well.

The Stars at War”, J. E. Pournelle — Pournelle says, rightly, we need a strategy for utilizing technology in defense of the nation. He is correct in saying the military wastes money, and Congress, to provide jobs for constituents,  badly assigns money and effort. This dissipates technological advantage and leads to preparing for the last war. Pournelle defends SDI and gives a proposal for ground-based lasers (capable of knocking out both ICBMs and sub-launched missiles) and mirrors in space. Sure, he says, it’s expensive and would-be hard to do but possible and certainly better than being dead or enslaved under Red Imperial Stars.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.


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