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Volume 29, Number 1, Fall 2010

Inspiration for Poul Anderson’s “No Truce with Kings”

Karen Anderson on Poul Anderson’s Hall of Fame Award

I wish to thank the members of the Libertarian Future Society for honoring Poul’s work yet again. He particularly valued these awards; the three plaques for stories, and that for the Lifetime Achievement Award, were displayed above the desk where he worked.

I made several false starts on this acceptance, but finally concluded it would be best just to tell you a little about the man who wrote it—where he lived, what he’d done lately, what he did on his vacations.

Poul was a fan before he was a pro, and we met at the 1952 Worldcon. He’d been born in Pennsylvania, spent his boyhood in Texas, and after periods in Denmark and outside Washington DC, finished his education in Minnesota. I was from Kentucky originally and in my turn also living outside D.C. When we decided to marry, we chose the San Francisco area for our home.

At first we lived in Berkeley, in the flatland west of the University of California campus, not far from the trolley line that crossed the Bay. The house we rented had a granny unit—bed-sitting room with a cook stove—at the back, that I fixed up and listed with the university student rental list. What traveling we did was either to conventions—which is, after all, one place a science-fiction writer does business—or camping out. Thus we got to know much of California—especially the Sierras, the wine country, the seashore and of course San Francisco.

We knew the Gold Rush country, Angel’s Camp of Jumping Frog fame, Placerville that was also known as Hangtown and immortalized in an oyster omelet, and the rugged mountainsides of the Mother Lode. We’d driven the two-lane highway across the Donner Pass, seen the lake where in 1846 starving emigrants were trapped by winter, and knew what work went into laying steel across even those comparatively low mountains—the railway that Leland Stanford had driven to meet another from the East, and joined the two with a golden spike in 1869. We’d seen Weaverville, home to the joss house where Stanford’s Chinese laborers settled and worshipped.

We’d been to Echo Summit, at the south end of Lake Tahoe—the route of the first highway across America, completed in 1913. With our daughter Astrid, we’d rolled out our sleeping bags on the California side of the lake and had frolicked in the Truckee River that pours down on the Nevada side and loses itself in a desert sink. We knew the farmland and pastures of the Central Valley, watered in those days only by the San Joaquin river that meets the Sacramento in the great inland delta, and the cave-riddled Pinnacles under Fremont Peak in the center of the state.

We’d seen missions, presidios, and barracks from San Diego de Alcalá up the Camino Real by San Juan Bautista and San Francisco de Asís, to San Francisco Solano in Sonoma, north of the Bay; and further north on the coast we’d visited the Russian fort with its Orthodox church; Spain and Russia both wanted San Francisco Bay, even before the gold was found in 1849. We knew that when labor had fled to the gold camps, San Franciscans had sent their laundry to Hawaii—then an independent kingdom, but once its monarchy lost power, set on its way to becoming the fiftieth state.

We took visitors on day trips to the wine country of Sonoma and Napa counties; this was where the grapes grew that went into the cheap jug wine that was a staple of ours. We took them on the Forty-Nine-Mile Scenic Drive through San Francisco—the route that goes through Chinatown where policemen ignore strings of firecrackers at the New Year celebrations; on to Lillie Coit’s tower on Telegraph Hill, to the Italian fishermen’s wharfside restaurants and the restored merchant square-rigger Balclutha, whose last work had been on the Alaska run; passes a meadow in Golden Gate Park where bison graze, runs beside the Pacific Ocean at the beach where Amundsen’s wooden ship was preserved after completing the North-west Passage across the Arctic in 1909; and reaches its highest point at a double-humped hilltop with a panorama of city and peninsula, bay and ocean, Berkeley and Oakland to the east.

Today’s Japan Trade Center was as yet in the future; but I could buy Japanese specialties, including picture-books for Astrid, at the Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley. And our first tenant in the granny unit was a Japanese judo expert, who later introduced us to the officers of the merchant ship he’d come over on.

In 1960, we were prosperous enough to move across the hills to Orinda, with a mortgage to pay off instead of rent that was partly offset by that granny unit. (Our last tenants had been Terry and Miriam Carr.) But we kept the same thrift-store furniture, supplemented by cheap patio chairs and straw mats. And we still vacationed with sleeping bags and air mattresses.

Poul’s first sale had been to John Campbell, and as he continued writing, he overflowed the s-f and fantasy market and moved into adventure and mystery magazines, and also into both paperback and hardcover originals. He’d been Guest of Honor at the 1959 Worldcon and won his first Hugo in 1961. Not only was he successful, he was reliable: in fifteen years as a professional, he’d never missed a deadline. So, when editors from Avram Davidson at the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to Cele Goldsmith at Amazing and Fantastic had a batch of cover flats to distribute, a set would come to Poul.

