Poul Anderson’s Solution to the Helpless Local Problem
July 31, 2013
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I just finished reading the second story in Flandry of Terra, “A Message in Secret.” The first one was filled with subtle influences to Traveller and was pretty exciting to boot. This one… was more of a shaggy dog type story. Even worse, some shticks from the first story were recycled here. (The romantic interest bit is what I particularly have in mind….) The world building is pretty excellent, though– he does a better job here than the average game master could do with a copy of GURPS Traveller: First In. But what really makes this story interesting is that it highlights a solution to a longstanding problem that Traveller referees face: the stereotype of the bumbling, helpless local and the know-it-all busybody adventurer.
The problem is, that as the players show up to all of these worlds in the course of their adventures, it just so happens that they are the key to accomplishing something that the locals can’t do for themselves. Occasionally some obvious workarounds are used to avoid that sort of silliness: “hey, and earthquake just revealed an alien installation and we are the first ones to get to explore it!” If proper care is not taken, this can eventually lead to some suspender-snapping moments.
Here’s how Poul Anderson solved it in his Flandry stories:
- Communication is as rapid as the speed of travel. (Traveller of course nails this one– it’s the key to its overall “age of sail” tone; so far so good!)
- There are lots and lots and lots of worlds– so many, that the Imperium cannot afford to sent even spies to every single world… and worlds will typically only get one spy sent there for long stretches of time. If he dies, it can even be quite a while before anyone comes to check on him! Note that this is a huge contrast to Traveller which has a relatively small amount of worlds relative to the Imperium’s materiel. This is part of what makes piracy such a prickly topic on Traveller fora. (Note that Prime Directive has the correct scope, but the lack of communication issues gives it an entirely different feel.)
- The backwater worlds have a very limited amount of contact with other worlds. While they do have regular trade, the locals simply do not know what’s going on in the interstellar scene at the political level. This outside information can be a super-agent’s ace-in-the-hole.
- Cloak and dagger: if an interloper from another empire shows up to interfere with a border world, then it is likely that only another outside agent can effectively counter what he’s liable to do. You see this pattern show up a lot in James Bond stories and also in Doctor Who when the Doctor has to deal with temporal marauders.
- Computer technology has to be limited and/or misunderstood enough that the Encyclopedia Galactica doesn’t fit inside a penny-sized device. You either need a Dune-like purge of computer devices or else people just so happen to still need to be using microfilm for some reason. The oft-maligned backwardness of Traveller computer technology is actually an asset here, though it is much more developed than the tech in Anderson’s work and also the tech in Asimov and Heinlein’s earlier stuff.
If this sounds familiar to you, it may be because the bothers Keith used pretty much this same approach in Flare Star. Of course, they had to go outside of the Imperium’s borders and into unexplored star systems to make it work, but it’s pretty much the same set up that Flandry tends to face.