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Hunters of the Sky Cave

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue.

Hunters of the Sky Cave. Poul Anderson.
Original publication: 1965 (collection Agent of the Terran Empire)
Current Availability: Print (TPB, MMPB) and ebook (both collection Sir Dominic Flandry)

“Ardazirho”: how you say “Vargr”
in the original language of the Vargr.

Flandry’s first startled thought had been Wolf! Now, he realized that of course the Ardazirho was not lupine, didn’t even look notably wolfish. Yet the impression lingered. He was not surprised when Catherine Kittredge said the aliens had gone howling into battle.

They were described as man-sized bipeds, but digitigrade, which gave their feet almost the appearance of a dog’s walking on its hind legs. The shoulders and arms were very humanoid, except that the thumbs were on the opposite side of the hands from mankind’s. The head, arrogantly held on a powerful neck, was long and narrow for an intelligent animal, with a low forehead, most of the brain space behind the pointed ears. A black-nosed muzzle, not as sharp as a wolf’s and yet somehow like it, jutted out of the face. Its lips were pulled back in a snarl, showing bluntly pointed fangs which suggested a flesh-eater turned omnivore. Their eyes were oval, close set, and gray as sleet. Short, thick fur covered the entire body, turning to a ruff at the throat; it was rusty red.

— Poul Anderson, “A Handful of Stars” (1959)

In The Science Fiction in Traveller Shannon Appelcline identifies Poul Anderson’s “Technic Civilization” series—including both the “Dominic Flandry” tales and the “Polesotechnic League” tales—as an important influence on Traveller but does not review any of the works in this “sprawling series”. Appelcline also reminds us that Anderson’s Dominic Flandry (Naval Intelligence Officer, 9A7BBA, Pilot-1, Navigation-1, Brawling-1, Weapons-2, Admin-2, Bribery-2) was one of the “unnamed science-fiction characters” that Marc Miller included at the end of Supplement 1: 1001 Characters.

Anderson wrote dozens of tales in his Technic Civilization setting from “Tiger by the Tail” (1951), a Flandry novelette, to The Game of Empire (1985), as it happened, a Flandry novel. Besides several tales about Flandry, the extended Polesotechnic League sub-series features merchant prince Nicholas van Rijn and merchant adventurer David Falkhayn. (As James Maliszewski, who wrote the Vargr-themed, Hard Times era adventure scenario “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” (Challenge #67) has noted1 the illustration of Merchant Captain Jamison in Book 1: Characters and Combat looks very much like van Rijn as Anderson describes him.)

A good place to start with—or return to—Anderson’s Technic Civilization tales is Hunters of the Sky Cave (1965), a Flandry-featuring, novel-length work expanded from the novella “A Handful of Stars”, originally published in Amazing Science Fiction in June 1959.

Hunters of the Sky Cave takes place in the middle of Flandry’s career when he’s reached the rank of Captain in Terra’s Imperial Navy. Flandry has also been knighted—for the exploits recounted in “Tiger by the Tail”—and is on recreational furlough in the Sol System. Flandry will remind many readers of James Bond, the wise-cracking, femme fatale-catching, dashing mid-20th Century British secret agent but Flandry’s first appearances in print (“Tiger by the Tail” and “Honorable Enemies”) were published two years before 1953’s Casino Royale, Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel. Hunters begins with Flandry attending a ball thrown by the Merseian ambassador—the reptilian Merseians being the Terran Empire’s principal adversaries—and doing his best to seduce a Terran noblewoman from Luna.

Flandry’s effort are unexpectedly interrupted by an encounter with a very special Merseian intelligence agent, with whom he had previously tangled in “Honorable Enemies”. Soon Flandry is sent by his superior to investigate a potential threat to Terra among the bizarrely unhuman aliens who have settled Jupiter and have their own star-spanning empire intermingled with those of Terra and Merseia (intermingled because neither can live on the others’ worlds). That adventure—minor spoiler here—ends harrowingly but inconclusively and Flandry is sent next to Vixen, a world on the Imperial periphery which has recently been conquered by heretofore unknown alien sophont “barbarians”, the Ardazirho, who have attacked from a hidden location beyond the Empire. The vignette recounted above occurs when Flandry, on his way to Vixen, is examining an image of one of the invaders smuggled off the conquered planet by a single blockade runner, Catherine Kittredge, sent to plead Vixen’s case for assistance.

