I am a Merry Ploughboy

The Makeshift Rocket — Poul Anderson

Makeshift Rocket

1962’s standalone comic SF novel The Makeshift Rocket is an expansion of Poul Anderson’s 1958 A Bicycle Built for Brew.

The gyrogravitic generator gave humans and Martians cheap space flight and the ability to transform any dead rock in space into an acceptable facsimile of a habitable world, one with Earth-like gravity and an atmosphere. Any gang of idiots with enough money could create their own pocket nation out in the Asteroid belt. Many idiots did.

Captain Dhan Gopal Radhakrishnan and Engineer Knud Axel Syrup of Mercury Girl sense that something is wrong on the worldlette Lois. Clue: the flags.


Gone, the Union Jack on a Royal Stuart field of the Anglian Kingdom. In its place, a white banner with a shamrock and harp in green. Still outraged that Anglians had seized the then-unoccupied Lois two generations earlier, the Shamrock League Irredentist Expeditionary Force have descended on Lois (which they call Laoighise, which the Irredentists helpfully explain is pronounced Lois) to restore possession to their native Saorstat Erseann cluster.

Having confiscated all of the radios on the small world, the filibusters use the pretext of a quarantine to deter visitors. This, they hope, will buy the Irredentists time to divert Lois/Laoighise’s orbit so it will travel with the Saorstat Erseann cluster and not the Anglian cluster. As even within clusters communication between worldlettes may be sparse, the plan might actually work.

The Irredentists believe that the Anglians will simply accept a fait accompli. They base this prediction on what they know of the Anglians of two generations past (the last time the orbits of the Erse and Anglian clusters passed near each other). But young King Charles will not accept the affront. Despite the fact the Irredentists have no official sanction from their government (in fact, are a rogue band of extremists), Charles will almost certainly declare war on Erse. Thanks to the minimum necessary technological level needed to settle the Belt, it will be a nuclear war.

Enter the Mercury Girl. At first, it seems that the unwelcome visitors will not be able to avert the war or end the invasion,. Captain Radhakrishnan tries and finds himself behind bars. It’s up Engineer Knud Axel Syrup, Teutonophile Martian bartender Sarmishkidu, and Emily Croft, a girl as pretty as she is daffy, to confound the Irredentists and save two clusters from apocalypse.

 ~oOo~

Why this novel? Oktoberfest, I felt I should review an SF novel in which beer plays a significant role, and I reviewed the other SF novel I own in which beer plays a significant role last year. And this novel not only has beer, but it features a Martian wearing lederhosen. If only it were one of Poul Anderson’s good novels.

Remember funny ethnic characters? They used to be a comedic mainstay. Well, this book is chockfull of them. They have broad accents and absurd names; they embody what were intended as hilarious ethnic stereotypes1. There are easily excited, eternally resentful Irish and very proper British (inexplicably Jacobites). Not to mention one beer- and bicycle-obsessed Dane. It was a more innocent time in the early sixties, when an author could have his space Irish call their converted freighter the Dies l.R.A.

I often complain about the absence of women from Anderson’s books, but by Klono’s tungsten teeth and curving carballoy claws, Emily Croft shows that there are worse options than absence. She is aggressively ditzy.

I mean, dear old Sarmishkidu and I could hand you your spanner and your ape wrench and your abacus or whatever that long thin calculating thing is called, just as well as Mr. Groggins down at the sweet shop, (…)

And contrary to the claim above, Mr. Groggins might have been a better choice, as Emily is an equal opportunity hindrance to all she encounters. The unfortunate Major Rory McConnell of the Shamrock League Irredentist Expeditionary Force’s makes two great errors; capturing Emily and falling in love with her, ensuring that he will never escape her. Yet nobody minds the ditziness because Emily is very pretty.

(I think on a subconscious level she capitalizes on her goofiness, because at one crucial moment she weaponizes it. On purpose, I mean.)

Still, let’s make a purse from this sow’s ear.

Firstly, the sequence of cunning plans (each foiled by bad luck or by the Irredentists, who are not the complete idiots their vaudeville accents suggest) is amusing enough. Syrup is forced to come up with scheme after scheme, using increasingly meagre resources, until he is down to some kegs of beer — remember, I picked this because beer plays a role in the plot? — and a talking bird.

Secondly, the fact that this was even published (first in Astounding) is ample demonstration that publication was almost guaranteed if the author embraced one or more of John W. Campbell’s hobbyhorses. In this case, it’s the reactionless drive, always a good way to get onto the cover of the magazine.


Anderson’s gyrogravitics owes less to Campbell’s Dean Drive and more to Jack Williamson’s Seetee Ship’s paragravity. Gyrogravitics makes it possible to zip from world to world on the cheap; it also makes inexpensive terraforming2 possible.

Many fictional colonized asteroid belts enjoy unitary governments. Anderson rejects that for a far more plot-friendly balkanized asteroid belt, where not only is each cluster of terraformed home to its own, independent collection of fruitcakes and wingnuts, but each cluster’s neighbours change according to orbital dynamics. For some reason, this approach has never been popular among SF writers; Pournelle’s 1974 Those Pesky Belters and Their Torchships proposes something similar. (Influence or independent invention? Dunno. I cannot recall if Pournelle ever cites Anderson.)

It’s pity Anderson wasted the basic idea on this comedic Fenian Raids3 IN SPAAACE! There’s a lot of plot potential in a setting that could potentially have a hundred thousand — wait, no — nearly a million4 terraformed asteroids within a few weeks or months travel of each other. I hope some day another author takes advantage of it.

The Makeshift Rocket is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: The main exception is Captain Radhakrishnan, whose only real distinguishing features are a monocle and a weakness for allowing righteous indignation to overcome caution.

2: In fact, the word terraforming comes from one of Williamson’s Seetee stories.

3: “Fenian Raids?” asks everyone who is not a Canadian or possibly Irish. The Fenian Raids were an attempt by Irish nationalists to steal Canada so they could trade it for Ireland. This didn’t work, but it failed by a lot less than you would expect from “rag-tag rebels attempt to heist an entire god-damned country.” The Raids helped inspire the Canadian colonies of Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia to band together as the nation of Canada. Which was different from the colony of Canada, which was previously the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada and later on, as Canadians belatedly acquired a feeble grasp of the utility of unique placenames, became the provinces Ontario and Quebec.

4: Science marched on: there are more asteroids thought to be around than were when I was a kid. Assuming you want at minimum a 1 km rock, there are thought to be 750,000 of them, The numbers go up as size goes down:

Diameter

Number

100 m

~25,000.000

300 m

4,000,000

500 m

2,000,000

1 km

750,000

3 km

200,000

5 km

90,000

10 km

10,000

30 km

1,100

50 km

600

100 km

200

200 km

30

300 km

5

500 km

3

900 km

 1


Of course, small communities are by their nature vulnerable but hey, what you call “almost certain doom thanks to vagaries of fortune and scant resources,” I call “a rich source of plot ideas.”


Comments

  • Eldri Littlewolf

    I cannot recall if Pournelle ever cites Anderson.

    I do not know that either - - I Do know they hung out together in the SCA, later on... the friendship Could date back to the time this was written

  • David Goldfarb

    When I read the first paragraph, I thought, "Shouldn't that be 'A Bicycle Built for Brew', not 'A Spaceship...'?" And you helpfully included the Astounding cover, which indeed has the correct title right on it.

  • DriveBy

    I am significantly more outraged by the idea "Laoighise" is pronounced "Lois" (it's Lee-sha) than by the idea we'd name a ship the Dies I.R.A.

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