On My Shelves: Pandora’s Legions



As I mentioned back in my discussion of Doc Smith, when I was in 6th grade my teacher Mr. Dickinson gave me two SF books to read. One of them, Second-Stage Lensmen by Doc Smith, transformed my world forever. The other was only lesser by comparison with the titanic effect of Doc's work, for it was a truly worthy work by itself: was Pandora's Planet, the earlier edition of the book reissued by Baen as Pandora's Legions.


Pandora's Planet was the first story I ever encountered which was told from the point of view of the alien invaders, rather than human beings. It was a Campbellian "Humanity Uber Alles" type of story, but with quite a twist as the human "superiority" was also shown to be potentially dangerous not just to the aliens but to humans, ultimately. The story follows the career of one particular officer, Klide Horsip of the Centran military forces, from his initial encounter with the "lop-tailed humanoids" (human beings, as we know them) and the hellish work necessary to finish the conquest of a single planet, and then through his observation of the effect of humanity's spread through the Centran civilization and the eventual solution of the problem they pose -- as well as other problems that arise to threaten both sides.


When Baen finally decided to re-issue the story, expanded by including more stories Anvil had written in that universe as Pandora's Legions, I had some trepidation at trying to read it again. Would it hold up to my fond memories?


It did. Very well.


Oh, there are undoubted signs of its age -- there are no female characters of any significance in the book, for instance, and the technology of Earth and Centra both show that they couldn't have been written much later than the mid-60s or so, since there are essentially no computers, microprocessors, etc., or even many directed energy weapons (lasers et al.).


In some ways the latter actually makes the book feel more solid; the Integral Union of Centra may have some technological tricks we don't (FTL travel, for instance) but they don't have some kind of physics-breaking handwavy superweapons; they still use guns and tanks ("land-forts") and such, and have been for many, many centuries indeed.


The central plotline, the twists and turns, these all hold up well, and I found Klide Horsip an even more engaging protagonist than I had expected – a very welcome surprise as I had recalled him fondly already. But with several decades of additional reading experience, I was able to notice nuances to his character I had missed or forgotten. Horsip is a classic military man of the Officer and a Gentleman sort, with more than a touch of Colonel Badass in him when pushed. He comes to what he thinks should be a simple, straightforward "Integration" job on a newly conquered planet… and discovers it's anything but simple, and honestly speaking, anything but conquered at the moment.


"Integration" itself is an interesting aspect of the Integral Union. This is one of the few examples I know of which features an empire which is quite willing to conquer other planets but do so with minimal force and with every honest intention of literally integrating that world PEACEFULLY into their Union of Worlds. This isn't some kind of hypocritical attitude or one of true manifest destiny, though some Centrans seem to take it that way; they honestly believe that it's overall best for everyone concerned and have good reason to believe they're right. I'm not entirely convinced, but it's done well enough that I can accept it for the sake of the story.


The key conceit of the story (which made it very Campbellian) was that human beings were, on average, much more intelligent than Centrans, and this allowed them to run rings around the initial Centran forces who were simply not used to a target of invasion being this advanced AND this intelligent. Anvil neatly subverts this Golden Age idea, however, by pointing up the fact that intelligence is a characteristic with a very long "tail" … and the Integral Union has many orders of magnitude more people to draw from, meaning that they have a lot of people much, much smarter than even very smart human beings to throw at the problem. Klide Horsip is one of these, even though he often feels out of his depth; it becomes clear that he is an exceptional man who manages to deal with extraordinary circumstances well.


Horsip manages to find a way to complete the conquest of Earth – just barely – and then finds himself watching as humanity spreads through the Integral Union like a disease of ideas. Twenty years before Dawkins coined the word and fifty years before Facebook would put a LOLcat on every screen, Christopher Anvil shows the concept of "memes" as a potential weapon of mass confusion, with human beings spreading everything from Soviet communism to advertising consumerism like lightning through the Union.


Horsip – and the Supreme Council that governs the Union – must find a way to counter this effect, while not destroying either the Union's basic purpose or engendering inherent hostility against the human species.


 This particular edition is also improved by the addition of the separate stories of "Able Hunter", a human agent and his handpicked crew working for the Centran government to help troubleshoot things in various locations around the Galaxy. In "Pandora's Planet" these adventures were alluded to only in passing to explain what the human character was up to when Klide didn't see him around; adding them in gives us more depth to the universe and two points of view for what's going on.


     The denouement of Pandora's Legions is as startling as I remember, with a particular unique twist I won't spoil as to how the Centrans manage to keep their civilization stable and sane over the long term.


     Pandora's Legions has an extra story, separate from the main action, which is an amusing reflection of its era, showing a Centran "psychologist" who can effect cures of numerous neuroses in ludicrously short time periods from the point of view of a human psychologist who's come to find out how the Centran can do this. The actual methodologies discussed wouldn't work (and in fact in most cases would be severely damaging to most people), but one can certainly see the appeal of finding a simple, reliable, rational way to cure any maladjustment issues – and the human psychologist is an obvious parody of the worst aspects of psychology in the 1950s era, while the Centran carries pragmatic logic to its own extreme.


     While I can't say for sure that this book influenced me… in some ways I think it did. Something about Klide Horsip feels very similar to Commander Sasham Varan, the main character in my (as yet unpublished) Demons of the Past trilogy,and the complex plot wrapped in deceptively straightforward prose is certainly something I aspire to. But whether it was an influence or not, Pandora's Legions remains a very fun book of the Golden Age, and well worth reading.




  1. I like the old classics. But then some classics earned their position on many merits and being a very good story is one of them.

  2. XXX Fleet Reporting. Where is the enemy? I loved that, and the eventual ending even better.

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