Space Viking by H. Beam Piper
Ace Books, 1963
Price I paid: ???
A galaxy-wide war had destroyed the Old Federation, leaving every surviving world on its own—and at the mercy of the Space Vikings.
Lucas Trask was one of those renegades—a warrior with a ship and a crew terrorizing a thousand worlds. But Trask was more than just a raider…he was a man with an old score to settle and a very special mission to fulfill.
I’ve had this book sitting around since long before I started this blog. In fact, I think it was one of the books that made me decide to start a blog devoted to reviewing forgotten (read: crappy) genre fiction. What made me hold back is the fact that I looked up H. Beam Piper once and found out he was a master of the genre and pretty well-regarded. Since I was trying to focus on authors that had been more or less forgotten by modern audiences I figured I’d give this one a pass.
What made me change my mind is, mainly, the fact that this book is called SPACE VIKING. I just plain wanted to read it. The premise is just too awesome to pass up. But here’s the weird thing: I’ve gotten to the point where whenever I read something I think somewhere in the back of my head that I ought to be reviewing it. I suppose a habit has set in. And that’s fine.
Of note: this book recently passed into the public domain, so it and about forty other books by H. Beam Piper are available for free on Project Gutenberg. If you haven’t read him before, or if it’s been a while, do yourself a favor and start downloading some ebooks. You’ll be glad you did.
Space Vikings is about the two coolest things that can possibly be: space and vikings. How could a combination like that go wrong? Fact: it cannot.
The book follows the exploits of a dude named Lucas Trask. He’s prince or duke or something of a planet called Traskon and he’s about to get married to a girl named Elaine. It’s all very sweet and they’re very much in love. The problem, though, is this dude named Dunnan. He keeps hanging around, layin’ everybody low with a love song that he made. He’s insane, actually, and completely convinced that Elaine loves him and that the marriage is a sham and all that kind of stuff. Finally, just before the wedding, he confronts Elaine and tries to get her to confess her love for him. Bang bang, she shoots him down, and he leaves, swearing revenge.
And which point the metaphor of being shot down seems like it might be in bad taste, because Dunnan steals a ship and does exactly that to Lucas and Elaine on their way home from the wedding. Lucas is seriously wounded, Elaine is killed. Dunnan flees the planet after stealing the pride of the Traskon fleet, Enterprise.
For a person who has been totally into Star Trek since he was, oh, about six, seeing another universe use a ship named Enterprise is just…wrong. Also it turns out to be the badguy ship. I just…don’t like it.
Lucas, rather understandably one might think, swears eternal revenge on Dunnan. He orders a new ship built, one identical to Enterprise, called Nemesis. Rather interestingly, Lucas is well aware that he has no idea how to command a spaceship so he calls on the man who was going to be given Enterprise, Otto Harkanan.
Otto is a SPACE VIKING.
Also, Lucas sheds his rank and all ties to his home planet and also becomes a SPACE VIKING.
A bit on what the space vikings actually do. This is the real meat of this book and the universe it’s a part of. A couple thousand years ago there was a Galactic Federation that spanned countless star systems across the galaxy. Like my prom date, it just didn’t work out in the end. The Federation collapsed in on itself, leaving many of those countless star systems bereft of knowledge and civilization. A few planets survived the fall relatively intact, keeping such things as space travel and hygiene. Traskon is one of those lucky planets, among several others. The space vikings, then, visit the worlds that weren’t so lucky and raid them. Sometimes they raid them for things the locals produce, like gold and other precious metals, but other times they’ll raid the forgotten ruins of the Federation for advanced tech.
That’s really freakin’ cool.
After a few raids that go really well for the vikings but not especially for the locals, Lucas gets his fill of wanton theft and murder. He decides that what he really wants to do is…settle down?
Man, this book just didn’t deliver on the promise of tons of mindless violence and vikingry. About the first fifth of the narrative gives us a little bit, just enough for Lucas to get sick of it. I’d be mad if it weren’t so good.
What he does is set up a space viking base on a planet called Tanith. The natives of Tanith are barely past the level of gunpowder, but Lucas and Harkanan take them under their wings and train them up to be useful. It goes into detail about how these folks are to be fairly paid and all sorts of stuff. Lucas sets up as regent of the planet and establishes things like trade routes and repair facilities and all sorts of things. He caters at first to other space vikings until other civilized planets start to make use of his facilities as well. The money comes piling in.
All this is a sort of a gamble, though. His real plan is to get Dunnan to take notice of all the things going on here and maybe try to attack. Fly to a honey trap. Pretty clever. It doesn’t work.
Another part of this universe I rather liked is that while ships can go faster than light via hyperspace, direct communications cannot, so all information has to be relayed through actual space travel. What this means is that any information is generally going to be pretty old by the time it gets to anyone who needs it, but via this network of trade Lucas is able to pick up little hints of what Dunnan might be up to. Some people say he’s setting up a base somewhere, although nobody really can figure out where. We occasionally get hints that he’s gone space viking himself and he’s conducting raids. The book begins to move a little slow here.
Finally Lucas gets enough advance notice of a planned Dunnan raid that he’s able to meet Enterprise in battle. He races to the planet Marduk where, sure enough, the locals are trying their damnedest to fight off some space vikings. Nemesis gives chase to Enterprise and, sure enough, blasts it out of space.
