14th century English Baron Sir Roger de Tourneville is about to make war on France, when an interstellar scout ship lands amidst his army encampment. From the craft emerge a small group of star-faring, alien conquerors. Having evolved beyond the need for hand to hand combat, the aliens are overrun by Sir Roger and his fighting Englishmen, some of whom are incinerated by laser handgun fire. The victorious English baron keeps one of the aliens alive, to learn how to operate the spacecraft. Sir Roger wants to use it to fly to war against France. But upon launching, he is tricked by the captive alien, who sets the craft on autopilot back to its home planet, sealing the Englishmen’s fates…
The High Crusade, by Poul Anderson, is a science fiction adventure novel cast through the lens of a medieval cleric’s diary, one Brother Parvus, Sir Roger’s trusted translator, diplomat, advisor, and holy man. It is an engaging novel written in a slightly tongue in cheek, but affectionate, idiom of high Arthurian fantasy, right down to the Lancelot-esque love triangle involving charismatic Sir Owain and the Baroness, Lady Catherine.
Initially, the story hinges on Sir Roger’s thwarted attempt to return to Earth. Sundered from his home planet, the noble baron makes war on the alien race which delivered him and his folk into their predicament. Anderson’s story periodically goes further than he was leading you to expect. The story becomes truly engrossing when Sir Roger and his rough and tumble English army start winning. It is a unique, imaginative tale, like crossing Star Trek: The Next Generation, with A Canticle For Leibowitz. I still have not given away the biggest zingers of the book, but here’s another hint: “sociotechnician.”
Anderson’s science fiction novel does a wildly imaginative thing by placing medieval Europeans into the thick of high technology, and simply having them cope with the learning curve. It mostly boils down to imitation and intuition. (Though, I’ll admit, they do seem to get over the death of geocentrism rather quickly.) They get along, in their own fashion, once given a chance to learn how to use the new machines. And in this juxtaposition, Anderson gets a chance to illustrate a unique commentary on nuclear weapons. The High Crusade is great fun, and a well-delivered meditation on human intelligence, the nature of our social hierarchies, and British hubris.
Will Sir Roger discover the route back to Earth, or is the call of interstellar conquest too compelling to ignore? Will Sir Roger ever figure out how to get back to Earth? Will the poetic and cunning Sir Owain steal the heart of Lady Catherine? Check out The High Crusade, by Poul Anderson.
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