One day on the drive home from school my mother handed me a dimestore Star Trek paperback to read. I remember being taken aback since I was used to her plonking me down in front of somebody like George Orwell, Somerset Maughn or P.G. Wodehouse.
But as she explained at the time, sometimes it’s nourishing in its way to read something pleasantly pointless.
And talking of Wodehouse, I’ve been enjoying an experience that was recommended to me by my friend as being Jeeves and Wooster IN SPACE. Specifically, the Phule Series by Robert Asprin.
Willard Phule is a junior officer of the Space Legion peacekeeping force who is being hauled up before an inquiry for, in short, a harmless but embarrassing friendly fire incident. Because of his formidable family connections he’s punished by being promoted and sent to a remote mining colony to take command of an Omega Company, a dumping ground for legion misfits.
With his trusty valet Beeker in tow, Captain Jester, to use his Legion pseudonym, sets out to command this disorganized, bored and disinterested rabble. Said cynics are decidedly taken aback when Phule starts whipping them into shape on one hand and treating them lavishly on the other, using his immense personal fortune to freshen up the company’s HQ, uniforms and quality of life. Watched with chagrin by his Legion superiors, Captain Jester eventually leads his men and women and aliens through a series of adventures involving new species, skullduggery and military politics, ploughing along by force of personality, both Phule’s and various eccentrics marching behind him.
I’ve read three books, Phule’s Company, Phule’s Paradise and Phule Me Twice, the latter co-written by Peter J. Heck. They all follow the pattern above in different settings – a remote mining settlement, a casino space station, the homeworld of a new ally. But the same pattern holds: the company goes someplace new, their personalities and eccentricities raise red flags among the locals, and Phule slots them into places to deal with the new situation and their mission, throws some money around and puzzles out what bounces back. Ultimately the strange, daft and sometimes illegal shenanigans of the Company thwart more stolid-minded opposition.
While there is a superficial resemblance between the mutual respect and counsel between Phule and Beeker and that of Bertie Wooster and Reginald Jeeves, the main difference is that Phule, while a bit naïve and with his head in the clouds, is by no means stupid or idle, and Beeker, while taking great measures to anticipate and care for his employer’s needs, is still an employee, not the virtual surrogate parent that Jeeves can be. What makes Phule distinctive is moreso his capacity for straight-line thinking. He kind of reminds me of Captain Carrot in Discworld, in that he doesn’t seem to connect much with politics or strategy. He just approaches a problem with complete honesty and lack of guile, which in itself confuses the hell out of the people around him. It makes him a charming out-of-the-box thinker, though a bit of a workaholic. Indeed he comes across as a little over-idealized, in that he sometimes gets away with things that defy logic somewhat and I can’t recall any occasion where he makes a serious mistake. He does somehow remain very relatable, in that he’s kind of a mild-mannered, middle-management everyman. While we were never meant to like him, General Bliztkrieg’s contempt for Phule and insistence that he’s incompetent, in this context, comes across less as contemptible or unfair than as just plain daft. I was assuming that this was set up like Bernard Cornwell’s character Richard Sharpe and his conflicts with the snobbish old-school officers above him. Actually it’s more like Chief Inspector Dreyfuss’ complex against Inspector Clouseau, and I’m honestly not clear on whether it’s deliberate or not…
The characters of the company itself are studies in contradictions. You’ve got ‘Mother’ Violet of the comm centre, who is witty and loquacious on the comms but rendered almost mute by shyness in person; Escrima, the masterful cook with a murderous temper; the Volton ‘Tuskanini,’ a massive, warthog-like being strong as ten men but also a bookish pacifist. The list goes on.
The Phule series raise many questions in my mind. What is the Space Legion force meant to remind me of? UN Peacekeepers? The French Foreign Legion? A private security firm? I have no idea. It seems to resemble different things at different times. The custom of Legionnaires having pseudonyms seems completely out of left field to me, and seems mostly there as a shorthand for what kind of person you’re dealing with, especially in the case of top brass like General Blitzkrieg or Colonel Battelaxe, or as bad jokes like Super Gnat, Tuskanini or, for that matter, Jester. The ex-biker supply sergeant, a black man known as Chocolate Harry is particularly glaring since I gather that’s considered a racist slur in some quarters, or the Japanese computer whiz with Yakuza connections known as Sushi. Both are actually good and interesting characters but the sensibilities informing their names and backgrounds seem to belong in 60s television not in the future. The main downside of this character kaleidoscope is that there are so many of them that I occasionally lose track of who’s who.
The other odd thing is that the books spend most of their time with the conflict just being the Company handling everyday life in their latest surroundings and whatever issues that brings, with the main conflict which frames the story only really hitting its stride in the last twenty percent of the story. It gets to the point where, when the aliens invade or whatever, I’m thinking, “Oh, right, I forgot about that.”
The humour of the stories – and as you may by now have guessed, these are comical books – is situational, with the simple humour of the silliness of the current circumstances. There’s also occasional wordplay and references to science fiction tropes, like robots controlled by their Asimov Circuits. The series started 20 years ago and some of it is funny because it is, or has become, very retro. My particular favourite is Beeker’s reliance on the super-expensive luxury of a small ‘Port-a-Brain’ personal computer. As I sit here typing on my commercially accessible AlienWare laptop, I have to smile.
Maybe it’s the offbeat characters or the unconventional plot structures, but regardless of how silly or superficial the Phule series seems to be, I still enjoyed them enough to get this far. It’s light enough to be fun, but just grounded enough not to be totally absurd, imaginative enough to be fresh but shallow enough to be easy on the mind. The unconventional plot structure actually makes it hard for me to stop reading them.
I’m not sure if I can truly recommend them. They’re not as funny or intelligent as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy nor as emotionally involving as the Sharpe novels or the Honor Harrington series. They’re probably a sci-fi fan’s equivalent of beach-reading. They’re fun. Simple as that. I felt like I had gone too long without cracking a book, and I was happy to have something to get me back in the groove. So, if you like the sounds of it, have fun!