Swashbuckling Tour Guide

The Hostage of Zir — L. Sprague de Camp
Krishna, book 4


L. Sprague de Camp’s 1977 novel The Hostage of Zir is part of de Camp’s Viagens Interplanetarias series, his attempt to come up with a swords and blasters setting that made sense.

Relativistic flight gave humans access to the nearer stars, many of which had habitable worlds. Most of the worlds also had native inhabitants. While some of these alien worlds were as technologically sophisticated as Earth, the natives of worlds like Tau Ceti’s Krishna and Epsilon Eridani’s Kukulkan were comparatively primitive. The Interplanetary Council instituted strict limits on the importation of advanced technology to these backward worlds. Given that supposedly civilized peoples, Americans and Russians, had already devastated the Earth’s northern hemisphere, the IC did not want to find out just what primitives might do with such powerful weapons.

Contact and trade are still allowed, within the limits of the law. Many Terrans have ventured out of the port city of Novorecife, on Krishna, to explore that diverse and interesting world. Several of them lived long enough to return. Now Krishna is going to be opened to broader tourism … which may prove unfortunate for Krishnans and tourists alike

Fergus Reith had no intention of resuming his career as a tour guide, nor did he have any desire to lead the first party of human tourists across Krishna. His employer, the Magic Carpet Tour Company, insisted; after the intended guide was injured, of all of the company’s employees, only Fergus had right combination of skills and lack of ties to Earth. So it is that he finds himself in charge of twelve poorly disciplined tourists, twelve light years from home. Outside the walls of the IC enclave, the visitors are on their own. Few of the tourists have the sense God gave a goose, so Fergus has his hands full keeping himself and his clients alive.

Fergus’s problems can be divided into two broad categories: 1) problems caused by his charges’ misbehavior (which ranges from voracious sexual proclivities to a casual disregard for local mores), and 2) problems caused by ambitious or greedy local princes, bandits, and priestesses. The tourists have a tendency to wander blithely into danger (although by the time they all end up as hostages of a local warlord, they begin to grasp that this world is not as safe as civilized Earth). Fergus has his own problems: the Krishnans expect him to father a god….

All the Viagens stories set on Krishna have a Z in the title. I believe this was a memory aid for de Camp..

Another note: As plucky and capable as Fergus is, I think the cover artist has taken liberties.

De Camp was enough of an old-school SF author that his Mars has Martians. However, he had learned enough about the solar system that he could not write stories in which humans could easily live on Mars, not to mention Venus, Mercury or the various moons of the Solar System. Rather than embrace implausibly habitable worlds in the Solar System, de Camp placed them in other stellar systems. He also couldn’t bring himself to believe in faster-than-light travel. Interstellar contact is limited by light speed, which as a side effect means that conventional forms of imperialism are impossible. There’s no way for Brazil (or its analogues on other worlds) to run affairs on Krishna, given the quarter century it takes information and travelers to get to Tau Ceti and back.

De Camp was a fairly cynical fellow. His IC isn’t limiting Krishnan and Kukulkan access to hi-tech for noble reasons. It is operating in simple self-interest, as noted previously. The author also realized that any technological embargo is destined to be temporary, although whether or not the IC does is an interesting question. Now that the Krishnans know that hi-tech is possible, they can figure out how to bootstrap themselves from primitivism to the comforts of civilization. Some of them are doing just that. I’ve always been curious what the legacy of IC’s treatment of Krishna and Kukulkan would be, once those worlds had time to catch up with Earth and Osiris.

It was never clear to me if de Camp had ever advanced any explanation for the multitude of habitable worlds to be found in the region of space around Sol, nor why these worlds had tech that was either earth-like, or a only a few millennia less advanced. Thoth and Osiris are in frequent contact with each other, so it makes sense that they’re at a comparable level of development. Why Earth is roughly comparable is never explained, nor is it clear why the primitive worlds are as advanced as they are. There seems to be a smaller tech gap between worlds separated by light years than there was, in pre-industrial times, between terrestrial continents separated only by seas.

