Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Space Viking by H. Beam Piper

A circuitous path to revenge
Space Viking, a novel by H. Beam Piper, was originally serialized in the November 1962 to February 1963 issues of the magazine Analog Science Fiction – Science Fact before being published in a paperback edition. Part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History series, the story takes place in the 37th century of our calendar. For over a millennium mankind has been colonizing other planets, and now humanity’s descendants live in varying states of civilization on different worlds. By this time the Terran Federation, which figured prominently in works like Uller Uprising and Little Fuzzy, has now fallen apart. A group of outlying planets called the Sword Worlds have developed a feudalistic system of government replete with royal titles and dynastic conflicts. The economy of these Sword Worlds is largely driven by the pillaging and plundering of planets of the Old Federation by wayfaring adventurers known as Space Vikings.

Lucas Trask is a nobleman on the Sword World of Gram. He is set to marry the love of his life, but on the day of their wedding the bride is assassinated by Trask’s rival, an insane baron named Andray Dunnan. Dunnan flees the planet to parts unknown, and Trask vows to get his revenge, if it means combing every planet in the galaxy. To that end, Trask renounces his land and titles and becomes a Space Viking. While that may sound like the start of a thrilling revenge epic, the path to vengeance in this novel is quite circuitous. Before he can track down Dunnan, Trask ends up spending years building a civilization on a formerly primitive planet called Tanith.

Though at times it’s good fun, Space Viking isn’t the smartest of Piper’s novels. Why Trask would choose to lead a band of Space Vikings—looters, murderers, rapists—in response to his wife’s killing never seems logical, although atrocities are only hinted at and never committed by Trask’s own hand. The revenge theme gets totally lost in the development of Tanith—yet another Piper fantasy-camp in the exercise of world-building. Though this is not exactly a satirical work, Piper uses different planets in the story to critique various forms of government. Fascism, socialism, and democracy all have their faults pointed out. Dunnan is overtly presented as a stand-in for Hitler, and there is a race of interplanetary traders who might double for the Jews. If there’s a message, however, it is pretty convoluted and murky. Piper is known as a libertarian, but here if anything he seems to be advocating authoritarian monarchy as the best form of government, and he demonstrates a “might makes right” attitude towards imperialism and colonialism that shows up in a lot of his works. He’s always contemptuous of “the rabble” and seems to believe in the myth of an elite class of rulers born with the hereditary power to lead.

That said, the book does have its charms. With the exception of Frank Herbert’s Dune, nobody builds fictional universes with as much intricacy as Piper. He comes up so many countless details of government bureaucracy, diplomatic protocol, political economy, and technological logistics, from the grandiose to the mundane, that one can’t help but admire his boundless creativity. At times this complexity works against the book, as many passages read like laundry lists of proper nouns of Piper’s own invention (but again, no one invents better space names than Piper). In Space Viking, the final showdown is terribly anticlimactic and the whole plot feels a bit pointless, but it is fun to live in this world for a while. After Piper’s death, the authors John F. Carr, Dietmar Wehr, and Terry Mancour wrote several sequels to Space Viking. The fictional universe Piper created certainly seems to have endless narrative possibilities, but this novel often feels like he tried to cram all those possibilities into one book.
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