Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • A collection of seven short stories
  • Published by Granada
  • Published in 1981
  • Military SF
  • 250 pages

There has always been war, and war will always be. But as humanity heads for the stars, what form will war take? What will be done to achieve victory, and what will be the price of peace . . ?

Poul Anderson is someone on that incredibly long list of names that I feel I should have read by now, but for some reason haven’t. I’ve seen his books in used bookshops for years now, but only this year did I find one that appealed enough to make me pick it up. The reasoning for that is quite simple. The other books of his I’ve seen are largely fantasies, and fantasy from that early period doesn’t really appeal to me. Conquests, however, could hardly be more appealing. It’s an early example of military SF, and not just the action kind, but the kind that really goes into the nitty-gritty ideals of war. That sort of thematic involvement is always going to pull me. Plus it was a lovingly battered (and therefore cheap) copy I laid eyes on, so I was powerless to resist.

The opening story ‘Kings Who Die’ very much sets the tone for the collection. It follows a single soldier caught up in an interplanetary war. Surprisingly, the flashbacks in this story are well-handled, and didn’t pull me out like they so often do. We first get the broad strokes of the conflict, then a more personal account of how and why the soldiers fight. There are two classic science fictional elements at work here – cyborgs and mind control – but they both feed into the same theme. The idea that war dehumanises the soldiers who fight it. Clearly, it is easier to kill a man when you see him as something other than human, and propaganda plays a large role in conflict, but at the same time, reducing your own soldiers to nothing more than mindless tools of the state carries its own dangers.

‘Inside Straight’ is more in line with an espionage thriller, in which the idea of risk assessment is taken in a bold new direction. Here we see a planet where everyone is a masterful gambler, and cheating is considered the ultimate taboo. We follow a spy tasked with determining how easy it would be to invade, but the question soon becomes one of who is playing who? Given how war is essentially gambling with the lives of millions, seeing that idea played straight is a great take. As always, not being a gambler myself (my knowledge begins and ends with pazaak), there’s bound to be some allusions I’m missing, but it remains my favourite story in the collection.

These two stories are great, and the majority of the others are strong too. ‘Wildcat’ is a perfectly functional time war narrative, ‘Cold Victor’ is a fairly standard piece of action told with a neat twist. ‘Details’ takes a secret history approach to humanity’s long history of war. The final two stories, ‘License’ and ‘Strange Bedfellows’ end the collection on a weaker note, but bring the overall theme home safely. And really, what short story collection doesn’t have a weak link in there somewhere?

On a pure enjoyment level, this is realistically a three star collection. I’m giving it an extra star for two reasons. Firstly, because star ratings are essentially meaningless anyway and I want more people to read this book. But secondly because it is thematically very strong. Anderson’s foreword says it all, really. War is a horrible thing, and a flaw for which humanity has no remedy. But sometimes war is necessary. And until we can all agree on peace, war is something we have to give thought to. You won’t find answers in these seven stories, but you might well start asking the right questions.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
Interstellar Empire, by John Brunner
The Worlds of H. Beam Piper, edited by John F. Carr
Clash by Night, by Henry Kuttner

One response to “BOOK REVIEW: Conquests, by Poul Anderson”

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