Shield by Poul Anderson was first published in novel form in 1963. I read the edition with the neat Richard Powers artwork. I like Powers’ interpretation of the shield (ink spots and lines) with the “figures” inside. Typical awesome. So, as I mentioned, this story is from 1963, I actually decided to read something more recent than the usual 1950s fare I have been reviewing.
I have previously read a couple of other things by Anderson. I associate him with NOT-FUN. I mean, he is definitely an ideas man and he sure does have a pile of intelligence, but the novels that I have read thus far were drained of their fun like a carcass hanging from a slaughterhouse beam. Honestly, I have felt that Anderson should have stopped playing with science fiction and just settled into write articles and papers on his political/sociological opinions. Because, I believe, science fiction should be scientific, futuristic, exploratory, questioning, wondering, and imaginative….but it should also still maintain some core of entertainment value. It should give the reader something more than just a shell for diatribes and rants. The previous novels I read by Anderson were lacking in fun. They were such bores….
However, Shield is a very well written novel. Finally, Anderson is able to write a fun/entertaining story that is nuanced and focused and interconnected AND contains some of his best trademark political/sociological discussions. Indeed, this would definitely make a good movie for some enterprising politically-minded producer. Now, I will not say that this was just overflowing with fun, but compared to his other novels, this one seemed like Anderson remembered that he was writing a novel throughout the novel.
Sidebar: I am one of those cantankerous Aristotelians, so my mind sharply searches for the “end.” I think this has some bearing on my general dislike toward “agenda fiction” (as I call it). Sure, there are a couple of exceptions in which “agenda fiction” is successful, but overall, I find it suspicious. Surely, this has colored my opinion when it comes to novels that have a hugely obvious “political” content wedged into their plotlines. If the sole purpose of a novel is didactic or prosthelytizing, I will call the author out. Entertain me, first. End Sidebar.
All of that being said, the key point here is that this is a polished novel containing a variety of facets that all work together. Good things include: the novel is not overly lengthy. At 158 pages in my edition, the story is contained, resolved, and packaged nicely. No abominable page count here. Another item: the influences of the Martians/Mars expedition is meaningful to the story, but does not weigh it down with either undue adoration for itself or rampant xenophobia. It is entirely balanced and it connects very well with the plot generally.
An example of this Martian element is in chapter 9 wherein the main character utilizes the communication he learned on the Mars expedition to subvert the machinations of the opponents. Very nicely written chapter.
The entirety of the novel is based on a single piece of technology referred to as a “barrier” or “shield.” Basically, it was developed by the main character and Martians. There is a somewhat unwieldy generator box that is sometimes worn via harness. This generator produces a “field” that creates a barrier around the generator box. This field can be enlarged as needed and it is, more or less, indestructible – although not completely so. (Certain types of things can get through, however bullets and sound cannot.) This is fun tech and is used well in the storyline. It is also the basis for Anderson’s political discussion because he contextualizes this piece of technology in a world in which “national security” is all the rage.
Chapters eleven through seventeen are mightily political. Anderson has some really intensely developed discussions on politics going on in these chapters. Some of his famous “libertarianism” is included, of course. But he also examines things like national defense, international cooperation, economics, and egalitarianism. The discussions include brief shots at rebellion/revolution, method and result, and concerns about weapon proliferation and oversight. In the world in which this novel takes place, the Earth has already seen much nuclear destruction and the USA is strongly positioned as a “watchdog.” Anderson’s one failing is his absolute panic regarding China. I do not wish to delve into politics on this blog, but it can be said that in this novel Anderson does present a variety of arguments that are relatively well thought out and actually are integral to the storyline, as opposed to being tacked on without subtlety or care.
Not that any of the above is insufficient for a novel, but there is one other element that readers will focus on. The female lead character, Vivienne, is an enigma. Let us all admit that in the past women characters were not always treated kindly. Most of the time they are plastic, bizarre, and stereotyped. They are sex objects or “motives” for the heroic male. Female characters were never: scientists, independent, thoughtful, or brave. Now, I am not saying that Vivienne is the best female character of all time. (Anderson introduces her as a quadroon, for heaven’s sake! Sheesh!) Still she is such an anomaly for the 1950s/1960s science fiction female character set that she is becomes enigmatic and surprising. Maybe, and this is only my speculation here, Vivienne is such an enigma because she is not a forced character – she seems almost natural or “real.” Some of the “strong female lead” examples tend to be so strong that they are overpoweringly extreme. In Shield, Vivienne (and her history) is so surprising that she really is the star of the novel. (I must insert here that the last chapter totally surprised me. I expect it will surprise no one else….)
Anyway, this is a very good novel. It has an inviting level of action-thriller in it that balances the political/sociology. The characters are not complete rubbish and the page count is reasonable. It may not be the masterpiece of all science fiction, but it definitely earns four stars in my rating.