Review of Shield by Poul Anderson
Poul Anderson, a popular science fiction author who wrote in the mid twentieth century, published his dystopian novel Shield in 1963. Ironically, the piece is set in Anderson’s projection of 2012, in which there are flying cars, cities that span entire coasts of the United States, and 3D televisions. The historical context is a post-nuclear-war America torn by drastic class divisions and ruled by a new military division (the “MS”) designed to regulate and control all weapons and anti-American sentiments across the globe.
We follow Koskinen, a young astronaut recently returned to this futuristic America from a mission to Mars. Koskinen is book smart with little knowledge of the real world, giving Anderson a great forum in which to demonstrate his own views of both Cold War America and the nature of government at large, which he does at every opportunity, using imagery, characterization, etc. At one critical point, Anderson uses a discussion of political philosophy that resembles in some ways Dostoevsky’s commentary on morality in Crime and Punishment, albeit more exciting as Anderson has raised the stakes.
What makes Koskinen particularly special in this socio-political context is that he has brought back from Mars a piece of technology that renders its user invulnerable to any weapons except radiation from nuclear bombs. He is the sole possessor of this equipment and is the only person who knows how to make it. Every major political power in the world is after this device. Especially the major powers inside the United States. Post-fallout warlords, MS, and political extremists all vie for this perceived weapon and will stop at nothing to obtain it. Koskinen is not only caught between them but must decide what must be done with the device himself or face death at the hands of any of these three groups.
Koskinen is particularly naïve because beyond his formal education, he has never lived in the real world; after his PhD, he spends five years communing with the Martians in their ideal society, one focused on the pursuits of peace and knowledge. With this background, Anderson paints what he sees as a perfect civilization: no aggression, no power struggles, no bureaucracy, and no greed. But he expresses it as alien, admitting that his ideals are lofty and unattainable.
Through the warlords, Anderson demonstrates a world ruled by both culture and savagery, a world at times reminiscent of Heart of Darkness and heartily modeled on flagrant despotism. The MS are an equivalent to the Soviet KGB or a milder version of the Gestapo: they are clandestine, power-hungry, and merciless. And they will do anything they can in the name of national security, making Anderson’s highly negative depiction of this group a strong commentary on several of America’s Cold War policies. Political extremists, the Egalitarians, are fleshed out in far more detail through a political philosopher who meets with Koskinen. Anderson indicates through their encounter what he believes is perhaps the best system possible for humanity, considering human nature. Yet again, he demonstrates his ideal as unattainable, this time through the well developed character of a post-Soviet revolutionary who relates the evils that can occur during political transition.
While the potential for romance between Koskinen and a newfound compatriot exists, Vivienne, it does not develop until far into the book, demonstrating Anderson’s considerable focus on the political issues on hand as Vivienne cares more for the fate of Koskinan’s shield than the future of their relationship. Their relationship is complicated and ultimately plays a role in Koskinen’s ability to understand his own political and moral sentiments.
Anderson may not be George Orwell, but his anti-Cold War sentiments and concerns for America’s political future are still clear and well communicated. And while Orwell is perhaps the better author, Anderson has a reasonable command of language:
“[the city] bulked black against a sky where aircraft moved like glittering midges”
“The furnishings were low-legged, Oriental, centered about a pedestal that upheld a lovely piece of uncut Lunar crystal.”
“His face was older than his athletic gait, with skin drawn tight over broad cheekbones and beaky nose but deeply lines around mouth and eyes.”
His discussion of Jefferson’s policies, eighteenth century French political issues, and the famed Federalist Papers within the text suggest that Anderson is, at the very least, well read in major political theory.
Shield may not be the greatest work of science fiction or dystopian political commentary, but Anderson’s intriguing plot and well-characterized groups and individuals makes for a compelling and quick read that will leave you contemplating the nature of current politics and the nature of American government.