In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
While science fiction most often looks toward the future, the past also calls our interest. Sometimes the stories involve travel back in time, but many tales are set after some sort of apocalypse, where mankind has fallen back into old ways. Those tales often have a medieval feel, with mighty swordsmen, menacing rulers, and quests for power. One such post-apocalyptic tale is the story of young Nils Jarnhann, also known as the Yngling, whose abilities included not only physical prowess, but paranormal powers as well. It’s a rousing tale that, unlike others from the 1960s, has held up well over time.
I can’t think of the work of John Dalmas without thinking of the man himself. On at least one occasion, I had the opportunity to meet him at a convention, and he couldn’t have been nicer. Fans always look forward to meeting their favorite authors, but those situations don’t always go the way you might expect. I have met many authors who are fine people, but also some who were short-tempered, irritable or arrogant. You would think that if you like an author’s work, you will like the author, but that is sometimes not the case. With John Dalmas, I felt like I was reacquainting myself with an old friend. He was humble, and took honest delight every time he met someone who enjoyed his work. He had a good sense of humor, and a way of making people comfortable in his presence. My father, who was often shy with authors, felt the same way, and we had a great time meeting Dalmas. The copy of The Yngling I read for this review is inscribed by Dalmas, with “Ha da rolitt! Al! (have fun) John Dalmas.” I think that’s what he valued in his writing. He had fun doing it and hoped you’d have fun reading it.
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A Memory Called Empire
Recently, in a discussion in a Facebook retro SF group, Dalmas’ name came up. When I commented how nice he was, a fan from the Northwest, where Dalmas spent his last days, chimed in. He said that Dalmas was missed, and that the fans called him “Onkel Sven,” considering him the patron saint of their local fandom. He also told the story of how, after learning that a convention was in financial trouble, and might end with that year’s gathering, Dalmas pulled out his checkbook and wrote a check that saved the event.
Dalmas had his first publication success with The Yngling, which was first published as a serial in Analog in 1969, back in the days when editor John Campbell was fascinated by paranormal powers. It was then published in paperback in 1971. The paperback copy I found in my basement for this review was published by Tor Books, back in 1984, about the same time that editor Jim Baen left to form his own company and turned the reins over to Beth Meacham. I don’t have the original magazine version to compare it to, but it appears to be a somewhat expanded version of the original tale. If you are looking for The Yngling at a used book store, and run across a volume by Dalmas called The Orc Wars, you have found what you are looking for, as The Yngling is part of that omnibus edition.
About the Author
John Dalmas is the pseudonym of John Robert Jones (1926-2017), an American science fiction author who wrote stories that primarily involved military adventure, paranormal powers, space opera and magical worlds. Before his writing career, he served as a paratrooper in World War II, worked in a variety of trades, and worked for the Forest Service. He was interested in the martial arts and Eastern philosophies, and these interests often showed in his work.
His first work was The Yngling, published as a serial in Analog in 1969. The book followed the adventures of a physically imposing young man with paranormal powers as he explored a post-apocalyptic Europe. Dalmas eventually produced three other books featuring the character.
Dalmas became a popular author for Baen Books in the 1980s and 1990s with books that fit the house style very well. The longest series of books Dalmas produced was the Regiment series, five volumes that followed the adventures of a remarkably effective mercenary unit made up of warriors from the harsh desert planet of Tyss. Fanglith and its sequel involved an interstellar civilization that used medieval Earth as a penal colony. The Lizard War presented primitive humans on a post-apocalyptic Earth facing an alien invasion. In addition to stories involving combat and adventure, Dalmas also wrote some humorously satirical tales. In The General’s President, Dalmas presented a leader, intended to be a puppet fronting a military coup, who turned the tables on his sponsors. And The Second Coming portrays God being re-incarnated as a black Canadian engineer. Later in his career, Dalmas produced a number of works in small press editions.
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
Readers of science fiction want to visit new and different worlds. The world we live in is too well known, too mundane, and too crowded for the tastes of many readers, so authors will take the readers somewhere else. This is often accomplished by traveling to another planet or star. It can also be accomplished by traveling in time, either going forward, back or sideways in time. The third way of going elsewhere is destroying the status quo, in what could be called apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction, and authors in both mainstream and science fiction have come up with a depressing variety of ways to do that. There are collisions with asteroids and comets, alien invasions, the sun getting too hot or too cold, rogue stars or planets disrupting orbits, nuclear wars, scientific experiments gone awry, atomic wars, chemical wars, biological wars, runaway greenhouse gasses, overpopulation and starvation, ecological collapses, robot uprisings, zombie outbreaks, and more. My mom joked that I was her “worry wart,” always looking at the worst-case outcome. I wonder if she ever realized how much my dad’s science fiction collection was fueling that pessimism.
