As most science fiction fans know, there is a small but dynamic segment of the genre that thrives on fusing elements of science fiction with meticulously described historical fiction. S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time, in which the inhabitants of the island of Nantucket are transported back into the Bronze Age; Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna saga, which envisions a Roman Empire that never fell; and Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar (Worldwar: In the Balance, Worldwar: Tilting the Balance, et al.) and Colonization novels, which chronicle an alien invasion in the midst of WWII; are all great examples of this fusion of SF and history.
I know a lot of readers who read predominantly alternate history powered science fiction—not that there’s anything wrong with it—and there are some talented writers out there who do these types of stories extremely well: Eric Flint, Robert Conroy, David Drake, David Weber, and Kim Stanley Robinson, to name a few.
I had never read The High Crusade before but when I mentioned the release of Baen’s special 50th anniversary edition (which also includes the short story sequel "Quest") in BarnesandNoble.com’s Science Fiction and Fantasy forum, I was shocked by the number of readers who not only remembered it but ranked it as one of their all-time favorite books!
My verdict after reading this 50-year old SF adventure? It certainly wasn’t a deeply intellectual or particularly profound read but it has most definitely stood the test of time and was highly entertaining—I don’t remember any of the novels by Poul Anderson that I’d read previously (The Avatar, The Boat of a Million Years, etc.) as being particularly humorous but this story was surprisingly amusing!
In the novel’s introduction, Anderson’s daughter, Astrid Anderson Bear (who is married to Hugo and Nebula award winning science fiction wordsmith Greg Bear) describes The High Crusade fittingly as a “rollicking romp of medieval mayhem.”
“Lo! It was a miracle! Down through the sky, seeming to swell monstrously with the speed of its descent, came a ship all of metal. So dazzing with the sunlight off its polished sides that I could not see its form clearly. A huge cylinder, I thought, easily two thousand feet long. Save for the whistle of wind, it moved noiseless…”
But when blue-skinned humanoids exit the ship and begin shooting tubular weapons at de Tourneville’s men, they react quickly and strike back. “…the air was suddenly gray with whistling shafts. The three other demons toppled, so thickly studded with arrows they might have been popinjays at a contest.”
The enraged Englishmen storm the ship and eventually take it over. Leaving only one prisoner alive, Brother Parvus begins to learn its language so that Sir Roger can somehow use the massive starship against the French—but after the wily alien agrees to guide the ship across the English Channel, it instead sends the ship back to one of its home worlds!
Thus begins the deep space adventure of a small group of Englishmen from the late Middle Ages against an interplanetary imperialistic alien empire!
I’ve had people tell me that they don’t read science fiction anymore because it’s too bleak, too depressing (I vehemently disagree, by the way). Well, The High Crusade is anything but bleak and depressing—it’s an undeniably fun read. And it’s historically significant as well. After reading The High Crusade, I can see where dozens of contemporary novels and series (like the aforementioned Turtledove novels) have taken inspiration from this half-century old novel, which was originally published in Analog magazine as a serialized story.
Anderson Bear sums it up perfectly: “If you are coming to The High Crusade for the first time, you are in for a treat. If you are revisiting it, you’ll find that it lives up to your fondest memories and more. And that is the best testament to the quality of a book: that it stands up to rereading later in life, revealing more with time.”
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for almost the last two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.