The High Crusade
By Poul Anderson
There’s a certain kind of time-travel story where the hero goes back in history and kicks ass among our primitive ancestors. Primitive, at least, in the art and technology of kicking ass. It runs from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to the movie The Final Countdown. The High Crusade is an early comic inversion of this, with medieval warriors from Earth hopping on a spaceship and proceeding to colonize more technically advanced civilizations. This is seen as nothing remarkable by their leader. As he puts it, with terrific irony, “Just because we use a different sort of weapons, we aren’t savages.”
And let’s add another SF trope that Poul Anderson was mining in The High Crusade. This is the very strange, at least to my eye, connection between our future and the Middle Ages. Why is it that so many epic visions of things to come are made to look like our medieval past, complete with kings and dukes in castles, and sword-wielding warriors wearing armour? From Asimov’s Imperial Foundation to the deserts of Herbert’s Dune we see the same trappings and tropes being recycled. There’s even a monastic future imagined in works as far removed as Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.
I’m not sure why this is, but Anderson has a lot of fun with it in a story that stands alongside Twain in its playful presentation of a more serious point about the social development — so much faster than biological evolution — of our species. Can we call it progress?