A Circus of Hells
Series: Dominic Flandry
Reviewed date: 2007 Jun 29
A Circus of Hells is a schizophrenic book. It's part of Poul Anderson's Flandy series, so it follows Dominic Flandry on one of his rip-roaring adventures. The first half of the book is about a shady side-deal Flandry undertakes. While on an official Imperial scouting mission, Flandry takes a couple of weeks to explore Wayland, an abandoned planet that Flandry's underworld employers think can net them a huge payoff--if somebody can just verify that it's worth mounting a full scale expedition. Flandry verifies that Wayland is a treasure mine of valuable ore--and is promptly sold out to the Merseians by his partner. The rest of the book concerns Flandry's escape from Merseian captivity. The Wayland plot strand is dropped completely.
Flandry's partner is Djana, the proverbial prostitute with the heart of gold. She sold Flandry out because she was forced into it by Merseian agents. Flandry doesn't hold this against her. Both are taken to a secret Merseian base deep within Imperial territory, where Flandry busies himself helping the Merseians to study the autochthonous life forms, and Djana works with a Merseian to develop her latent mental powers. Flandry knows he must escape, and he watches and learns and plots and waits for the perfect opportunity.
Poul Anderson is a libertarian. Themes of personal liberty and responsibility permeate his books. I didn't realize it until recently, but he influenced my own political views. I read his books as a kid. I invariably agree with the messages that Anderson's books give, although I can't condone the hedonistic lifestyle of his heroes.
So I was surprised when A Circus of Hells presents a very un-libertarian view at its conclusion.
[Djana and Flandry have escaped Merseian captivity, with the help of Djana's newfound mental powers. Djana expresses sadness that they will soon be separated.]
[Flandry said:] "You've proven you're tough and smart, not to mention beautiful and charming. On top of that, there's this practically unique wild talent of yours. And Ydwyr wouldn't be hard to convince you've zigzagged back to him. Our Navy Intelligence will jump for joy to have you, after I pass word along the channels open to me. We'd see each other often, I daresay, perhaps even now and then we'd work together...why, even if they get you into Roidhunate as a double agent--"
He stopped. Horror confronted him.
"What...what's the matter?" he faltered.
Her lips moved several times before she could speak. Her eyes stayed dry and hard gone pale, as if a flame had passed behind them. There was no hue at all in her face.
"You too," she got out.
"Huh? I don't--"
She checked him by lifting a hand. "Everybody," she said, "as far back as I can remember. Ending with Ydwyr, and now you."
"What in cosmos?"
"Using me." Her tone was flat, not loud in the least. She stared past him. "You know," she said, "the funny part is, I wanted to be used. I wanted to give, serve, help, belong to somebody . . . But you only saw a tool. A thing. Every one of you."
I don't know about you, but I find few things more noble and filled with purpose than using one's skills and talents to earn a living. Djana is wrong to think that using her talent in willing service is the same as being used like a tool. It gets Poul Anderson out of a tight spot by getting rid of Djana, thus leaving Flandry free to womanize in the sequels, but it's not in keeping with his values.