Review: The Philosophical Corps

Everett B. Cole

I alluded to this looking like a space opera in a comment I made in an earlier post.  It is.  I compared it to Agent of Vega, which I had not long completed.  This is an interesting book for several reasons. The first being that this was the final volume that Gnome Press published. Second, that this is yet another book of theirs that has been cobbled together from previously published pulp fare. The third (and this one has a big impact on the book) is that though this is actually a series of short stories it is presented here as a novel.

Look, I have to give props to Gnome Press for pulling all those short stories out of pulp obscurity.  If it wasn’t for them engaging in this style of publishing we wouldn’t have, for example,  the early Foundation Universe novels.  There are however, cases where it just doesn’t work.  Agent of Vega was skating those boundaries, but managed to pull it off because of the strength of the material and the fact that it as a reader we knew what we were reading – a collection.  Another example is van Vogt’s The Mixed Men – like Corps, a collection disguised as a novel but with strong source material and good continuity between stories.  This is reflected in the longevity of these publications, the latest publication of The Mixed Men was in 1980 (as Mission to the Stars), of Agent of Vega in 1983 (also as Agent of Vega & Other Stories in 2001), and we needn’t even mention Foundation.  Contrast this to the book we are reviewing here; this is the one and only publication.  The bottom line is that it just doesn’t work for The Philosophical Corps.  This isn’t Mr Cole’s fault.  The fault for this lies at the feet of the publisher.   However, don’t let all this put you off the book.  Like anything, if you go in prepared, you will come out the other side much better off.  Go into this book armed with the knowledge that this is actually a collection, read it as such, and it will be a whole lot better and make more sense.  I went into this knowing only intellectually it was a collection, but emotionally prepared to read a novel.  As a result I was disoriented at several points during the read.

That was a long preamble.

I’ve mentioned Agent of Vega.  They are of course both firmly in the space opera genre, but aside from that there are obvious similarities between the books.

Both concern interstellar police agencies – The Department of Galactic Zones and the Criminal Apprehension Corps.
Agents in both books have psi abilities.
There is all manner of trick gear available to agents.
Both agencies and their operatives have absolute power in the course of their operations. Though to be fair, CAC agents seem to be more accountable to their superiors.
Technology just exists and works. No explanations.  Typical for a space opera though.
Both books have crappy covers.

The Philosophical Corps itself is a new arm of the CAC.  The first few chapters set this up.  What the Corps tries to achieve is the smooth eventual integration of growing and still planet-bound civilizations into the Galactic Federation.  They do this by covertly steering things like social mores, tradition and technology gradually towards those that are more amenable to being accepted as a constructive member of said federation.  These guys don’t fool around either.  If things don’t work out, or if a particular civilization is deemed to be incapable of ‘fitting in’, or be otherwise unable to play galactic happy families, they’ll eliminate it.  A modus operandi that is unusually resonant today.  I said the first few chapters set this up, it would be more accurate to say the first story.

Another function of the corps is to root out and rehabilitate Drones and Degraders – both terms for former citizens of the federation that secretly set up shop on pre-spaceflight planets to capitalize on their superior skills and technology without thought to the long-term consequences on a civilization that isn’t ready. The second story gives us an example of a Corps operation in the field where natives are recruited to the cause.  And the third is another operation on the same planet by the recruited natives.  Just harking back to the discontinuity in the book, it’s the transition between these three parts – practically seamless in print – that gives rise to that “..hang on a ‘sec, what’s going on here..?” feeling that really adversely affected my enjoyment of the book.

The concept behind The Philosophical Corps, as an organization, is sound.  Shepherding fledgling civilizations towards galactic acceptance and apprehending those that would take advantage of ‘immature’ societies are concepts that would happily stand much more detailed treatment in true novel form.  But trying to glue three loosely related short stories together to cludge novel like this left me a little less than philosophical about the result.


One Response to “Review: The Philosophical Corps”

  1. I was interested to find your review of Mr. Cole’s book. I knew the man growing up in Yorktown, Texas. He went to our little church and was quite a character. I mainly just thought of him as an eccentric until I realized that he had material published in Astounding when John Campbell was editor. Isaac Asimov was my childhood hero. Then I got hold of a collection of SF war stories that included one of his tales. Very cool that I got the chance to know him.

    One thing that’s nagging me though… His Wikipedia entry says he died in 1977. I knew him in the 1980s and 1990s. I want to get on Wikipedia and change that, but I can’t find a link anywhere that will back me up. Any ideas? I want to write about him on my blog or on Reddit, but I sort of feel like I can’t till I get that cleared up.

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