- Published on Amazon.com
Honestly, I'm not even sure I'm reading these in order. I had a handful of these, realized that Anderson wrote quite a bit more than I had and recently acquired the rest of the Flandry stories and the stories in the series that predate him. Hopefully reading it all as a piece will help me get some sense of the scope of it, which seems quite ambitious, the rise and decline of a human space empire from a ground level view. The Flandry stories seem to take place toward the tail-end of the empire, where everything is pretty swell and things are seemingly at their peak but there are signs that the rot is beginning to set in and the darkness is nibbling at the edges. And that alone makes these fairly distinct.
We met Flandry in the first volume as a new ensign just figuring out how to be awesome, and more or less succeeding. By the time we reach him here he's basically flowered into full-on awesome, a captain and their go-to spy for when situations need one person to improvise wildly and somehow still save the day against all impossible odds. Except it doesn't quite work that way. The politics get messy, Flandry's boss is clearly trying to kill him by giving him the most impossible missions ever and even when he does succeed, Flandry is all too aware that he's barely holding back the tide of darkness that's about to fall upon the whole empire, probably after he's dead. Which could always be the next mission, the way it goes.
There's four stories in this volume, all published at different times and probably not meant to be read in sequence. To that end they can be a bit disappointing, since there's really no character development of Flandry like we got in the sustained burst that was "Ensign Flandry" . . . here he's got his effectiveness down to a science and manages to make every situation work with a little pluck and elbow grease. Thus, a lot of the traits can seem like Anderson repeating himself, especially how Flandry always manages to find himself with a different girl in nearly every story, sometimes more than one if the mojo is working. There's no sense of him having to find himself or figure out skills that may become useful to him later, most of the time it's just a matter of him understanding the situation and figuring out which tools to use.
Yet all four stories work mostly because Flandry is so likeable. Men want to be him and women want to be with him (heck, in two stories the people who started out trying to kill him admit that they kind of dig him too). Most of the stories have the same general structure, the Terran Empire is attempting to either acquire some leverage or prevent the Mersians from having some influence with said alien civilization, and thus Flandry and whoever the local commander is wind up jockeying in a weird chess game that involves fist fights and dames but comes across as more intelligent than that, like reading Doc Smith's Lensman stories with most of the optimism removed. Like "Ensign Flandry", but far more pronounced here, there's a very real and deliberate sense that Anderson is thinking through the consequences of these politics, where winning doesn't necessarily mean beating the bad guy but being the one who gets the trade agreement, or makes the other civilization like us more, where most of the problems can be won by not making the Terrans look bad or finding out stuff the other guy knows without letting him know you know it, something that comes across as twice as hard as merely blowing everything up in sight. It lends a sense of realism to the stories, which would otherwise be basic juvenile science-fiction with fairly straightforward plots. By avoiding some of the over-the-top tendencies of the genre (death-traps, hysterics) he dials down some of the pulse-pounding action but manages to create situations where the conflicts aren't as simple as they appear (in one neat sequence, Flandry and crew have to worry about if the Jovians are working with the Mersians or doing their own thing, either to screw the Terrans or get in good with the Mersians, or just for the sheer heck of it because who understands aliens anyway).
But underneath it all is a surprisingly affecting melancholy. Unlike most of the other people alive, Flandry is all too aware that the darkest days of the empire are before them and it consumes most of his thoughts, giving him an extra drive beyond being generically good. He's working so that a future he probably won't see will last a little while longer, and in the interim distracts himself with food and drink and ladies, then rushes back in to try to avoid killing himself to make the light shine a little brighter. Or the light shines the same, it's the dark that recedes a tad. There's a brief speech in "Hunters of the Sky Cave" that accentuates this brilliantly, ending on a wonderfully evocative note that ". . . we shiver a bit and swear a bit and go back to playing with a few bright dead leaves". It's not quite the same as that great grey British sense of impending slow collapse that pervades most of their work (in each story, at least, there's hope, doom is far in the future), but it gives these tales that would be simple on the surface a bit more edge and a bit more depth than the average SF of the time. Not experimental by any means but recommended for anyone who wants a little more thoughtfulness with their tales of spaceships and derring-do.