In his wonderful breakdown of the genre in The Strategies of Fantasy, Brian Atterbery devotes an entire chapter to the sub-genre of science fantasy, stating that of the “works that mingle the rhetoric of science fiction with that of fantasy, nearly all can be classed as either humorous or mythological.” Though citing a scene from A Princess of Mars wherein love develops between a human male and an egg-laying Martian, what Atterbery is too coy to say directly is that humor and absurdity go hand-in-hand. But he does not mention Poul Anderson’s 1960 novel The High Crusade, which may, in fact, be the poster example of science fantasy silliness.
How does this look on a genre wall: medieval English knights are one day attacked by ray-gun wielding, blue-skinned aliens. The knights push back the attack, and in the aftermath are able to take an alien hostage. It learns Latin in the time it takes Anderson to write a paragraph, and soon enough the knights are taught to fly the ship and embark for France to destroy their sworn enemy. Trouble is, the alien tricks the knights. Instead of France, the ship is on autopilot. Destination: the alien’s home planet. Upon landing, the group of knights lay waste to the technologically advanced aliens with nothing more than spears, bows, and arrows — the beam weaponry and power shields they encounter are no match. And that’s only the first 40 pages…
And the humor. See the following quote which happens after a face appears on a video screen to the knights:
“So!” Red John drew his dagger. “All this time there’s been a stowaway! Give me a crowbar, sire, and I’ll pry him out.”
See? You either roll your eyes or guffaw. (Myself an eye-roller, it was truly humorous to read in Wikipedia the following: “The movie version of The High Crusade differed in many significant respects from the novel. It was written with many comedy elements and had a much-reduced scope.” Intentional or otherwise, it already had comedic elements, I say.)
As Atterbery eludes, The High Crusade’s bald mixing of Medievalism with the stuff of ‘squids in space’ is so simple a juxtaposition that it’s difficult not to at least bat an eye at the illogicality of it all. Readers who partake only of space opera may not notice the twitch, but others will find their eyes quickly moving to the second stage: rolling at the cheesiness. It’s tough for such disparate building blocks not to induce such reaction. Deciding whether to read the novel is thus an easy affair. If you are a reader who does not think twice reading of a wizard dueling a stormtrooper, or a pointy-hat witch piloting a lunar lander, then The High Crusade will be your type of book. If you’re a reader looking for some inkling of plausibility or relevancy to anything resembling reality, run, run, run the other way. It’s truly that simple.
In the end, I wish I had run. The strong high fantasy voice imbuing the tragedy that is Anderson’s The Broken Sword comes across false in The High Crusade due to the unbelievable juxtaposition of the Medieval and interstellar alien. It is the most shallow and empty of science fantasy conceits for me, but for others will certainly be a rip-roaring adventure featuring battles between knights and E.Ts. I trust the reader of this review will know which side of the line they fall. For my money, I’ll stick with Jack Vance’s The Dragon Masters as a similar but more coherent tale.