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The Reader's Guide to SF Series: Space Pirates
by John O'Neill

The SF Site Reader's Guide to Science Fiction, Part II

Click on any of the covers below for a larger image.

Not a lot of classic SF themes and conventions survived the Pulp Era. The Vesuvian Adventure, with its majestic dinosaurs tromping through lush vegetation in pursuit of earth explorers in crunchy space helmets, died an ignoble death long before 1967, when the Soviet Venera 4 probe bounced off the surface of Venus with nary a thunder lizard in sight. The Martian Romance, with its swashbuckling swordsmen creeping around huge dusty canals, quietly packed it in about the same time. Even the once proud Space Patrol -- those square-jawed Aryan males who cruised the galaxy in crisp white uniforms and zippy little speeders, keeping the cosmos safe from the latest dark- or yellow-skinned menace -- was forced to re-invent itself. Nowadays we have Federations and complex Uplift Communities, and laying down hot plasma on a thinly-disguised minority group can get you court-martialed. The politics may be little cleaner, but frankly I miss those stylish gilded uniforms.

So what did survive from this so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction? Well, believe it or not, the grand tradition of the Space Buccaneer, the last free-thinker of the spaceways, still lingers on in dark corners. Granted, the image of your typical crusty space pirate is not the highly regarded marketing magnet it once was. At one time you could be relatively sure that if a marginally legal interstellar trader showed up by page 108 of your manuscript, he'd be plastered on the cover, sword and blaster in hand. But the spirit endures, and there are still plenty of readers out there who want in on the episodic adventures of the hero/heroine who casts off the shackles of generic Imperial oppression and sets sail with a fast ship to plunder and harass, and hide booty on deserted asteroids. If you're one of them, then climb aboard for a survey of the latest and greatest in Space Pirate sagas.

Swords Across the Breach

David Drake rose to prominence in the genre with a lengthy series of military SF novels, including Hammer's Slammers and the Northworld series. More recently he's begun a sequence of well-received fantasy novels, which began with Lord of the Isles. In between he presented a trilogy of novels set in the post-collapse era of a once-great human empire -- tales of daring piracy and high adventure across the Solar System inspired by the Elizabethan Age of Discovery.

The series began with Igniting the Reaches (March 1994, 262 pages, in print from Ace, $5.99), which opens millennia after the collapse, when humanity is struggling to rebuild an interstellar empire. A number of factions are competing for trading rights to former Imperial colonies -- and more importantly, potential access to powerful and lucrative ancient technologies. Venusians, led by the young captain Piet Ricimer and his companion Stephen Gregg, are ready to leave the Free State of Venus to seek their fortune on the new exploration frontier -- and specifically to obtain extremely rare and highly sophisticated computer processors still being produced in automated facilities on remote, long abandoned worlds. Opposing them is the tyrannical Earth Federation, which will stop at nothing to hem Venus in. It's a time for a new breed of Buccaneer, those with the courage to defy blockades and sail under the flag of the outlaw. Also arrayed against Captain Ricimer and his team is a host of problems -- including what to do with the intelligent, insect-like Molts, genetically programmed for chip manufacture and used as slaves by the Federation, and the possible existence of a mirror universe, one rich in computer circuits, that the Federation plans to conquer and occupy.

The trilogy continues in Through the Breach (April 1995, 327 pages, Ace, $5.99). Ricimer and Gregg have a new mission: the Venus Asteroid Expedition, which has very little to do with legitimate trade. This time the duo are commanding a small armada from the clouds of Venus out past Pluto, deep into the Reaches "where trade and piracy are one and the same -- and expedited with a gun." Their objective is the "Mirror," an impenetrable membrane to another universe, one that holds all the riches of the Federation. The only point of entry is Landolph's Breach. The last man to pass through was Landolph himself over eighty years ago... and most of his men never returned. But war with the Federation is raging, and Space pirate Ricimer won't step away from the challenge of being the first Venusian to pilot his ship through the Breach and into another universe.

The final volume of the set is Fireships (June 1996, Ace), this time with a plot borrowed from the exploits of famous Drake namesake, privateer/explorer Sir Francis Drake. Ricimer and Gregg are no longer inexperienced buccaneers, but are now gentlemen of wealth and comfort. But when intergalactic pirate captain Sarah Blythe almost loses her ship in a Federation takeover attempt, she vows to make the Federation President pay for her losses, even if it means joining the Venus rebellion and taking up arms with the legendary Piet Ricimer and Stephen Gregg. When Ricimer disapproves, Sarah makes a business arrangement Gregg to join the Venusian raiding squadrons... first for raids and minor skirmishes, but soon for much more. And so begins a partnership that leads to a climatic showdown.

Openly libertarian author L. Neil Smith (The Crystal Empire, Pallas) took a slightly different tack with his two-volume piracy sequence: a cross-generational family saga. It all begins with Henry Martyn (August 1989, 437 pages, Tor), which opens with one of the most chilling scenes of institutionalized torture I've ever encountered. Arran Islay is a more-or-less law-abiding citizen of the Imperium Conglomerate, a powerful and ruthless empire spanning the star systems of the 31st century. But when the IC assassinates his father and seizes his family holdings, Arran adopts the name of his murdered friend Henry Martyn and turns outlaw. Stowing away on an interstellar cruiser, Arran soon finds his biggest problem is simply survival -- especially when the cruiser is attacked and destroyed by pirates. Leading a mutiny among the multi-species crew isn't quite as tough as it looked... but now that he's in charge of a genuine starship and a seasoned crew of interstellar outlaws (and made an enemy of two great interstellar empires), he finds that the whole galaxy stretches out before him, ripe for conquest. Or at the very least, some serious chaos and plunder.

Bretta Martyn (August 1997, in print from Tor, $6.99) is set decades later. The dread pirate Henry Martyn is now a peaceful farmer -- at least until he gets a message from Lia Wheeler, his old mentor and friend. It appears that the Oplyte slave trade has resumed, and the time has come from Henry Martyn to take center stage again in the fight for freedom. But en route to the action, Martyn's teenage daughter Bretta is ejected from the starship by her father's old nemesis. Adrift in space and left for dead, Bretta manages to land on an asteroid, a strange world of escaped slaves. Driven by a thirst for justice and revenge, and the memory of her father's legacy, Bretta sets out to blaze her own chapter in her family's legend -- and so begins her own remarkable career.

David Drake and L. Neil Smith by no means have a monopoly on the lucrative Space Pirate market. Writers such as Elizabeth Moon (Once a Hero) and Larry Segriff (Space Dreams) have flirted with the field, but not seriously engaged it as yet. Likewise, the prolific short story writer R. Garcia y Robertson has demonstrated an affection for outlaws of the spaceways in a great many of his swashbuckling adventure tales, but so far has avoided putting them on center stage for one of his novels. We can only hope.

Join us next time as we continue our extended look at the great and near-great SF series in The SF Site Reader's Guide to Science Fiction Series. You know where to find us.

Copyright © 1998 by John O'Neill

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