Emotional field generators. Telepathic aliens. Regenerating aliens. Psychic power societies. Rogue mining excavating suits. The list goes on and on for adventures in Christopher Anvil’s book Interstellar Patrol, a collection of his short stories organized roughly chronologically. It’s a fascinating collection of ideas and excitement that is a great perspective of different possibilities of space technology and the psychological and social impacts of technological change and alien developments.
It seems unfair to start on a part of the book other than its mainstay. Roberts, Hammel, and Morrissey our three intrepid, hard-scrabble characters, explorers part time at least, and simple freight workers the rest of the time. Their position is intriguing, not being military or scientific figures as is common in many science fiction workers, but just regular transport workers trying to get their job done. The sphere of human colonization seems vast, and also rather like the Wild West: hard, and full of hard people, with belts of frontier worlds where unsuspected danger lurks. The way this is accepted by, and how the three musketeers thrive on it, is fascinating: they find themselves with no choice but to accept the absurd and to do their best to take advantage. This comes to the fore most prominently in Paradise of course, with the need to manipulate their emotional field generator and to create illusions of their royal status to solve pressing problems, but it also appears in their training for the Interstellar Patrol and in the missions to planets such as the backwards planet featured in The Royal Road. Using their wits to overcome difficult challenges in unconventional ways is delightful.
While the trio is appreciated, that they end so relatively quickly is a real letdown - they only persist through around half the book. Of course, the book is a collection of short stories, but this is still disappointing. The main character Roberts is well defined, but in comparison the other two lack distinction: the main characters in all the stories are rather similar, as rugged individualists, cunning, unconventional, brave. The stereotypical male hero. Companions lack individual personalities and exist by virtue of their relationship to the main character. It is also unfortunate that the emotional field generator doesn’t make any later appearances.
Aliens, the talking, human-comparable kind at least, are another weakness: Anvil opts for the easy way out: he makes the sophisticated, developed aliens essentially human. In some cases, such as in The Royal Road, or the Terexians of The Nitrocellulose Doormat they are definitely human, with a need to remind us that they are aliens for us to be even aware that they are not human. Their societies are distinctly human, indeed based on human societies, Middle Ages or early Modern Europe, and somewhat hackneyed or cliched in such regards, like the pampered nobles of the religious hierarchy. It could have been just as easily set on Earth, with the encouragement for road building in Early Modern Europe. These aliens contrast tremendously with the imaginative and interesting portrayal of exotic aliens who communicate telepathically and the problems that this poses for identifying that they are intelligent, the psychic aliens or above all the regenerating self replicating aliens of Bemus III.
There is both a very American feeling of faith in scientific progress and its benefits, and an intense awareness of its pitfalls and what technology can’t overcome. Perhaps the first part sounds odd, given that the first, and arguably the most important part of the book, takes place on a failed planetary utopia, a giant city transformed from a dubious paradise to an undoubted dystopia, showing the limited of technology, but the key to the book is that technology is not harmful, but rather has limitations. The characters create new technology and are aided by it - notably in the scene of The Hunch when they are intercepted by pirates and only saved thanks to new technology on their ship, or in the entrapment of the religious fanatics, and concerns that the path of scientific development can lead to excessively tragic outcomes, such as the danger of Bemus III with its terrifying life forms that can regenerate and are essentially un-killable hyper predators are brushed aside. A planet encircled by stealthy, hidden weapons satellites, designed to quarantine it for all eternity - and such warnings not discovered by a foolish humanity, too eager to colonize another world. Certainly, science has its definite pitfalls, but the message seems to be to press on, to solve them, rather than to abandon the march of science altogether, and it is the human factor that has to be struggled with to fit into science. The humoristic mockery of individuals and their relationship to scientific invention and discovery gives a lightness to this view, but science goes on regardless.
Another fascinating feature is the widespread usage of mind control of a certain type: not direct control, but an ability to project wills, wants, and desires. In the mid 20th century, American (and it seems global) science fiction had an intense fascination with this theme of social control through technology: it appears in 1984, the Manchurian Candidate, and the Foundation series. Anvil’s work however, introduces some significant difference: unlike the others, the reaction of the population is sharply bifurcated, as the profound differences between the trio of Roberts, Hammel, and Morissey and the general population of the slum world is striking: ability to achieve for example, creates a desire to create, to do good, to invent, among our three heroes, while among the slum residents, the response is to wish to achieve the greatest wish - to kill the lousy mechs! And unlike the other books of the period, where social control technology stems from careful scientific research and deliberate development, in Anvil’s book it is an accidental byproduct of an effort to fix a broken a communicator. Not a unique element of science fiction by any means, given the number of mutants and superheroes that gained their powers via accidental exposure to radiation or toxic chemicals, but in an intentionally humoristic book (in the first part at least) it comes off as an almost parody of the tremendous interest in the development of social sciences and control.
Anvil’s stories play around with some tremendously creative, and original themes, and is genuinely humorous, rousing, and exciting. It’s a shame that it couldn’t have come in the form of a full book following an integrated story, or that the aliens couldn't have been treated better and a larger collection of full fledged characters introduced, but it is still a great short story collection which reveals some of the hopes and interests of 20th century American society, such as mind control and technological development (even if dogged by the possibilities of human nature which cause it to malfunction and to experience unexpected results). The universe which it builds is an exotic mixture of wild west and graveyard of fallen civilizations. And it reflects the author’s seemingly personal interest in the organizational battles between the Planetary Development Association and the Space Force, perhaps coming from his military years, and the intense value he places on character - courage, and personal development - as witnessed by the training for the Interstellar Patrol. Rollicking and enjoyable.