HOKA! HOKA! HOKA!
AUTHORS: Poul Anderson, Gordon R Dickson
I have been attending MediaWest*Con, the annual media fan convention held every Memorial Day weekend in Lansing, Michigan, for over 20 years now, and I have many, many fond memories. One of the most vivid stems from an early MWC, at the first hotel they used, which was located in an area almost devoid of restaurants. The only one within easy distance of the hotel was a Denny’s, located just across the street. That particular Denny’s got very used to having groups of people in costume streaming over at all hours, and grew very fond of us. One Sunday noon, I could see several “mundanes” (i.e., non-fans), the usual after-church crowd, parking in the lot, walking toward the restaurant – and stopping dead in their tracks, staring at the windows. When I got over myself, I found out why: perched in a straight line in the windows were an incredible array of teddy bears, of various sizes, dressed in some of the most remarkable costumes. There were teddy bears dressed as Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones, Princess Leia and Scarlett O’Hara, and too many others to mention. The source of this merriment? A series of short stories by Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson, all about Hokas.
What is a Hoka? In short, a Hoka is a native of the planet Toka. Hokas are meter high teddy bears, with both vivid imaginations, and the intelligence and skills to reproduce anything that grabs their attention. Show a Hoka a Western movie, and he’ll recreate the Wild West. Read him a Sherlock Holmes novel, and he’ll build a replica of Victorian London, complete with a moor – only you won’t sink into it, because there are no marshes on Toka. Into the middle of this craziness, drop one Terran ensign, Alexander Braithwaite Jones, who almost by accident becomes the Plenipotentiary, the Terran ambassador to Toka, instructed to prepare the Hokas for eventual membership in the Interbeing League, United Commonwealths, and you have the core for some of the most enjoyable SF short stories of all time. Most of the stories were written for magazines in the 1950s and ‘60s, with a few more showing up in the 70s, including one short novel. Several times since them, the stories have been gathered into anthologies, and presently there are two such collections in print, containing all the Hoka stories: HOKAS POKAS, and HOKA! HOKA! HOKA!.
One of the beauties of short stories is that you can be drawn in by one, and still not have to invest a long period of time to read it. These stories will certainly pull in just about anyone who likes to be entertained and amused by what they read. You don’t need to spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life in the universe to understand the Hokas – they appeal to the child in us all – but the subject matter is often adult stuff like slavery, warfare, and drug smuggling, and you may find yourself thinking about these subjects in a slightly new way afterward. As a result, I must caution you, although the major characters appear to be almost cartoon figures, these stories are not intended for small children. The stories are of varying length, depending upon the subject, and are written in clever, leisurely paced language. Here is the first ‘introduction’ to the Hokas, from “The Sheriff of Canyon Gulch”. Ensign Jones has been shipwrecked on Toka, about which he knows very little except that one previous expedition did touch down there years before; he falls asleep out in the open, and is awakened by a strange apparition: two cowboys, the likes of which no human has ever seen.
“The first expedition, he remembered, had reported two intelligent races, Hoka and Slissii, on this planet. And these must be Hokas. For small blessings, give praises! There were two of them, almost identical to the untrained Terrestrial eye: about a meter tall, tubby and golden-furred, with round blunt-muzzled heads and small black eyes. Except for the stubby-fingered hands, they resembled nothing so much as giant teddy bears.
The first expedition had, however, said nothing about their speaking English with a drawl. Or about their wearing the dress of Earth’s 19th-century West.
All the American historical stereofilms he had ever seen gabbled in Alex’s mind as he assessed their costumes. They wore – let’s see, start at the top and work down and try to keep your reason in the process – ten-gallon hats and brims wider than their own shoulders, tremendous red bandanas, checked shirts of riotous hues, levis, enormously flaring chaps, and high-heeled boots with outsize spurs. Two sagging cartridge belts on each plump waist supported heavy Colt six-shooters which almost dragged on the ground.”
