I didn't even realize they made a movie out of this book, but when I imagine it I picture the movie version of "Starship Troopers" after making a pit stop at a Renaissance Fair. Whether that's a good thing or not I leave up to you. Certainly Anderson didn't seem to be that big a fan of it, apparently avoiding it.
Fortunately we have the book itself, reissued again for a fiftieth anniversary edition. One of the more popular Anderson stories, it manages to take a really simple concept that is tailor-made for a Hollywood pitch and go way further with it than anyone probably expected. After years of watching episodes of "Doctor Who" where knights and aliens and intermingle freely, the concept here doesn't quite seem as mindblowing as it might have back then, when ideas like this were few and far between, and rarely pulled off properly even when people did attempt it. Play it too straight and it becomes really jarring historical fiction, but go too far in the other direction and it might as well be fantasy with its strange beasts and weird magic.
Yet Anderson manages to keep it firmly in the SF camp. The idea of it, as I said, is simple: what if aliens landed in feudal Europe around the time of the Hundred Years War? Which is exactly what happens, as Sir Roger and his troops are one day greeted by the improbable sight of a spaceship landing in their midst, with strange being leaving the ship with foul intent. What I found most amusing is that for most authors, the story would never leave Earth, and the tale would solely be about how the knights would cope and beat back the invaders despite their more advanced technology and warfare know-how.
Instead, it goes the opposite. Anderson dispenses with that after about five pages, as it turns out the mighty alien warriors aren't so swell when they can't use guns and thus stink in hand-to-hand combat. Which means suddenly the knights have a spaceship. Now, instead of doing what knights in that time probably would have realistically done, which would have been to burn the ship as some kind of heretical demonic device, they decide to fly it and take the fight to the aliens, at which point battles occur that aren't as lopsided as you might expect.
Its a weird beast we have in this story. It takes the concept seriously and plays it absolutely straight but at the same time asks you to swallow all kinds of ideas that are probably preposterous on the face of it, starting with the fact that the knights don't get slaughtered in the first few pages. For one, gravity and air are compatible, and for the most part food can be eaten (especially ironic considering how much Anderson's other SF books go to great lengths to make problems out of the fact that local food will lack certain amino acids), languages are learned, not easily but readily enough so everyone can talk to each other. It also asks you to accept that the aliens are so advanced that the more brutal and primitive battle tactics of the knights run right over them because they simply don't foresee it coming.
Yet the story keeps moving so fast that none of this seems to matter while the pages are turning. If you can accept the whole idea that the knights wouldn't get their butts handed to them extremely quickly, and Anderson does an excellent job of making this seeming impossibility at least plausible, then all the rest that comes along will seem par for the course. In a way it comes across sometimes as a more mannered and professional version of a game you and your friends would play where you'd try to one-up each other by coming up with more and more challenges. This is that story, but done by someone who knows what they're doing. It helps that having a friar narrate it keeps it to a calm tone that keeps the proceedings from seeming over the top, even when you have knights riding speederbikes and racing around trying to take out giant spacecraft.
Its breezy and fun and happily pastes over issues like disease and culture shock, the kind of story that promises a good time once you accept the general conceit, and frankly the last action movie you saw probably asks you to accept six impossible things even before the opening credits are over. So this shouldn't be difficult. Its a typical Anderson story for those familiar with him, where clever people manage to overcome increasingly difficult problems, often by thinking outside the box. The setting is different but the approach is generally the same.
What also strikes me is how much story Anderson manages to pack into a short amount of space, including a near perfect ending. In this anniversary edition, which runs about 250 pages, twenty-five of that are devoted to other authors (and Anderson's daughter) giving couple page introductions to how they feel about the story. Also the last thirty or so pages include a short story "Quest" set in the same universe, which is also worth reading as it takes a concept that would have been dear to the knights, recasts it in a SF mold, then turns it on its head. In thirty pages. These days, authors would have taken either story and made a trilogy out of it, so for ideas per page alone the book is worth cracking open, unless you want to wait until the sixtieth anniversary, which at this point is probably right around the corner. But the idea of keeping it in print is perfectly okay with me.