The Man Who Counts
Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson

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The Man Who Counts


science fiction

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The Man Who Counts
originally published as War of the Wingmen

Copyright © 1958 by Ace Books
Introduction copyright © 1978 by Poul Anderson


Planet-building is one of the joyous arts, if you have that sort of mind. The object is to construct a strange world which is at the same time wholly consistent, not only with itself but with what science knows of such matters. Any extra-scientific assumptions you make for story purposes—e.g., faster-than-light travel—should not be necessary to the world itself. So, taking a star of a given mass, you calculate how luminous it must be, how long the year is of a planet in a given orbit around it, how much irradiation that planet gets, and several more things. (Of course, I simplify here, since you ought also to take account of the star’s age, its chemical composition, etc.) These results will be basically influential on surface features of the planet, kind of life it bears, evolution of that life, and so on endlessly. There is no rigid determinism: at any given stage, many different possibilities open up. However, those which you choose will in their turn become significant parameters at the next stage . . . until at last, perhaps, you get down to the odor of a flower and what it means to an alien individual.

I was saved from making one grievous error, by my wife. Looking over my proposed life cycle of the Diomedeans, she exclaimed, “Hey, wait, you have the females flying thousands of miles each year while they’re the equivalent of seven months pregnant. It can’t be done. I know.” I deferred to the voice of experience and redesigned. As I have remarked elsewhere, planet-building ought to be good therapy for the kind of mental patient who believes he’s God.


Wace reflected grimly that evolution was too flexible. Here you had a planet with oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon, sulfur . . . a protein biochemistry forming genes, chromosomes, cells, tissues . . . protoplasm by any reasonable definition . . . and the human who tried to eat a fruit or steak from Diomedes would be dead ten minutes later of about fifty lethal allergic reactions. These just weren’t the right proteins.




“Were I younger, yes, by good St. George, I would fight on general principles. Single-handed I would take him apart and play a xylophone on his ribs, and try to bluster his whole nation into helping me. But now I am too old and fat and tired. It is hard to be old, my boy—”

He wrinkled his sloping forehead and nodded in a wise fashion. “But, where there are enemies to bid against each other, that is where an honest trader has a chance to make a little bit profit!”


“Bah! Details! I am not an engineer. Engineers I hire. My job is not to do what is impossible, it is to make others do it for me.”


In many ways, the Drak’honai were closer to the human norm than the Lannachska. Their masterserf culture was a natural consequence of economics: given only neolithic tools, a raft big enough to support several families represented an enormous capital investment. It was simply not possible for disgruntled individuals to strike out on their own; they were at the mercy of the State. In such cases, power always concentrates in the hands of aristocratic warriors and intellectual priesthoods; among the Drak’honai, those two classes had merged into one.

The Lannachska, on the other hand—more typically Diomedean—were primarily hunters. They had very few highly specialized craftsmen; the individual could survive using tools made by himself. The low calorie/area factor of a hunting economy made them spread out thin over a large region, each small grouip nearly independent of the rest. They exerted themselves in spasms, during the chase for instance; but they did not have to toil day after day until they nearly dropped, as the common netman or oarsman or deckhand must in the Fleet—hence there was no economic justification on Lannach for a class of bosses and overseers.

Thus, their natural political unit was the little matrilineal clan. Such semiformal blood groups, almost free of government, were rather loosely organized into the Great Flock. And the Flock’s raison d’être—apart from minor inter-sept business at home—was simply to increase the safety of all when every Diomedean on Lannach flew south for the winter.


“My good young friend,” said Van Rijn patiently, “I see plain you have much to learn about politics. You Lannachska do not understand lying, I suppose because you do not get married.”


[...] “I’ve often thought there might be fewer wars among civilized races, if they reverted to this primitive custom that the generals are present at the battles.”

“Bah! Ridiculous! Just as many wars, only using generals who have guts more than brains. I think cowards make the best strategists, stands to reason, by damn.”




Oh, it was quite a flash of imaginative insight, no one could deny that. But imagination is cheap.

Anyone can say: “What we need is a new weapon, and we can make it from such-and-such unprecedented materials.” But it will remain an idle fantasy until somebody shows up who can figure out how to make the needed weapon.


“Well,” said Van Rijn, “here begins our fun. Good St. Dismas, stand by me now.”

“St. George would be a little more appropriate, wouldn’t he?” asked Wace.

“You may think so. Me, I am too old and fat and cowardly to call on Michael or George or Olaf or any like those soldierly fellows. I feel more at home, me, with saints not so bloody energetic, Dismas or my own good namesake who is so kind to travelers.”

“And is also the patron of highway men,” remarked Wace.

Note (Hal’s):
Van Rijn’s namesake is St. Nicholas.

— end note




Je maintiendrai!“ he bawled, and stove in the head of the nearest Drak’ho. “God send the right!” he shouted, stamping on the shaft of a rake that clawed after him. “Fram, fram, Kristmenn, Krossmenn, Kongsmenn!” he bellowed, drumming on the ribs of three warriors who ramped close. “Heineken’s Bier!” he trumpeted, turning to wrestle with a winged shape that fastened onto his back, and wringing its neck.


Battle Cries

XXII “It is not the leader’s job to do everything himself. It is his job to order, persuade, wheedle, bully, bribe—just that, to make people do what must be done, whether or not they think it is possible.”



text checked (see note) Apr 2024

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