Poul Anderson’s delirious science fiction romp The High Crusade was published in 1960. The basic premise struck me as one that could have made an amusing short story but I was rather dubious as to whether it could be sustained over the course of a novel. In fact Anderson manages to do so without any difficulty whatsoever.
The basic idea is that a spacecraft lands in England, near the village of Ansby, in the year 1345. The spacecraft is a scout ship for the Wersgor Empire. The Wersgorix are an aggressive imperialist spacefaring race who have already enslaved the inhabitants of hundreds of planets. To oppose the alien invaders Sir Roger de Tourneville has a small force of mounted knights, some men-at-arms and some longbowmen.
The Wersgorix, who have mastered the technology of faster-than-light travel, are so far in advance of fourteenth century Earth that the outcome of the encounter is beyond any doubt. It’s going to be not so much a battle as a massacre. And that’s exactly how it turns out. The Wersgorix are slaughtered. They discover that their incredibly advanced military technology is no match for our puny Earth weapons.
This is just the start of the tale. Sir Roger and his followers now find themselves in possessions of a spaceship, and they have a captured prisoner who can be persuaded to tell them how to work it. They intend to fly the spaceship to France to join the King in his campaign there although Sir Roger has the notion it might be possible to use the ship to recapture the Holy Land. They do not however end up in France or in the Holy Land but on the planet Tharixan, hundreds of light years from Earth. Tharixan is a Wersgorix slave planet. It is well defended, by all manner of high technology hardware like fighter aircraft, spaceships, force fields, armoured vehicles and even nuclear weapons. None of which is going to deter a couple of hundred stout Englishmen led by a brave knight like Sir Roger.
What follows is an exuberant space opera plot with pitched battles and daring stratagems, all combined with a romantic intrigue and some amusing observations on competing political systems.
There’s nothing terribly outlandish about a low-tech army winning a single battle against a much more technologically sophisticated enemy (Isandlwana and the Little Big Horn are obvious examples) but there are very few examples of a low-tech army winning a protracted war on a vast scale against a technologically vastly superior enemy. The great thing about this novel is that Anderson consistently comes up with scenarios in which the technological sophistication of the Wersgorix is either no help to them, or becomes a positive hindrance.
This story involves more than a clash between different military systems - it is also a contest between two sharply differing political systems. The Wersgor Empire is a centralised bureaucracy. The feudal system as practised in medieval England proves to be vastly superior. Again Anderson doesn’t just indulge in wish fulfillment - he demonstrates that feudalism is more flexible and much more suited to conditions of crisis. Sir Roger and his followers are bound together by a complex web of loyalties, rights and duties and this web of mutual obligation can withstand a great deal of stress. A centralised bureaucracy on the other hand can collapse very quickly indeed, given that no-one really has any personal stake in the system.
So we have clever ideas, lots of action, battles on land and in space, some cool aliens and a bit of speculation about competing social methods of social organisation. What about characterisation, usually regarded as the main failing of golden age science fiction? There’s fairly good news here as well. Both Sir Roger and his wife Lady Catherine are fairly complex well-rounded personalities. They have their strengths and weaknesses, sometimes they behave nobly and sometimes not so nobly. Even when they do things we do not approve of we can understand the reasons for their actions. Sir Owain Montbelle is the third party in a fatal romantic triangle but even he’s a little bit more than just a cardboard cutout villain. Branithar, the Wersgorix captive, is also a bit more than a stock alien character.
The High Crusade is also an amazing amount of fun. Very highly recommended.