How to Divide and Rule

Divide and Rule
L. Sprague de Camp
originally serialized in Uknown, April and May 1939

Unknown, arguably the greatest fantasy magazine after Weird Tales, did publish some science fiction during its run. Not too surprising given the editor was John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding Science Fiction.

Case in point, Divide and Rule by L. Sprague de Camp, who was an accomplished writer in both fantasy and science fiction. I enjoyed this one more than I have some of the other de Camp titles I’ve read in the last few years.

The story takes place a couple of hundred years in the future.  Earth has been subjugated by an alien race known as hoppers.  They’re a cross between a kangaroo and a rat.  After studying Earth’s history, they concluded that the best way to keep humanity from uniting was to divide them up into feudal territories.

unknown_193904The story opens with Sir Howard van Slyck traveling, if full plate armor, on what he believes will be one of his last trips before he has to settle down and assume the responsibilities of ruling the Dukedom of Poughkeepsie.  His older brother, the former heir, has recently been executed by the hoppers for the crime of scientific research.

It doesn’t take long before Sir Howard meets up with a visitor from Wyoming named Haas (think about it).  They rescue a young woman who has been kidnapped and return her home, becoming enlisted in a rebellion against the Hoppers.

There is a lot of sly humor in this story.  I’ve always preferred de Camp’s work at shorter lengths to his novels.  The last few de Camp novels I’ve read have seemed to me that he got bored about halfway through and simply kept writing until he had reached the required  word count and then quit.  L. Sprague de Camp has a reputation of having a dry wit, and it shows in much of his work.  Here the wit never flags, unlike what I’ve observed at longer works.

Divide and Rule holds up pretty well for having been published nearly 80 years ago.  Or maybe I’m just old enough to be able to overlook the lack of all the modern electronic devices in older science fiction.  The story moves along at a good clip.  The combat scenes, whether personal or between humans and hoppers, are well choreographed without reading like a blow-by-blow description.  The characters are unique individuals, some serious, some slightly quirky, but by and large appealing.

unknown_193905_v1_n3One thing you notice when you read much of de Camp’s work is how he puts his scientific background to use.  His aliens are well thought out, although I thought the gimmick he used for the humans to defeat them was stretching things a bit.  Considering the lengths he went to justify it, I suspect de Camp did as well.

Divide and Rule was an enjoyable little book.  (I read it as half of a Tor Double, the other half being Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon.)  I’m not aware of many writers these days who write in the vein of L. Sprague de Camp.  This is a good place to sample some of his science fiction.

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