Story Review: Duel on Syrtis by Poul Anderson

This is another story picked by Leigh Brackett as one of the best in Planet Stories. “Duel on Syrtis” by Poul Anderson was published in 1951 and helped establish Anderson as a force in sci-fi and fantasy.

Anderson is an author I’ve grown to love. His writing is always thoughtful and action-oriented, though I admit I often don’t like his sci-fi works. I strain to think of a fantasy story of his I didn’t like, though. “Duel on Syrtis” was a story I’ve not heard a lot about, and I didn’t see a ton of reviews online for it. Because of that, I assumed it might be a hidden gem or forgotten great.

It was a hidden gem.

The story is about two people. The first is Riordan, a kind of big game hunter known throughout the solar system. He turns his drive towards illegal game: Martians. They’re protected by law, but he seeks to kill one without being caught.

The second person is Kreega, a Martian who lives alone in the wastes of Mars. Martians in this story are about four feet tall and have clawed feet and gray feathers. They’re nicknamed “owlies” by the humans, since they appear to be walking owls. Kreega is an older Martian, who disliked the human settlements and originally led raids on those settlements. Since then, though, he’s retired to a tower where he occasionally trades materials with the humans. They seem to dislike him, since, as they say, “He struts around here as if the place belonged to him”. Ironic, of course, since the land used to belong to the Martians.

The titular duel evolves from Riordan’s hunt. As he tries to kill Kreega, the technology and traps are established. He sprays some radioactive metals on the ground to keep people away for a few days and trap Kreega in the area, then goes to hunt him with his “hawk”, “wolf”, and weapons. The hawk and wolf are Martian themselves, being mainly feathered animals that don’t look much like their Earth versions. Kreega runs deeper into the wild, and Riordan pursues, camping as he goes. It turns into an interesting cat and mouse game, where you really don’t want Kreega to get caught. He just wanted to be left alone and Riordan bothered him, attempting to kill him. More and more you dislike Riordan as the story progresses, and as Kreega fights back it holds your attention.

At one point Kreega either hallucinates or feels a spiritual connection to all of Mars to fight the man. There’s an undercurrent of Martians being mistreated as a displaced people. In fact, the few humans in the story seem to almost hate the Martians for simply existing, calling them derogatory terms and saying it’d be better if they were dead.

The writing is great. Anderson really goes all out in some sections. One part reads:

Mars was old and worn-out and barren, dreaming itself into slow death. The tramp of human feet, shouts of men and roar of sky-storming rockets, were waking it, but to a new destiny, to man’s. When Ares lifted its hard spires above the hills of Syrtis, where then were the ancient gods of Mars?

It was cold, and the cold deepened as the night wore on. The stars were fire and ice, glittering diamonds in the deep crystal dark. Now and then he could hear a faint snapping borne through the earth as rock or tree split open. The wind laid itself to rest, sound froze to death, there was only the hard clear starlight falling through space to shatter on the ground.

It’s well done.

Kreega gets wounded, and Riordan loses his animals. Over time they whittle more and more of one another as the battle proceeds. It’s a fascinating read and honestly one of the best short stories I’ve read from Anderson. It all leads to a satisfying conclusion, and without spoiling it, it’s not a long read and worth your time.

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