The novel “The Flying Sorcerers” by David Gerrold and Larry Niven was published for the first time in 1970 under the title “The Misspelled Magishun” serialized in the magazine “If” and as a book in 1971.
Life in the village of Lant has been going on normally when one day a strange looking magician arrives on a flying egg. Shoogar, the magician of the village, challenges him to a duel, but the newcomer doesn’t seem very interested in him but only to perform strange rituals here and there. His language is unknown but thanks to a spell never seen before he can more or less communicate with the natives and his name seems to be something like Purple.
Shoogar, very offended by Purple’s attitude, seeks revenge and with the help of Lant manages to destroy the enemy magician’s vehicle. The ensuing explosion causes death and destruction in the village, forcing the survivors to emigrate. Shoogar thinks he has proved his superiority as a magician but Purple isn’t dead.
In this collaboration, David Gerrold and Larry Niven tackle in a humorous way the theme of the meeting between a primitive civilization and a scientist from a technologically advanced civilization. The novel is told in first person from the point of view of Lant, who lives in a village whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of an alien.
The natives of the planet have a pre-industrial level of technology, they believe in a number of gods and their life is based on magical practices, carried out by the village magician. When an alien comes down to the planet with a spaceship shaped like an egg, it’s inevitable that is taken for a magician.
Shoogar, Lant’s village magician, wants to prove to be better than Purple, as the alien is called, and manages to sabotage his spaceship but this causes enormous consequences for the natives. In fact, to reach his interstellar spaceship in orbit, Purple needs the help of the natives, who must build machines much more advanced than they even conceived until then.
“The Flying Sorcerers” is based on the many misunderstandings that arise among the natives, who think in terms of magic, and Purple, who think in scientific terms. Shoogar is particularly outraged by the fact that Purple doesn’t believe in gods and magical practices. The magician thinks that Purple is cheating him because for him the advanced technologies shown by his opponent are forms of magic that are shown to work several times.
Purple sometimes tries to explain to the natives certain scientific principles but in most cases he realizes that they lack basic notions. When he has to resort to their help, any new task to be carried out requires laborious explanations and often quarrels with Shoogar, who can’t understand their sense in terms of magic.
The fact that the story is told from the point of view of Lant, who tries to understand Purple’s actions from the point of view of magic, albeit alien, is one of the elements that makes it funny. The life of his village changed considerably due to the alien, even from the social point of view. For example, among the natives, women are de facto slaves but the need for a workforce will allow them to acquire certain rights and to even have a name, a shocking fact against the local traditions.
The situations that are created with the misunderstandings and conflicts between Purple and the natives, in particular Shoogar, are pretty funny though the characters tend to be caricatures. However, sometimes events are forced and in some cases are quite dramatic. Even in comedies there are often serious moments but in “The Flying Sorcerers” there’s not always a good balance between the various elements.
Another tongue-in-cheek factor of “The Flying Sorcerers” is in the names. Most are references to the world of science fiction, from the planet’s suns Virn and Ouells to the various gods. The real name of Purple is a reference to Isaac Asimov (as a mauve).
The flying machine built in the course of the story contains historical references. The name Cathawk is a reference to Kitty Hawk, where the Wright brothers made their first flight. It’s assembled by Lant’s two sons, Wilville and Orbur, whose names remix the syllables of Orville and Wilbur, as the Wright brothers.
Overall, I think “The Flying Sorcerers” is a novel quite enjoyable but nothing exceptional, even as comedy. If you like science fiction comic you can read it but do not expect too much.