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Starship: Pirate
Mike Resnick
Pyr, 250 pages

Starship: Pirate
Mike Resnick
Mike Resnick sold his first book in 1962 and went on to sell more than 200 novels, 300 short stories and 2,000 articles, almost all of them under pseudonyms. He turned to SF with the sale of The Soul Eater, his first under his own name. Since 1989, Mike has won Hugo Awards (for Kirinyaga; The Manamouki; Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge; The 43 Antarean Dynasties; Travels With My Cats) and a Nebula Award (for Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge).

Mike Resnick Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Starship: Mutiny
SF Site Review: Dragon America
SF Site Review: Men Writing Science Fiction As Women, Women Writing Science Fiction As Men and New Voices in Science Fiction
SF Site Review: A Hunger in the Soul

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Raven

Mike Resnick is one of the most decorated science fiction authors in the business, with a vast catalogue of books and stories to his name. He has written in many different styles and on many different themes, but the Starship series, of which Starship: Pirate is the second volume, is described as being his first work of military SF. That may go some way to explaining why it feels completely different to much of the other fiction filed in that category.

Starship: Pirate is about the adventures of former Republic Navy Captain Wilson Cole after he has been busted from a court-martial brig by the crew of his ship. Forced into going on the run by this breach of military discipline, Cole and his crew have fled into the lawless Inner Frontier of the galaxy. The Navy is embroiled in a war with the Teroni Federation, and doesn't have the spare resources to chase after an ageing ship with a half-complement of crew if it's too far out of their way. The corollary being that Cole can't take the Theodore Roosevelt into Republic space, and hence has no immediate (and, more to the point, legal) solutions to the more pressing day to day issues aboard ship - where the next batch of fuel, round of pay-checks or shipments of food are going to come from.

As the title implies, piracy is the obvious answer. But it's not a simple answer, and the story follows Cole and his gang as they discover that piracy isn't quite the easy romantic career that the entertainments portray it as. For persons with a military background and strong ethical philosophies, it's not the sort of job one can leap into with abandon without compromising a huge chunk of one's belief set.

Cole fits the bill; his court-martial offence was to save a planet at the cost of making fools of his superiors, so he's no stranger to doing the right thing, no matter what. He's a charismatic leader: mellow and approachable, but with a core of steel when he has made his final decision. In many ways he could be considered to be an embodiment of the US President whose name adorns his ship; one of Roosevelt's better know aphorisms is "talk softly, but carry a big stick," and that encapsulates Wilson Cole's leadership style and approach to problem solving almost perfectly.

The only problem being that we never really get to see him use the stick. The two categories most often applied to the Starship series are "military SF" and "classic space opera," but Resnick's approach to his characters is remarkably unlike the gung-ho heroics for which those sub-genres are best known. Indeed, Starship: Pirate is remarkable for the lack of genuine action that takes place between its pages.

That's not to say nothing happens, though. Far from it; almost all the narrative is subsumed by dialogue - dry, witty dialogue at that - and the prose has the feel of being almost cinematic, or perhaps televisual, in that there is almost zero reliance on a third-person narrative point of view, and the characters banter and back-chat with the easy familiarity of sit-com scenes. Here's Cole establishing the new state of affairs, as regards his command of the Teddy R.:

    "We're no longer a part of the Navy. We're no longer in the Republic. We're an outlaw ship with no rules to guide us." [Cole] paused. "Now, under those circumstances, whose word is law?"
    "Yours," said Sharon [Chief of Security, and Cole's paramour].
    "Until someone decides to lop your head off," added Forrice. "After all, we're pirates."
    "I'll count on the Chief of Security to protect me," said Cole.
[pp 20]
The result is a story that moves very fast and covers a lot of ground within a very small page count; as an example, the opening circumstances and back-story from the previous novel are swiftly set out in the first eight pages of the book, without recourse to infodump or, worse still, a "when we last met our heroes..." introduction.

That's not going to be to everyone's cup of tea. Anyone used to the "New Space Opera" of the British school -- as exemplified by Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds and others -- will hunger for more scenery, more background; more "eyeball kicks." Resnick avoids the need for explication and scene-setting by encapsulating everything in the reactions of his characters - if they're used to it, so then is the reader expected to be. To put it another way, this is "show, don't tell" on steroids.

