Where has L. Sprague de Camp been all my life? I vaguely knew the name, but I’d never read a word he’d written. About a year ago, I head a description of this book and though it sounded worth checking out (which is why I’m starting here rather than the obvious Lest Darkness Fall).
“Divide and Rule” is a short novel/long novella from 1939 about a future in which humanity has been conquered by giant rabbit aliens that everyone calls “hoppers.” They landed in South America and waged a long war of conquest (aided by epidemic alien disease in a very nice historical touch). Once they were finished they took action to suppress humanity so that it could serve as their labor force; they outlawed industrial technology and forced schools to teach that they were gods in the natural order. Most importantly, they decided to divide humanity (we have a title!) by imposing a new feudal order.
A couple of centuries later, Sir Howard van Slyck, the Duke of Poughkeepsie, has spent most of his young life raiding castles and fighting duels across New York. He meets a chain-mailed, whip-wielding commoner from the west named Lyman Haas. Haas and van Slyck team up to rescue a damsel-in-distress named Sally Mitten but earn the enmity of the hoppers in the process. Sally leads them to the resistance in hiding, and they learn the truth about their world.
It’s a fast-moving, fun adventure story with good characters, snappy dialogue, a strong concept, and some interesting sf ideas. The only flaw is that the hoppers have some very convenient weaknesses that allow the story to wrap up quickly. I really wouldn’t mind more of this story.
The bigger flaw with this product is that “Divide and Rule” was paired with a much weaker story called “The Stolen Dormouse” to fill out the book’s length. It’s not a bad story, and there is a thematic link – it’s another feudal order. This time, corporations become so powerful that they evolve into feudal states with inherited ranks. It’s an interesting idea and one that’s been fairly persistent in sf, but de Camp uses this setting first to do a Romeo and Juliet pastiche, then adds some slapstick action. Hawaiians get to play a fun role though, and de Camp throws in some decent sf concepts that were probably fairly new in 1941 – the titular “dormouse” is a person in a hibernation chamber and a few bioengineering ideas get thrown around. It’s short, clever, and funny, but not nearly as strong as “Divide and Rule.”
I will definitely be revisiting de Camp in the future. He checks a lot of sf boxes for me – he likes history and uses it to inform his speculative fiction, he’s a rationalist, he likes to mix comedy and adventure, and he’s fairly progressive on gender and racial issues…at least for someone writing in the late ‘30s. This was a great surprise.
Grade: A- (though that ignores “The Stolen Dormouse”).