Space Viking by H. Beam Piper
Published by Cosmos Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
H. Beam Piper is best remembered for his Fuzzy novels, which dealt with the age-old problem of how one recognizes another sapient species when one sees it, especially if it is substantially different from one's own expectations. However, those novels were part of a much larger future history, the Terro-Human universe. Most of the other published stories and novels take place, like the Fuzzy novels, in the period of the Terran Federation. However, the era of the Federations' rise and fall represents only a small portion of the total future history Piper created. Two short stories and a few surviving notes sketch out a far longer future history in which the Federation is succeeded by five distinct Empires, each following a lengthy interregnum of disorder similar to the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Space Viking takes place in the period of disorder after the collapse of the Terran Federation, which was foretold by the battle computer of Junkyard Planet. In that novel we learned about the attempted succession of the System States Alliance (perhaps an analog of the Confederacy, although there was no clear equivalent to slavery to motivate the act, so it could also have been based to one degree or another on the various civil wars that hastened the decline of the Western Roman Empire in the sixth century) and the terrible war the Federation fought to crush their rebellion. Although the System States War did put an end to the attempted succession, it was at a tremendous cost, leaving the Federation permanently weakened to its very roots.
However thoroughly the Federation may have crushed the System States Alliance as a polity, it didn't get everybody who believed in independence. As we learn in the beginning of this novel, a small number of spaceships fled in the last disastrous days of the war, seeking a planet so far away that the Federation would never be able to track them down. They founded Excalibur, and their descendants founded a series of other worlds which became known as the Sword Worlds because each of them were named for legendary swords. Their government was loosely feudalistic, but with robots and automation presumably substituting for the landless peasantry so that everyone could be at least marginally aristocratic and comfortably well off.
As the novel's title suggests, their descendants became planetary raiders loosely based upon the Vikings who came in their fast longships from Scandinavia to raid the collapsing Western Roman Empire. The protagonist, Lucas Trask, is a scion of a noble house on Gram, and has been building a ship, Enterprise, to commence his own raiding career (one must of course remember that this novel was published before Star Trek was anything more than a gleam in Gene Roddenberry's eye, so the name would have been considered to refer primarily to the aircraft carrier which had won considerable fame in the Pacific during World War II).
Or that was the plan. Which comes crashing down on the very day of his wedding, as Andray Dunnan attacks the wedding party. In one moment Lucas Trask goes from bridegroom to widower without having even gotten to enjoy a honeymoon. Oh, and by the way, Dunnan stole the Enterprise and is heading out to space to do who knows what.
Badly injured, Trask is pretty much leveled by these blows. But only for a brief while before his pain turns to anger and determination to see Dunnan repaid with interest for his cruelty. Not immediately, of course, since he's got to recover from wounds that would've been mortal at a lower tech-level, and they've got to finish building that second ship that had been on hold when Enterprise was stolen. But in due time he has his Nemesis battle-ready, and off he goes a-viking.
His first stop is Tanith, a planet that had undergone a spiral of decivilization that left it pre-Industrial, with a minimal base of mechanical technology and no electricity or electronics, let alone spaceflight or nuclear weapons. There he's hoping to acquire a base of operations, but to do so he first has to defeat two other Space Viking ships. They're sad things, poorly disciplined and poorly maintained, and he's actually able to turn them into allies who can help him with the next steps of the plan which he hopes to ultimately lead him to Dunnan and revenge.
Except as he raids one planet after another, he comes to see their inhabitants not merely as prey, but as people whom he has caused tremendous suffering. As a result, he begins to shift away from merely plundering worlds and into trading, which means thinking about what people need and where someone else who has it might want something he can get more easily than they can. Which of course leads to efforts to actually develop markets, and ultimately to worlds that have never lost technological civilization. To Marduk, where a king is threatened by a demagogue who thinks he can simply take over if he can tell enough lies and make enough people believe them.
Although there is a considerable amount of derring-do in this novel, Piper devotes a great deal of the novel to addressing the questions of the nature of civilization and the factors that can lead to it coming unzipped. There are several scenes in which Trask has lengthy discussions with other characters on this subject, first in respect to individual planets upon which they have landed, and later about the Terran Federation in general. Trask is particularly interested in the cases in which there wasn't obvious warfare, since war and its attendant destruction is one of the most easily understood ways in which a planet's culture can start the long, ugly slide into a night that can easily last for centuries or even millennia. But many of the planets he finds in backslid states show no evidence of massed nuclear bombardment or other obvious destruction that could have initiated that downward spiral.
Which of course gives Piper an opportunity to give a meditation upon the interdependency of civilization, and how the loss of one or more critical elements of technology can easily result in the failure of others, like dominoes going down one after another. Particularly if a planet has specialized in a few fields of industry and is dependent upon intersteller trade for vital technologies, the breakdown of that trade as a result of economic or social trouble elsewhere can leave it so vulnerable that it cannot jumpstart growth in the other technologies it needs to sustain civilization, leading to that downward spiral.
And quite honestly, the view of humanity which Piper shows in this novel is rather grim. The final coup attempt is so traumatic that the major characters all come to the conclusion that there is something so inherently flawed in democracy that the best hope for human government lies in the rejection of republics in favor of some form of hereditary monarchy. Ordinary people can't be trusted to govern themselves, and to protect them from being led astray by demagogues, they need to be led by someone who is born to the position, whose legitimacy derives not from the fickle will of the populace but from something essential to who and what he is. But Trask allows that even monarchy is no guarantee of good government, since the descendants of a good monarch may well prove to be weak and easily led astray by bad advisors, or may be cruel and hungry for power for its own sake.
Review posted August 19, 2010.
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