Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Earthman's Burden by Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson

I was browsing around the internet bookstores and stumbled across this one as a recommendation, but I worried. This was touted as funny and laugh-out-loud, but I had been fooled before. Would this be the case? With trepidation I started the first chapter, which is really the first story of six. It was OK, then I got to the second story and all worries were flushed down the drain. The lines that hooked me:
The smallest Hoka when rigid as a board and, holding his stance, toppled over backward to land with a thud. Stiff on the carpet, he opened one beady black eye.
"I fainted," he explained, and closed it again. (p. 56)
While this may not qualify as a laugh-out-loud moment, it was moment I was caught and knew I would enjoy the rest of the book and did I.

There are six stories revolving around these teddy bear like creatures called Hokas and their plenipotentiary, Alexander Jones, who is the one who rediscovered them after he crashed lands on Toka, the Hokas' home planet. An expedition found the Hokas earlier and left them some Western stereofilms. It appears the Hokas are highly intelligent and quick to adapt and also have a very high opinion of humans, almost to the point of hero worship. The Hokas also like to drink this potent alcohol which only the strongest of humans can sustain without losing all their wits. Alex imbibes a little too much sometimes. Alex thinks the Hokas take their adapting a little too well because every time they watch or read something, they act it out quite convincingly and if the person doesn't play along, the Hokas continue with the charade and make excuses for the person or exclaim how brilliant the person is. Personally, I think the Hokas take their fun seriously and Alex should just learn to play along. But I'm not Alex nor the authors. The stories are pretty much independent of one another except for Alex's job title, relationship status, and passage of time. To kind of fill-in, each story is sandwiched with letters to/from officials regarding Alex and the Hokas.

The first story is titled "The Sheriff of Canyon Gulch." It begins with Alex wandering around Toka and gives a little background into Alex and the planet Toka. Two cowboy Hokas, Tex and Monty, find Alex and decide to take him to see Slick the gambler, because everybody knows the gambler runs the town and the sheriff is the dumbest person in the whole town. Alex succeeds in becoming the sheriff, but later he gets promoted to gambler through a series of accidents. In real life, he becomes in charge of looking after the Hokas' welfare.

The second story, "Don Jones," starts with Alex and his love, Tanni, saying good-bye as Alex has to work that evening. Tanni is described as being incredibly beautiful and extremely jealous of anyone coming near her Alex. This has much to play later. Dory, a coworker of Alex, took the Hokas to see an opera earlier, titled "Don Giovanni" aka "Don Juan." Naturally, the Hokas are quick to absorb this story and act it out. The Hoka playing Leporello keeps hinting about Alex's seducing the women while trying to hide Alex's identity from the Hoka playing Don Ottavio. This scenario and Hoka liquor do not bode well for Alex, his girlfriend, coworker, and boss who all think Alex is a lying, low-down, cheating snake. However, once the scenario is played out by Don Ottavio discovering Alex's identity as Don Juan, the Hokas resume everyone's normal identity.

The third story finds Alex back on Toka, now the plenipotentiary and newly married to Tanni, "In Hoka Signo Vinces." The title is actually taken from a Latin rendition of a Greek phrase "in hoc signo vinces" which translates "in this [sign] you will conquer" (courtesy of Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_hoc_signo_vinces). In this adventure, some Hokas have been watching the equivalent of TV due to Tanni's allowing them to become couch teddy bears. She assures Alex she put on the child safety protocols so they can only get the children's show. Why do they think this will prevent Hokas from getting into trouble? Meanwhile, Alex is a little concerned about the Pornians because they've built a little dreadnaught and are testing it close to him. Turns out the Hokas like the show Tom Bracken and the Space Patrol. In their eagerness to live this space fantasy to the fullest, they've taken Alex's space boat and modified it for their adventure. Pretty soon, "Off they go into the vacuum yonder…" (p. 70) taking Alex with them. To add to Alex's horror and dismay, they run across the Pornian's dreadnaught. For some reason, the highly superior dreadnaught is no match for the Hoka Space Patrol Ship Number One. The Hokas manage to convince the Pornians they are from the Space Patrol here to secure the galaxy. Alex uses the Pornian's confusion and fear to get them to dismantle their dreadnaught and never build another one.