What Alex discovers is that the first expedition included a commander who really loved old B-Western movies, and rashly showed several to the Hokas. The little beings, of course, went crazy for this new stimulae, and went to work turning themselves into furry cowboys. Actually thinking he would be assisting the friendly bears to better defend themselves against their more aggressive saurian neighbors, the Slissii, the commander helped them learn how to make six-shooters and other 19th century accoutrements, and then left them to their own devices. Obviously, Roddenberry’s Prime Directive does not apply here. Several years later, poor Alexander Jones finds himself caught in the middle of a war between these little cowboys and the “Injuns”, as they now call the Slissii. He learns such things as: every town is run by the town gambler, and the stupidest, most incompetent citizen in town is always the sheriff. He ends up drunk, riding a Tokan “horse” – “about the size of a pony, [with] four hoofed feet … also whiplike tails, long necks with beaked heads, and scaly green hides.”, and leading the Hokas to victory by starting a “cattle” stampede.
In subsequent stories, Alex is appointed the Plenipotentiary to Toka, and has to guide (sometimes frantically, sometimes bemused, and always busy) his charges through such adventures as: stopping the military buildup of a neighboring world, following the example of an old TV serial called Space Patrol (“In Hoka Signo Vinces”); putting a Ppussjan dope smuggling ring out of business, ala’ Sherlock Holmes (“The Adventure of the Misplaced Hound”), and rescuing his wife after a shipwreck on a neighboring planet, backed up by the French Foreign Legion (“The Tiddlywink Warriors”). There are baseball games with some valuable mineral resources at stake (“Joy in Mudville”), pirates (“Yo Ho Hoka!”), and many others.
In between the stories, there are memos back and forth between Alex and his superiors, providing chuckles just as enthusiastic as those engendered by the stories themselves (especially to anyone who has ever had to deal with government bureaucrats), as Alex attempts to defend his charges to the best of his ability. For example, after the Space Patrol incident, Alex has to fend off accusations that the Hokas attacked a vessel of the Pornian Navy, totally against League rules and treaties.
“4. However, the entire question as concerns the planet Toka can be disposed of merely on a common-sense level. What reasonable person could seriously entertain the notion that a mere handful of Class D primitives aboard a mere courier boat could conceivably overwhelm a dreadnaught armed (like all dreadnaughts) to the teeth? I note that Ref. (a), Par. 7, mentions that a certain Pornian admiral has been hospitalized for nervous overstrain consequent to this by-no-means-proven episode. Does that sound like the result of an encounter of a ranking member of a Class A civilization with my cheerful, friendly, innocent little Class D wards? I leave the question to your judgment.
5. As noted in Par. 2 above, I do not pretend to understand the cause of these rumors, but I would suggest that either the Pornians were somewhat overwrought or else the affair is a case of mistaken identity, possibly involving some as yet unknown race.”
It is a time honored tradition in science fiction, to use the genre to both entertain and to put a new slant on familiar problems. Anderson and Dickson were masters of this, individually in Anderson’s brilliant Dominic Flandry series and in Dickson’s equally ranked Dorsai books, and together, using the sapient teddy bears of the planet Toka. If you are interested in thinking about the effects of various elements of popular culture, or if you’re just looking for some fun reading, you’ll definitely find both in these anthologies. If you decide you only want one book, I would suggest getting HOKA! HOKA! HOKA!, simply because there are more stories in it. HOKAS POKAS includes the short novel “Star Prince Charlie”, which is mildly amusing, but has only one Hoka character, and which because of its length takes up more than half of the book, leaving room for only two other stories, “Full Pack (Hokas Wild)” and “The Napoleon Crime”. So, you may want to try the other collection first, and then decide if you like the critters well enough to purchase this one. If you have access to out-of-print sources, there were two earlier collections, HOKA! (Tom Doherty Assoc. LLC, 1985) and EARTHMAN’S BURDEN (Avon, 1979), which include most of the same stories with the exception of “Star Prince Charlie”. In fact, these are the two collections I own, along with HOKAS POKAS which I purchased simply to get “Star Prince Charlie” and thereby complete my Hoka collection. However you choose to go, these stories are well worth the time and effort.
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