If that description of the Ardazirho sounds familiar even though you’ve never read Hunters of the Sky Cave that’s because you may have read something close to it elsewhere. There are echoes of it the “Contact!” column featuring the Vargr which appeared in Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society #8 (1981) and in the Vargr library data entry in Supplement 11: Library Data (N-Z) (1982)—and therefore also in Alien Module 3: Vargr (1984). We don’t know if the authors of those early Vargr works had Anderson’s wolf-like Ardazirho in mind. It’s possible, of course, that they may have read Hunters of the Sky Cave and yet not consciously remembered that passage when creating the Vargr. We’ll likely never know but it is nearly impossible for a Traveller fan to read that passage now and not think Vargr! as Anderson had Flandry think Wolf!

Flandry makes his way to Vixen, runs the Vargr, er… I mean the Ardazirho blockade and helps to organize a resistance among the original Terran settlers now under Ardazirho occupation. Flandry manages to take an Ardazirho officer captive and interrogates him in an effort to learn the location of the Ardazirho homeworld. Flandry himself is subsequently taken captive by the Ardazirho intelligence chief and is forced, through a sort of computerized torture, to learn their language so that he might be more effectively interrogated. All the while an Imperial Navy space fleet waits nearby, unable to force the Ardazirho off of Vixen without devastating the population of Terran settlers.

The plot thickens. The situation at Vixen with the Ardazirho turns out to be much more complex than suspected. A wider stratagem by the Terran Empire’s adversaries becomes apparent. Flandry’s earlier, failed mission at Jupiter, his encounters at the Merseian ambassador’s ball, and his growing relationship with Catherine Kittredge all turn out to be strands of a greater conflict. Flandry’s instincts prove true but events do not unfold as he might have hoped.

Hunters of the Sky Cave is a rip-roaring space opera novel on its own. It’s a compelling spy- and political-thriller with plenty of action, whether it be a mad effort to survive in a sabotaged grav-craft tossed in a gas giant storm, a battle of verbal wits between two talented spymasters, a spaceship attempting to make surreptitious, unpowered planetfall masquerading as a meteorite, or an assault on a hidden asteroid base by a team of missile launcher-wielding and battle-dress-wearing humans and non-humans. There is also a grand espionage plot that underlies all the action but which only becomes apparent in the final chapters.

Besides his storytelling, Anderson's talent is in creating rich new worlds. The science-fiction in his work is in the ecology and in the… not anthropology but the xenology, rather than in the technology per se. (Anderson spends no more time explaining the science-fiction behind the device used to force Flandry to learn the Ardazirho language than Fleming would have spent explaining the workings of a similar device used on Bond.) But the way that Flandry is able to make educated guesses about the nature of the Ardazirho homeworld from the wildly patch-worked colors of their clothing is typical of Anderson’s skill. If Anderson had written a Traveller sourcebook it would have been DGP’s World Builder’s Handbook rather than 101 Vehicles or the Starship Operator’s Manual.

As for Traveller, as Flandry’s appearance in Supplement 1 suggested, Hunters of the Sky Cave, indeed all of the Flandry tales, could easily take place in the Third Imperium. There are minor discrepancies—Flandry’s empire is based at Terra—but the Imperial aristocracy, the generally autonomous member worlds, the vast fleets of the Imperial Navy, the large, alien sophont power(s) on the borders will all be familiar to Traveller players. Flandry’s Empire may be a bit more decadent, a bit closer to a civilizational collapse than seemed to be the case for the Third Imperium of Traveller’s Classic Era (before the Rebellion), but it still uncannily familiar. Flandry himself is a pessimist about the Empire’s future and understands his efforts as being mostly about preserving a bit of what is good, indulgent, even sybaritic in life in an effort to stave off the “Long Night”—Anderson’s term, coined long before it appeared in Supplement 8: Library Data (A-M)—for a bit longer.

Obviously, I am a big fan of Hunters of the Sky Cave, of Anderson’s Flandry tales and his tales of the Polesotechnic League, of all of Anderson’s Technic Civilization work. It is classic science-fiction in the grand space operatic tradition. But besides simply being a good yarn, Hunters of the Sky Cave is an excellent introduction to a rich, centuries-spanning science fictional setting which will both seem familiar to Traveller fans and serve as a remarkable source of adventuring material.

Hunters of the Sky Cave is currently in print in Baen’s Poul Anderson omnibus Sir Dominic Flandry in both mass market and trade paperback editions—sadly, with a sleazy cover illustration that does not do Anderson’s work justice. This is one book in Baen’s seven volume “Technic Civilization Saga by Poul Anderson” series which collects the Flandry tales, the Polesotechnic League tales of merchant adventure and other related tales. It was previously released in the collection Agent of the Terran Empire in hardcover and mass market paperback (the paperback has a much better Michael Whelan cover illustration) and also, most closely following its original Amazing publication, as We Claim These Stars, both as a paperback single and an “Ace double”.