I thought I was done with this series of posts on planetary romance, a.k.a. sword-and planet, at least until the new edition of Kline’s Outlaws of Mars comes out. But then I came across a reference to James Blish’s Sword of Xota (a.k.a. The Warriors of Day). I had a hard time believing it was for real. Blish, the hardnosed “‘Sour Bill’ Atheling”, the apostle of modernism in literature and Spenglerism in history, the author of the quadruply ambitious trilogy After Such Knowledge (a four-book trilogy–ambition has no higher scope–no, I don’t believe in your five-book trilogy–sheesh, will this parenthesis never end?)–that Blish was the author of a planetary romance?
But Blish the fiction writer was a sneaky guy. After his friend and fellow-Futurian Damon Knight made his reputation as a critic with a savage dismemberment of Van Vogt’s “intensively recomplicated” plots, Blish made his reputation as a science fiction writer with the Okie stories which feature… intensively recomplicated plots. Blish was a self-described “devout agnostic” but at least two of his novels hinge on theology (Catholicism in A Case of Conscience; Satanism in Black Easter). Blish had a lifelong fascination with the potential of the corporate state, a.k.a. fascism (which he claimed hadn’t been actually instituted under Mussolini and Hitler for a complicated set of reasons which I won’t recount here because I don’t believe a word of it). But he included a blistering attack on McCarthyism in They Shall Have Stars. He despised any talk of ESP and snarked endlessly about John W. Campbell’s obsession with it in the 1950s. And he wrote Jack of Eagles, one of the few psi novels from the 1950s that’s still worth reading. Any time Blish’s daylight rational self said, “Zig,” a dark voice within him seems to have whispered, “Zag.” I don’t say this is a recipe for a happy life, but it may produce some interesting fiction. (Yes, Mr. Dostoevsky; I see you with your hand up there.)
Is Sword of Xota (later republished as The Warriors of Day) interesting fiction? Some say yes. Some say no. I’m with the yes group on this one, but not over-enthusiastically. (I read the 1967 edition; I have no idea how it differs, other than the title, from the original magazine text.)
a lone American (not a Canadian–not a Ugandan–not a Lithuanian–an American) is mysteriously plunged into an exotic other world which is both more advanced and more primitive than the earth he knows. He conquers all by virtue of his heroism and marries the space princess. In the inevitable sequel the pitiless author will somehow compel him do it all again, sometimes under another name.
Lone American: check. Our hero is Bond,
James–no, make that Tipton Bond, thank you very much. With a first name like Tipton you know he has to be a savage adventurer who drinks life to the lees, maybe with one pinkie extended, maybe. And, actually, he is. In the opening pages, and I mean in the first paragraph, he is fighting a wounded and furious Kodiak bear with nothing more than a hunting knife in his hands. He puts his back to a tree and lures the bear in, stabbing it through the heart when grabs him in a bear hug. (The tree saves him from being mauled by the bear’s claws.) In a single John-Carter-like bound, this put him on a level with Conan and Eric John Stark, as far as I’m concerned. And Bond is a little like Esau Cain from REH’s Almuric, as a matter of fact. He’s a restless adventurer who spends his time finding things to fight in the hope that he will meet his match, only he never does.
Mysterious plunge into an exotic other world: check. A force Bond does not understand draws him across space to the world of Xota, which is under the threat of attack by a fleet of space-travelling giants called the Warriors of Day. In Xota, telepathy is common and beasts, humans and animals have a sort of confederation (an echo of Clifford Simak’s City stories here, I think). Xota also seems to have the mix of the primitive (dark cults and city-states) and advanced (telepathy and high-tech weapons) required by the genre.
Bond does not marry a space princess (or does he? can’t discuss that without a spoiler), but he does get seduced by a conniving would-be empress, which is pretty close. He does defeat the enemy, by means of his innate greatness (can’t discuss that without a spoiler; plus I’m not sure I really understand it). If there wasn’t a sequel (it seems there wasn’t), Blish at least ends with a bit of ring-composition which suggests there is more to the story.
There are some great ideas banging around here, and some flashes of evocative writing. The villains are sort of interesting, as far as we get to see them or know them, and their weapon against Xota is intriguing: they are going to smash it with Van Maanan’s Star. (Evidently they don’t plan on colonization.) Things move very fast–maybe a little too fast. There is a matter transmitter which seems to exist only for the convenience of the plot, and the final resolution is so swift that it makes the plot problem seem almost trivial. On balance, I thing the book’s virtues outweigh the flaws, but it is by no means a genre classic.
In summary, Blish fans (there must be one out there besides me) will want to read this. And sword-and-planet fans might at least give it a try: it’s a first-rate writer doing less than his best work (to borrow a phrase from “Atheling”, I think), but it does show some signs of trying to use the genre’s conventions and extend them, without mocking or subverting them.