Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Circus of Hells [Amazon] by Poul Anderson.
I had read some of author Anderson’s fantasy novels before, but never his science fiction, and I note that A Circus of Hells is the second of a series of something like ten Terran Empire novels with the protagonist Dominic Flandry. I was motivated to pick it up by the jacket copy, which described an “infernal chess game on a forsaken moon” with pieces that were “strange, inhuman creatures…controlled by a deranged and brilliant computer brain.” I was hoping for a further spin on the living chess trope that is central to ERB’s Chessmen of Mars, and stems originally from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Unfortunately, the chess adventure was over by the end of the eighth chapter out of twenty.
Far more important than the AI-driven robot chess game were the various intrigues with the human-rivalling Merseian race, and the exotic climate and native intelligences of the far-flung planet Talwin. The scenario and various emphases of the narrative reminded me of the SF role-playing game Traveller, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Anderson’s Terran Empire books were inspirational for the game authors.
While a lot of the astronomical information seemed pretty up-to-date for science fiction written circa 1970, and the xenobiological ideas were fairly inventive, the galactic imperial setting was much like many written twenty years earlier. I was especially disappointed to find Anderson assuming the survival of Roman Catholicism basically unchanged into humanity’s interstellar far future. The conventional Christian piety of the prostitute Djana was an element I found difficult to credit, and it was quite integral to her character and her role in the progress of the story.
In any case, I found the book as a whole short and quick-moving, but insufficiently interesting for me to seek out any further volumes.