LeGuin explains shared tech between otherwise highly diverse worlds by Hainish tinkering. De Camp may not have seen the need to explain anything.

De Camp wanted Planet-Stories-style swashbuckling and torrid romances. Therefore the Krishnans are humanoid, attractive, and sexually compatible; cross-species assignations are possible and sometimes desirable. At least de Camp realized that there’s no way for humans and Krishnans to interbreed. He accepted some limits on plausibility. Indeed, the impossibility of interbreeding is a major plot point.

I had lived in Brazil a few years before this was published. When I read this book, I found it interesting that Brazil was chosen to be THE world power of the future. However, aside from the use of Portuguese, there’s really not much that’s Brazilian about de Camp’s Viagens; you could replace his 21st and 22nd century Brazil with the US and not have to change much. An inability to see outside his own culture that was in no way unique to de Camp.

The various tourists in this are fairly stock types (The Angry Black Woman, the Hot Blooded Couple, Those Two Gay Guys [1]). If you’ve ever seen the 1969 movie If This is Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, you know the sort of clueless tourists with whom the long-suffering tour guide must cope. (At least the tour guide in the movie never had to fight a duel with a local prince to keep her herd of idiots alive, as does Fergus.) I’ve never done this sort of tourism myself; my parents were willing to let us kids wander off to explore the favellas and jungles of Brazil all on our own. However, I know that people really do head off to visit other places without bothering to do any research beforehand, or stopping to consider just how they might need to moderate their own behavior once there [2].

I was going to comment that, for a guy who was born in 1907, de Camp’s attitudes towards sex seemed surprisingly modern (even taking into account that this book is a product of 1977) … but then I realized that made him three years younger than my grandmother, and compared to her, his views are nothing remarkable. Nonetheless, there is still something of a double standard here: Fergus has a talent for falling penis-first into the various women he encounters and nobody thinks the worse of him for it. When a female tourist does something similar, she gets called a nympho.

I picked this Viagens book for review not because it is my favourite (it wasn’t and it’s still not) but because it happened to be my first Viagens book. It gave the teen me an anthropological thrill [3]: I found Krishna the world more interesting than the story de Camp told about it.

I suspect from the comparative paucity of reprints that this wasn’t many people’s favourite de Camp. There does seem to be a Gateway edition over in Blighty but North Americans will have to check used bookstores. Happily, print runs in the 1970s were huge, so some copies should still exist.

1: Unfortunately, the particular Stock Figures de Camp used have not aged gracefully.

2: Before letting us head into the jungle, my father provided us with general pointers on how to deal with snake bite. That’s parenting! It’s kind of funny that it was my father who nearly lost a foot, not any of us.

As it turned out, the venomous snakes of the region were pretty reclusive. It was the social insects and the trichomes of certain local plants of which we needed to be wary. Oh, and there was one brightly coloured tree frog that one really, really didn’t want to touch with a bare hand.

(You might think comparatively rich kids wandering through a slum is a bad idea but actually, people were pretty hospitable.)

3: Regarding de Camp’s possible sources of inspiration:

The situation on Krishna looks like polycentrism dialed up to eleven. There’s long been a connection between the Astounding/Analog branch of SF and a proponent of the polycentric model of human origins named Carleton S. Coon [4] and since de Camp cited Coon in later works, I figured that Coon had to have been the inspiration for Krishna. After having spent a lot more time looking at publication dates then I envisioned when I drafted the first version of this footnote, I think it’s more likely that when de Camp first conceived of Krishna, the anthropologist whose work was bouncing around in the back of his head was Franz Weidenreich. The first Krishna story dates back to 1949 and I think that’s just a bit early for Coon. Also, de Camp referenced Weidenreich in his 1949 story, “Throwback.”

4: Indeed, not only did Coon write an introduction to this anthology, in 2008, former Analog editor Ben Bova dedicated a novel to and named a character for Coon.

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