In its descriptions of science fiction themes, the always excellent online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, or SFE, primarily groups these stories into two categories. The first, which involves stories immediately after the catastrophe, it calls “Post-Holocaust” stories. From the list in the encyclopedia entry, older books I had read included On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, and Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny. A newer book following the theme would be Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.
SFE calls the second category, which involves stories that take place well after the catastrophe, when a new equilibrium has been reached, “Ruined Earth” stories. The Yngling falls squarely into this category, especially since it uses the common trope of a quasi-medieval society arising in the aftermath. Another of my favorite stories of this type is Hiero’s Journey by Sterling Lanier, along with The Postman by David Brin.
While getting to these futures is painful for the majority of the human race, there has always been a fascination with creating a world that is less densely populated, full of old ruins to explore, and with lost technological secrets for the protagonists to discover. Because of this, post-apocalyptic stories have been a staple within the genre, and look like they will remain so for a long time to come.
We meet young Nils Hammarson when he is an eighteen-year-old sword apprentice. A warrior from another clan kills one of his relatives and then attacks Nils. Not knowing his own strength, Nils kills the man. While this is a crime he must pay for, the tribunal banishes him instead of ordering his death, because Nils did not intend to kill. As another sign of leniency, they promote him to warrior and give him his adult name, Nils Jarnhann, or Iron Hand.
Nils is a neoviking, descended from Scandinavian people who survived the Great Death that destroyed Earth’s civilization. Europe has reverted to a medieval culture, but climate change is forcing the neovikings to move south. And there are rumors of fierce invaders moving toward Europe to the South. Nils is one of those heroes who serves as a kind of wish fulfillment for the reader: strong, capable, handsome, and true. There are legends among his people of a “yngling,” or youngster, who will one day lead them in their hour of need, and Nils, while he doesn’t realize it yet, fits this legend to a T.
Nils takes passage south, and befriends a Finn named Kuusta, who is searching for a jewel called an esper crystal. In the days since the Great Death, people with psionic powers have begun to emerge. The two kill a deer and run afoul of a game warden, who tests their military abilities, and instead of being punished for their crimes, they find themselves enlisted in the service of the local Lord.
Nils dreams of a giant monster attacking people, and then hears of an attack that people attribute to a troll. He is sent out with a party of warriors to find the beast. When it attacks, all the warriors are paralyzed by a mental attack from the beast—except Nils, who slays it. He awakens in the care of a healer, Raadgiver, and his daughter Signe. Raadgiver is a psi, a member of a society called the kinfolk, and helps Nils understand that he has psi powers as well. He wants to train Nils and give him a mission: Travel south, where a powerful psi named Kazi is massing armies to attack and enslave whole nations, and kill him.
As Nils travels south, he is attacked by bandits, and might have died had he not been found by a beautiful psi named Ilse and nursed back to health. She has had a premonition that he will join the service of the king of the Magyars, so that is what he does. In the meantime, the neovikings, whose homeland is becoming colder, are planning an attack on Poland. Nils finds himself assigned to escort a royal boy, Imre, who is being sent to Kazi’s court to act as a hostage. Nils is a mighty warrior, with burgeoning psi powers, but Kazi has used his psi powers to transfer his consciousness from body to body for generations, becoming ever more powerful. It will take all that Nils can muster to come out of this alive, and before his adventures are done, he will have impacted the fate of nations.
Dalmas writes an entertaining tale, with his protagonist moving from challenge to challenge with ever increasing stakes. Nils turns out to be a fascinating character, as Dalmas is attempting to portray a human who has evolved into something greater, fully self-actualized and enlightened. Dalmas will revisit Nils again, first in Homecoming, then in The Yngling and the Circle of Power and finally in The Yngling in Yamato.
The Yngling is a rollicking good tale from beginning to end. A lot of it is wish fulfillment, as most of us would be happy to be as skilled, brave and competent as Nils Jarnhann. The science fictional content is thin: If you substituted magic for psi and set it in the distant past, it would work as a sword and sorcery tale, but the story works regardless of what category you put it in.
At this point, I’ve gone on long enough, and now it’s your turn. Have you read The Yngling, or the other tales by Dalmas, and if so, what did you think of them? And are there any others out there who met Mr. Dalmas through fandom?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.