I should take a moment to explain about cover flats. In those days, some of the pulp magazines would buy unsolicited artwork from their regular cover artists, and then have black-and-white prints made that they sent to their regular writers. It was then the writer’s job to account for it: he might make it the basis of the story, bring it in as a brief scene, or even make it a piece of artwork noticed by a character. I remember seeing various covers as flats from editors, including the one that Jack Vance took for “Sail 25.” One that I tried to write a story from (and could still) ended up being used by Ann McCaffrey. After all, her description results in a totally different impression.

You see, even if there was something extremely specific—like a spacecraft attached to an enormous sail with the number “25” on it—the writer could create almost any kind of story he wanted. In fact, just trying to make some kind of sense out of the picture often generated ideas that the writer would never otherwise have had. The concept arising from the scene could be warned against or exulted over; the events could end in success or failure; the manner could be matter-of-fact or lyrical.

And so the specific inspiration for what became “No Truce with Kings”—besides the basic one of needing to put food on the table—was a cover flat from Avram.

This one was a rather impressionistic piece by Ed Emshwiller. It showed a baggy-trousered figure in the foreground aiming a bow at a skeletal-looking object like a tall skinny rocketship, with what might be small human figures near its foot, and a taller shapelessness beside it — or is that an enormous shadow behind it, and a lesser shadow behind the archer? The whole thing was grayscale — no hint what the colors might be. And Avram was editing the magazine from a small town in Mexico! Scarcely possible to pick up the phone and ask him. Very well, color wouldn’t be important in that scene. Which is not to say the story would be colorless.

So what else went into it, besides that vague picture of an archer and (maybe) a starship?

I don’t remember exactly when the writing was done; but since the story was published in the June 1963 issue, it must have been some time in 1962.

Poul was in his mid-thirties and Astrid was eight years old. The world we lived in, nearly fifty years ago, was very different from today’s. Eisenhower’s presidency had been followed by Kennedy’s; on the other side of the Iron Curtain, Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program put him at odds with Mao Zedong; in Britain, there were such Prime Ministers as Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson, while Winston Churchill was living in retirement. Iran was ruled by the Shah, Nasser was running the United Arab Republic and Ben-Gurion was prime minister of Israel; the upheavals in Africa following the departures of colonial powers had brought UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold to the formerly Belgian Congo, where his plane had crashed under circumstances mysterious even today. His successor was U Thant, of what was still called Burma. Kennedy had declared for the moon, but nuclear war was a present danger.

In California, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr. was governor: he is commemorated in the name of the canal diverting fresh water past the brackish inland delta above the Bay, irrigating the west side of the San Joaquin Valley down to western Los Angeles County. (His son Edmund G. Jr.—“Jerry”—has been governor, run for President and failed but then became mayor of Oakland, and now would like to be governor again. Some things don’t seem to change.)

And so Poul sat down to his typewriter. What might he do with an archer and a rocket ship? He’d done The High Crusade a couple of years before—the one about an alien ship conquered by medieval Englishmen—so it would need to be entirely different. Why not put it in the future instead of the past; and instead of basically imaginary landscapes (whether English or extraterrestrial), set it in ones he’d walked over? He knew what a defensible barrier the mountains make—the eastern boundary of California, though drawn with a ruler, is a simplification of a rainfall divide. He knew how much easier water communication is than land, without steam or other power, and how easy it is to sail between Hawaii and the mainland, and north to Alaska, with nineteenth-century technology.

He also knew that a rule of laws rather than men is hard to maintain. With his Scandinavian heritage, and with the advantage of learning Danish along with English from both American-born father and Danish-born mother, he was well versed in both English (which is American) history, and also in that of Scandinavia—which saw its own quarrels between barons and king; and the history of Iceland—the anarchic republic which broke down once local chieftains began to wage war on each other, and gained peace at the price of being ruled by Norway.

So let’s say there was a nuclear war, centuries ago, that has left no scars (Telegraph Hill in San Francisco has a tower, if not the same one as today; street names like Alemany and Portola survive, though not the railroad through the Donner Pass; instead, one follows a southern route, but no further than Hangtown) and has not only drastically reduced the population but also destroyed or made unusable highways, power plants, refineries, factories, and canneries—though not the records that tell how to make them.

Simply, civilization is getting a fresh start on a nineteenth-century-level Western seaboard. Will it be Manifest Destiny replayed from west to east? But let’s try out some other ideas about ways to organize a polity. Maybe smaller units and a kind of feudalism will work better than an endless federal union.

That takes care of the archer; now for the rocket ship. Those ET’s who came in it—suppose they came not to conquer but to help? And have some notion of psychohistory? Here’s a reversal of Asimov’s Seldon Plan and of centralized social planning generally: particularly, a rejection of the attitude that the individual human being can’t be treated as an adult. “You knew what was right for us,” Colonel Mackenzie says to the wise and helpful interstellar social worker. “We weren’t entitled to any say in the matter.” But he refuses to be treated like a child. An adult is entitled to make his own mistakes.

Besides the Kipling quotation that is the story’s title, he might have used a favorite line from a 1939 poem of Robinson Jeffers to sum up Colonel Mackenzie’s attitude to those do-gooders: “Long live freedom, and damn the ideologies!”

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