War, centralization, good intentions gone wrong: Poul Anderson’s “No Truce with Kings,” the 2010 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

Here is the Prometheus Blog Appreciation for Poul Anderson’s story, “No Truce with Kings,” the 2010 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By William H. Stoddard

In David Friedman’s first book, the libertarian classic The Machinery of Freedom, the first entry in the bibliography describes Poul Anderson’s “No Truce with Kings”: “A libertarian novelette that plays fair. The bad guys are good guys too. But wrong.”

“No Truce with Kings” is largely a war story, set in a future greater California recovering from the fall of world civilization — perhaps in a nuclear apocalypse, but Anderson doesn’t go into details; the backstory could be one of environmental collapse or hyperinflation or a dozen other global catastrophes.

The two factions are a local aristocracy and an increasingly powerful central government. The second faction is being aided by the Espers, a quasi-monastic movement that offers training in latent psychic abilities. But there’s more to it than that: Despite its relative brevity, this is a complex story. In fact, it’s what Aristotle calls a “complex tragedy,” one whose plot turns on the recognition of a hidden truth.

However, it’s not the identity of the good guys that’s hidden. Anderson’s title gives a large hint: It comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, “The Old Issue,” that warned against the dangers of central authority (a poem that’s unnervingly timely in our present situation). Kipling says, “Suffer not the old King: for we know the breed.”

Anderson’s characteristic touch is rather that the bad guys, the advocates of authority and centralization, are not conscious villains out to do harm; they have the best of intentions — but they’ve chosen an unsuitable way to realize them.

In fact, this novelette reflects the influence of other poems by Kipling: “The Land,” which celebrates the tie between the common people and the land they inhabit, through the image of generations of “Hobdens” going back to Roman Britain, and “Norman and Saxon,” which focuses on a specific pairing of lord and peasant. These poems aren’t directly libertarian; if anything, they’re better described as feudalist.

Anderson’s story suggests that something like feudalism may better fit human nature, giving most people a place to be tied to and authorities who live close to them.

The libertarianism comes in indirectly, both through the Norman baron’s warning “The Saxon is not like us Normans. His manners are not so polite. But he never means anything serious till he talks about justice and right” (another timely line!), and through the unavoidably authoritarian means by which a central government imposes itself on these local loyalties.

This isn’t a vision of perfection, or of an ideal libertarian society. It’s a warning.

Both writers see a measure of liberty as attainable, at a high cost, and as in danger of being lost for what seem to be good reasons. And that’s why, in the last analysis, “No Truce with Kings” is not merely complex, but a complex tragedy, one whose “good guys” can end up regretting their own victories.

Note: Anderson (1926-2001), one of the most prolific and popular writers in science fiction, has won a Prometheus Award six times, the Hugo award seven times, the Nebula award three times and won the Grand Master Award of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Besides “No Truce with Kings,” the Libertarian Futurist Society recognized Anderson forTrader to the Stars (inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1985), The Stars are Also Fire (the 1995 Prometheus Best Novel winner), The Star Fox (inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1995) and “Sam Hall” (inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2020.)

Poul Anderson. Photo by Karen Anderson

Anderson received the first Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2001, an award accepted for the ailing author by his wife, Karen, at the 2001 LFScon at Marcon in Columbus, Ohio.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the 2011 Iinductee into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

* Other Prometheus winners:  For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website. (This page contains convenient direct clickable links to each Appreciation for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction, as they are published on the Prometheus blog.)

* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history that launched the series in 2019 with review-essays about more than 40 Best Novel winners and that continues most weeks in 2020 with appreciations of the more than 40 Best Classic Fiction winners in the Prometheus Hall of Fame. If you’ve ever wondered why some fiction is recognized with a Prometheus, this series will help you better understand what LFS members see as the libertarian and anti-authoritarian themes in each winner.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”  an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards and the Libertarian Futurist Society, quotes from articles on the Prometheus Blog and explores the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers. Libertarian futurists believe exploring and dramatizing a positive vision of human flourishing and human possibilities in the future is key to achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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