1969’s Hour of the Horde is a standalone science fiction novel by Gordon R. Dickson.
Polio cost Miles Vander the use of an arm but did not dent his determination. He insists on recreating himself as an artist. So far, his efforts have come to naught. His doting girlfriend suspects that his surly isolation is to blame. Miles disagrees.
The looming alien invasion may make these differences of opinion moot.
The Silver Horde is vast enough to lay waste to entire galaxies; it consumes all in its path. Worlds unlucky enough to find themselves in the path of the Horde take millions of years to recover. The last time the Horde visited the Milky Way, Earth was seemingly overlooked. It may not be so lucky this time.
Although humanity is too backward to offer any hope of resistance, the highly advanced aliens living in the core of the galaxy, the Center Aliens, believe they may be able to fend off the Horde. Although human technology is pitiful compared to the Core Aliens, humans may play a small but marginally useful role. In case this is so, the Core Aliens offer humanity the opportunity to send a champion to the battle to come. The Core Aliens select Miles as the human most suitable for their needs.
While Miles may be special, uniquely able to form an empathic bond with all humanity, the Core Aliens see him as just another hopelessly emotional barbarian who will of course be unable to master their super-science weapons. He is consigned to the ship set aside for the other barbarian races of the humanoid sort. He and his companions are the reserve; there to be used if needed, but not expected to play an active role.
All the beings on the Fighting Rowboat, as they have mockingly named their spacecraft, are bitterly disappointed to discover that their role is to serve as psychic amplifiers, not warriors. They amuse themselves by engaging in pointless fights to establish a meaningless pecking order.
Only Miles has the vision to see what they could be if they worked together. To turn his vision into reality, he will have to fight his way to the top of the pecking order. Tall order, given the physical abilities of the other beings on the Fighting Rowboat.
Even if he succeeds, it may all come to naught. Not only are the weapons on the Fighting Rowboat unlike anything anyone on it has ever seen, the Center Aliens are above mere emotion. If their computer models tell them they will lose, they will not waste their lives on a futile battle with the Horde. Instead, they will simply flee, to rebuild as their ancestors did a million years before. It is a logical response to the situation, but one that will utterly doom humanity.
The Center Aliens are the humans’ only source of information about the Horde. Nothing we see necessarily contradicts their story; also, it would be a bit out of character for Dickson to have the Center Aliens have lied through their teeth to get the barbarians onside. Still …
It’s odd to think that as recently as 1969 it was believable to have an American protagonist who had been maimed by polio as a youth. True, by 19611 there were fewer than 200 cases in the US, but 200 is not zero. It’s even odder to think it might be true again in the near future. But perhaps we can at least hope all the other diseases whose return anti-vaxxers are facilitating will distract us from occasional polio cases.
This is a classic old-time SF novel, the sort where humans turn out to have very special gifts that trump advanced technology and physical prowess. One gift is blind stubbornness. Ironically, given the steps Miles takes to distance himself from others before the book begins, so are emotions and empathy. The Core Aliens are pretty darn smart, but their lack of emotion leaves them stagnant, doomed to fade away. In the author’s opinion, as expressed by Miles:
“So that’s why we’ll be taking over the galaxy from them,” he went on. “Because from that moment on, they’ll have begun to die — somewhere in their race consciousness — just like any prehistoric species that took the wrong evolutionary road and finally came up against something it couldn’t handle.”
The aliens on the Fighting Rowboat are strong and fast, but only Miles has the vision and blind obstinacy to do what needs to be done.
It’s a relief to encounter a book where “what needs to be done” is teamwork, not filling mass graves with the undeserving. Miles is an arrogant fellow who freely makes decisions for those around him (which is going to make his marriage just peachy for his wife2), but if the Horde can be dealt with, his to-do list includes maintaining contact with the other barbarian races of the Milky Way, not retreating into glorious isolation. His ultimate purpose in bringing the barbarian races together isn’t to do some Genghis-Khan-style subjugation of the Milky Way, but something far more creative. Miles may be hard to get along with but he’s no evil space weasel.
This isn’t exactly a classic, but I would not be terribly surprised to discover that it had influenced both Glen Cook’s Starfishers series and David Weber’s Dahak series.
If you wondered what the recently reviewed Space Opera might have been like had the book been utterly humourless and had been about fighting off a ravening horde of evil space weasels and not winning a musical competition, this is the book for you!
As far as I can tell, Hour of the Horde is out of print.
1: I don’t know when this is set. Miles seems to think there are only two billion people in the world, which would make the date about 1930, but it is possible that Miles, not having the benefit of the net, got the figure wrong. Or it could be that this was a typo and that Dickson meant three billion.
2: It’s best not to read Dickson for the romance subplots.