In the fourth story, Alex is enjoying some peace on Toka and in space when "The Adventure of the Misplaced Hound" begins, but that can't last long. Whitcomb Geoffrey shows up to shatter the peace. He informs Alex of a drug dealer who might be hiding out on Toka, presumably in the Victorian London section. Apparently, the Hokas got a hold of Sherlock Holmes and are playing it to the hilt. The go to the Hokan Scotland Yard and meet Lestrade who immediately refers them to Sherlock Holmes. Upon arrival, Holmes deduces who Geoffrey really is and who he works for, Alex is deduced as Watson. Holmes displays some very good techniques and encourages Gregson (Geoffrey) to take notes, one quirk Holmes has is measuring things for some reason. Gregson feels the whole thing is nonsense and decides to employ Lestrade in a search mission while Holmes and Watson hunt down the Hound of the Baskerville, who just happens to be the drug dealer they're looking for. There is one scene where Watson catches Holmes using his seven percent solution (drugs). Watson is aghast until Holmes explains he's requisitioned the drug, but they haven't sent it so he uses water. There are several interesting things in this story that relate to the Hokan society. Holmes mentions when they went through the naming of the Hokas, the Hoka who was declared Sir Henry Baskerville had a fit because he didn't want to be cursed. I think this shows a level of organization that Alex overlooks. Also, Holmes reveals Geoffrey's real identity. This shocks Alex, but it doesn't make him to draw any conclusion that Hoka's really know what's going on, they just pretend for their own amusement. Naturally, this one's my favorite.

In the fifth story, "Yo Ho Hoka!" Alex starts off in trouble as the Hokas have turned pirate in Old England (not to be confused with the Victorian Great Britain of the last story). Alex boards the HMS Incompatible to talk to Lord Nelson about this trouble, but he decides to use a disguise of a green beard, later making him the Captain Greenbeard. While aboard the ship, the Hokas are a little put off because they're lost thanks to Captain Yardley and none of them have been keelhauled or walked the plank or any of the fun seafaring things. Alex throws one of the Hokas overboard thus inciting a mutiny and throwing them into piracy. They hang the old captain (Hokas have strong neck muscles and can't be killed by hanging) and make Greenbeard their new captain. They sail to Tortuga and meet with the other pirates and Greenbeard becomes the new lead pirate with the pirates wanting to plunder a city which takes Alex further from his goal of showing how playing pirate is not fun. He tries to lose the other pirate ships, but they won't have none of that. Alex decides the only thing for him to do is fight and defeat Greenbeard. When he does this, the Hokas lament they never wanted this to happen. Alex tells them they can plunder the village once a year as long as there's no bloodshed and the pirates must return the loot the next day. To which the Hokas agree with the mayor saying "Why should there be (bloodshed)" and Captain Hook exclaiming "What d'ye think we are - theives?" (p. 154). One would think as long as Alex has been hanging around the Hokas (it's been years now), he would know the Hokas would never hurt anyone and they do seem a little surprised they have to tell him this.

In the sixth and final story, "The Tiddlywink Warriors," Tanni crash lands on the planet Telko not known for it's hospitality, in fact, it's quite the opposite. However, they really like Tanni and are feeding her tons of food and she's gaining tons of weight. Alex is also undergoing an audit and can't get the guy inspecting him to send for help. He seeks out the Hokas to help them save his wife, but ends up joining the Hoka French Foreign Legion. After he learns he can be thrown out of the Legion, but he can desert, he plans to do exactly that. Because Alex joined the Legion, all his property is now their property and they bring over his spaceship to keep their liquor cold. Alex uses his ship to go on a lost patrol and his entire unit joins him. Once they land on Telko, the natives take to fighting them. Luckily, the atmosphere is not too friendly on Hoka liquor and the bottles explode, thus winning the battle, saving his wife, and getting a Hokan medal out of the ordeal. He finally comes to terms that he's the only one who should look after the Hokas and they might be smarter than he gave them credit for.