Another difference from the newer iteration of space opera is the calm dismissal of hard science. Ships zip about the Galaxy at multiples of light speed and, during the one major battle scene toward the end of the book, actions are taken to dissipate a lethal particle beam aimed at a planetary population centre that will stretch the credulity of anyone with the most basic grasp of physics. But Resnick hasn't tried to pen a hard SF novel; such concerns are more than secondary to his examinations of what happens when a fundamentally good man is placed in an intractable situation.

For Wilson Cole is a rare bird - a military hero who thinks his way out of trouble whenever possible. It seems that this is a deliberate attempt by Resnick to subvert a genre that, while viscerally thrilling, rarely addresses the deeper implications and ethics of conflict in a universe that isn't painted black and white. There is much to be lauded in this approach -- a more mature and thoughtful way of presenting the classic hero figure.

The downside being that Cole thinks his way out of problems before they occur, and Resnick is at pains to make it explicit:

    "You know," said Forrice, "you're exactly the kind of hero I hate ... [W]hatever happened to heroes who didn't think everything through, but just walked in with weapons blazing?"
    "They're buried in graveyards all across the galaxy," said Cole.
[pp 23]
There's no denying that this a methodology to be praised in the real world, and I for one will never complain about seeing brains having an equal or even greater status to brawn in science fiction literature. But as Cole and crew carefully plan out every course of action before embarking on it, there's little opportunity for real drama or risk to occur. Very rarely is there any sense of true imperilment - the reader is never in any doubt that the crew of the Teddy R. will make it through and win the day.

Nor are there any occasions where Cole lets passion rule him, even when the situation would make it not only excusable but inevitable - he's that little bit too stoically perfect, despite his moments of self-doubt, and his lack of flaws makes it that much harder to believe in him fully as a character. Proceedings might have been livened by more emergent crises and spur of the moment thinking - although it's interesting to see Socratic dialogue being used as a tool to drive plot, as Cole and his crew whittle down the pile of unpalatable options to find a niche for themselves where they can survive - and maybe even thrive -- without compromising their ethics.

Also worthy of note alongside the philosophical underpinnings of the novel are the literary allusions Resnick deploys. Cole and his crew are forced by expediency into dealings with a big-league fence, an alien with a Charles Dickens fetish who has named himself David Copperfield. Cole's hobby of reading classic Old Earth literature serves him well at their first meeting; keeping to the underworld tradition of going by assumed names, he instantly endears himself to Copperfield by naming himself after another character from Dickens's novel: Steerforth, Copperfield's closest friend from school.

How much the reader is meant to infer from these chosen names is unclear. Copperfield, like the character he is named for, learns the value of choosing his allies more carefully as the story progresses. But Cole's choice of the appellation Steerforth seems to have been an ironic one - Dickens's Steerforth has little discipline of the heart, and is almost a complete inversion of Cole's thoughtful and considered approach to life. Perhaps, as the name is chosen by Cole himself, the reference is meant to reflect his own self-doubt, which manifests occasionally as uncertainty and moral dilemma, only to be diffused by the almost unthinking hero-worship of his loyal crew.

So, Starship: Pirate is a curiosity; a surprisingly thoughtful novel dressed in the clothing of classic SF adventure. If Resnick's aim with the series is to bring a breath of fresh air to the military sub-genre, he can be said to have succeeded. But in doing so he has created books that sit uneasily in their categories; aficionados of all-action stories will be disappointed by the low body count and lack of battle scenes, while fans of more modern space opera will find the lack of hard science and descriptive detail leaves them unfulfilled. If there is an as yet unexploited market between those two poles, however, Resnick is set to capture it single-handedly, in a well-planned bloodless action of which Captain Wilson Cole would doubtless approve.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Raven

Paul Raven is a dishevelled library assistant from the south coast of the UK. He likes poetry, science fiction stories, music with guitars and girls with tattoos. His friends play a game that involves them buying him drinks and then steering the conversation round to space colonisation or neural prosthetics. Drop by his web site at the Velcro City Tourist Board

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