Sunday, 11 May 2014

Wayland

Originally published on Poul Anderson Appreciation, 24 May 2012.

Wayland is an atmosphere-bearing, Luna-sized moon of the giant planet Regin which is in orbit five astronomical units from the newly condensed metal-rich blue giant star Mimir. Martian Minerals, Inc. mined Wayland from a robot base run by a consciousness-level computer. Five hundred years later, the base remains. Dominic Flandry investigates.

I find Anderson's account of Wayland somewhat unsatisfactory. As Flandry and his companion approach:

"...it was a mystery towards which they descended: where a complex of robots ought to have been at work, or at least passively waiting out the centuries, an inexplicable crisscross of lines drawn over a hundred square kilometres in front of the old buildings, and a traffic of objects like nothing ever seen except in bad dreams." (1)

Unusually for Anderson, he does not tell us what Flandry sees while Flandry is seeing it. Instead, he tells us that Flandry has already seen something disturbing but does not describe it. This could generate suspense, with the reader wondering what is to come. However, Flandry does not encounter anything very frightening. First, his spacecraft is attacked by winged, beaked, clawed, metal fliers. I acknowledge that these sound frightening but in the event they are too weak to damage even Flandry's small vessel and its guns easily destroy them. By sheer weight of numbers, they obscure his vision so that he crash lands in Wayland's half terrestrial gravity but this is an inconvenience rather than a disaster.

Next, he is attacked by about twenty metal "bugs", each thirty centimetres long with ten claw-footed legs, a tail ending in twin spikes and a head with half a dozen moving antennae but he destroys all of these with his blaster. He learns that fliers, bugs and other, e.g., dog-like, robots roam around fighting each other.


Crossing the immense squares near the computer centrum, Flandry's companion, Djana, is attacked by a lance-bearing equine robot which Flandry destroys. They pass near a robot like a tower with merlons which stays in its square, then are attacked by a diagonally moving cylinder with a partially split conical head. Flandry realises what is happening.  It was not immediately apparent because the computer had not needed to colour the squares or the pieces to identify them. However, there had been some hints for the reader: Flandry had applied Looking Glass terms ("rockinghorsefly"; "bread-and-butterfly") to the forms they had encountered.

Avoiding squares where they can be attacked, they reach the centrum where Flandry addresses the conscious computer which had passed the centuries by splitting its attention into at least one part playing combat games and two playing chess-with-combat.


Rather a lot of time has been taken up dodging or fighting robots before Flandry solves the puzzle. Anderson does not, as he might have, incorporate an actual game of chess into the plot. And, although the computer greets Flandry, there is no further dialogue between them. Surely Flandry and thus the reader should have been given the computer's account of its "...long and empty..." time alone on Wayland? (2) 


Flandry agrees with me. When in the centrum:


"What he learned fascinated him so much that he regretted not daring to spend time exploring in depth the history of these past five centuries on Wayland." (3)


Flandry's time is limited because his trip to Wayland is illicit but we could have been told the history. We are told that he learned about the chess game, e.g., that the kings were unarmed because they captured by divine right, and that he held technical discussions with the prime computer but we do not hear the computer's voice in these discussions although it had spoken briefly when first addressed. This is far too cursory. 


Flandry soon has urgent business elsewhere and the Wayland incident fits well into the novel but the incident itself deserved further attention.


(1) Anderson, Poul, A Circus Of Hells, London, 1978, p. 33.
(2) ibid., p. 68. 
(3) ibid., p. 69. 

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