The book ends with Alex writing a letter explaining his intention of bringing a Hoka to Earth for sightseeing and evaluation. The Hokas have a different idea as noted in the last page as a memo from the Chief to Operative X-7 which I love the following lines "Stand by for further orders." The next item in the memo "Further orders." I don't know if I would want a Hoka, but I'd be willing they're fun to be with and I would like to visit their world for a while.

12 comments:

Amanda said...

I've got to say, this is the strangest description for a book I've heard for awhile. Little alive teddy bears?

So did you end up laughing a lot, like the recommendation said?

Christina said...

I think my review might have been longer than the book.

I found the Hokas very funny. I don't really laugh out loud, but I did smile a lot while reading this book and I adore the Hokas. Someone else might laugh into a coma. I think what separated this humor from the failed attempts is how the authors played it out. The Hokas didn't offer any wry social commentary. And while government was mocked many times, it wasn't the sole part of the story. I also didn't find any slapstick humor which can turn me off pretty quick. It's definitely not top of the literary chain, but I would put it down as a favorite read. There are a series of Hoka books (four in total), but I don't think there are any more Hoka stories as both authors are deceased.

hamilcar barca said...

oh, hokas sound cool! i thought they were a cheap rip-off of ewoks, but they pre-date Star Wars by several decades.

this calls for a trip to the library and/or used bookstore this weekend to look for Poul Anderson books.

Julie said...

"The Tiddlywink Warriors" - this reminds me of some toys called 'tiddlywinks' that my brothers had. They would build all kinds of things with them.
I like Ewoks so maybe I would like Hokas. And I wonder if I would just smile or laugh?
Nice review!

Jason Gignac said...

Irrelevant fact for the day - did you know that no character ever speaks the word 'Ewok' in Return of the Jedi? I have it on good authority, several people have painstakingly checked it...

Christina said...

Hokas are uber-cool. Maybe the Ewoks were derived from the Hokas. They're roughly the same size, however Hokas learn English rather quickly (even when the pick up other languages) and adapt even quicker. Oh, the fun I could have with a Hoka!

Jason Gignac said...

That sounds like a Dr. Seuss poem...

Oh, the fun I could have with a Hoka!
With a Hoka from Hokapaloo -
We would ride on camels of Mr. McDaniel
That only wear high-heeled shoes.
We would play games of ping-pong,
With monkey paw-paddles,
We would sing little songs
About suzie skedaddle...

hamilcar barca said...

that's awesome, Jason! any chance of an expanded version, posted on your blog?

Jason Gignac said...

Oh stars, I think that's about my quota on Seuss lyrics for the month...

hamilcar barca said...

that's a pity. i think you captured the essence of a Seuss verse quite nicely. and since both he and Shel Silverstein have passed on, this is a niche genre that needs an author.

i've never tried to write "Seussian", but i'm thinking it would be harder than it looks. it's got to appeal to both kids and adults, rhyme (for the most part), and have good meter.

OTOH, Suessian prose may be like Amanda's bane - airport novels. they may have a decent pay-out, but do you really want your literary legacy to be defined by them?

Anonymous said...

The only real question is whether George Lucas ripped off Hokas or H Beam Piper's Little Fuzzies when modelling ewoks.

Julie said...

Who really knows, Anonymous? It could be true that George Lucas had the idea from this book or not. Yet, it is now famously understand what an Ewok is rather than a Hoka or Little Fuzzy is, right? Perhaps, a combination of both. :) Thanks for reading!