So I promised after reading What Makes This Book So Great that I would slowly work my way through some of the picks in it that I found most interesting. I’ve read some of Jerry Pournelle’s work before, notably his collaborations with the better known Larry Niven, but this was quite recent and I somehow I missed out on reading any of his stuff back when I was first discovering the genre. I picked this one because it has a premise that turns up often in crack fiction or fan-fiction and shows what can be done in the hands of a professional writer.
It’s the middle of the Cold War and a small force of mostly American mercenaries is fighting in some unnamed African country as part of a CIA-funded covert operation. Though the unit led by Captain Rick Galloway fights well they are deprived of support and will inevitably succumb to superior numbers. At the last moment, an extraterrestrial spacecraft lands nearby and offers to evacuate them. Knowing that the unit faces total defeat and likely execution, Galloway grudgingly agrees. They learn that the aliens wish to recruit them as mercenaries on a primitive planet. It turns out that humans are scattered across many worlds but the governing power known as the Confederacy has placed strict rules regarding contact with Earth. The aliens wish to harvest a valuable crop that can be grown under very specific conditions from a planet called Tran that is populated by pre-Industrial Age humans and want the mercenaries to use their modern weapons to set themselves up as kings and organize things. Shortly after landing however, Galloway’s second-in-command mounts a coup against him and he is forced to make his own way amidst the natives.
A popular sub-genre in science-fiction is to fantasize about how a modern military force would totally kick ass if they were transported back in time to some earlier period in history. This isn’t quite the same setup but it’s similar enough that the comparison is obvious. The first surprise is that instead of writing wish-fulfillment crackfic of US soldiers walking all over the natives, Pournelle does extra work to give the heroes more of a challenge. Since Galloway is isolated from most of his unit for much of the story, his victories come not from the possession of modern firearms but from his knowledge of historical battlefield tactics. As an intelligent protagonist, Galloway is also well aware that due to having a finite supply of ammunition, his best move is to kickstart the industrialization of society on Tran, making this an early example of an uplift type of novel.
I didn’t like the beginning of the novel as I find that I’m annoyed by soldierly types in modern military fiction. But I was impressed by Pournelle’s writing skill when we switch focus to Tran and suddenly we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of a fantasy novel, complete with strange beings like centaurs and forbidding prophecies passed down from ancient times. I found myself really the clashing of the two cultures when the two storylines, one about the unit travelling to Tran, the other about a group of Highland-based natives who seem to be descendants of Celts on Earth, finally intersect. The first contact scene is especially great as both sides try to make sense of what the other party and accommodate their customs so as not to cause inadvertent offense. I appreciated the fact that the Tamaerthans are written as being intelligent and savvy enough to understand that the Earthlings aren’t gods but just fellow humans from another world with superior technology.
Janissaries does fall back on the familiar tropes with the white male hero becoming chief and getting the girl but it does so in a sufficiently roundabout fashion that I’m okay with it. It’s also hard to argue that Tylara isn’t a strong character in her own right with plenty of agency. Similarly, I’m a bit bored with Agincourt being used as the model for every outnumbered army with ranged weapons beating a numerically superior opponent ever but I guess it’s forgivable in a novel first published in 1979. This isn’t the kind of science-fiction novel in which you’re bowled over by groundbreaking ideas though bits like the idea of the world being periodically devastated by some mysterious calamity recalls many other famous works, such as the Dragonriders of Pern series. Mostly this is a rollicking fun adventure story with plausible worldbuilding, intelligent characters and enough twists and turns in the plot to prevent things from going stale. It’s also a great reminder to me that there really is a difference between a professional writer working with a proper editor and free online fiction written by enthusiastic amateur writers.