(Side note: one of the turns of phrase I’m going to steal from this book is “blasted it to em-see-square.” It happens a lot and I love love love it.)
Well, it turns out that the book’s not over yet, because Dunnan wasn’t aboard. The following…rest…of the book consists of Lucas getting to know the people of Marduk and their struggles. He grows to like these people, you see, and so we get to learn all about them.
It’s not all that bad, really, but a lot of it felt sort of out of place. Marduk is a democracy, see, although headed by a king in name only. And we get to learn about it. Lucas is fascinated by this thing, democracy, and wants to see how it works out, I guess. Except really he doesn’t, because the whole time he’s convinced that the whole thing is just laughable. I get the feeling that Piper himself had something against the concept of democracy that, while perfectly reasonable, just didn’t need to be explicated in a book about SPACE VIKINGS.
Although I did particularly enjoy one statement to the effect that democracy is the Rube Goldberg version of government. Something like that.
So the whole point of the democracy of Marduk is that it’s going downhill, as all democracies are apparently wont to do. It’s going downhill in an astonishingly familiar way. See, there’s a dude who is crazy and is hatemongering against certain types of people, saying that the planet is under secret attack by traitors and intellectuals and Jews. Well, not Jews. Jews in this universe are called Gilgameshers because they’re traders who live on the planet Gilgamesh, but it’s pretty apparent that they’re stand-ins for Future Jews.
So yeah, Hitler is rising on Marduk, except his name is Zaspar Makann. Lucas has met several members of the royal family of Marduk, up to and including the king, and he finds himself really liking them, so he thinks that this Makann guy is probably not altogether good for relations between Tanith and Marduk. There’s nothing he can actually do about it other than consult his ship’s history books about some guy named Hitler and make pointed not-at-all subtle observations about how similar the two circumstances are, so he decides to go home and let things work out for the best.
Back on Tanith, we get word that things are brewing between two planets named Gram and Xochitl. Fun fact: I know how to pronounce Xochitl because my grocery store sells a brand of tortilla chip with that name and the bag is kind enough to have a pronunciation guide. It’s so-cheel.
Lucas has ties with both planets. Gram is nominally his ally, although cirumstances there have apparently been going downhill (things going downhill seems to be a defining point of the Space Viking universe), so some might expect him to intervene on their behalf but he really doesn’t want to. Xochitl is nominally hostile to him, so some of his followers want to wait unti Xochitl launches an attack on Gram and then hit the planet while the fleet is away. Lucas doesn’t especially want to do that, either, because that would involve innocents being hurt and he’s apparently gone beyond that. So he decides to do something else. He wants to intervene on Marduk.
Why did it take him this long to decide that?
He’s been reading about this Hitler character recently so he decides to take a note from Der Fuehrer’s book, namely the “Big Lie.” He convinces a load of other space vikings and allies that not only is Marduk being run by an insane madman, that madman is actually a puppet for the real villain. Remember Dunnan and Lucas’s vow of revenge? I’ll admit, I’d forgotten by this point. It’s been a long book and I’m starting to doubt the fundamental basis on which my country was founded.
So Lucas convinces everybody that the real bad guy here is Dunnan and that he’s running things on Marduk behind the scenes. Honestly, I’m not sure why he decided to use that line. How did he expect anyone else to go along with him? Nobody signed on with him for that reason. Lucas’s revenge plot was his and his alone. So why did it work?
More importantly, not long after spreading that little lie around, the crown prince of Marduk shows up in Tanith orbit requesting asylum. It seems that things really have gotten a bit crazy over there. The king is possibly dead and Makann has seized all power after naming himself chancellor. But this is where it got really crazy.
Lucas takes the prince aside and tells him that he’s been raising support for helping Marduk by telling people that Dunnan is behind the whole thing. The prince responds with, and I swear I’m not making this up, “How did you know?”
Basically Dunnan is running the planet into the ground on purpose so that when its government and civilization collapse he can pick through the spoils. Can’t fault him for playing the long game, I guess.
So yeah, not only did the lie come out of what was essentially nowhere, it also turned out to be the truth.
The rest of the book is pretty predictable. A fleet of space vikings lands on Marduk after shooting up Dunnan’s fleet. Makann is found sitting on the throne with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Dunnan is nowhere to be found until one of his followers betrays him. Dunnan comes out of a cargo tunnel or something in a very “We found Saddam” kind of way, all scruffy and blinking. He doesn’t recognize Lucas at first, but when our protagonist reminds him Dunnan goes all “Oh yeah the guy who was going to marry Elaine well she doesn’t love you she loves me she’s waiting for me incidentally hahahahahaha” and goes all googly eyed and stuff. Without even an awesome tough-guy line Lucas just cold shoots him in the head and walks away. And that’s pretty much the end.
I dunno, while I was reading this book I was completely absorbed in it. I absolutely loved the universe that Piper set up and the concepts that were being explored and all that kind of thing. But when I sat down to do this review I started thinking about it with a little more of a critical mindset I began to realize that the story itself was really kind of meh. It was certainly enjoyable at the time, but yeah, it turned out that not an awful lot actually happened. This book could have been about a third as long and probably would not have suffered for it.
But still, I really had a lot of fun reading this one. It wasn’t actually as insane as I would have expected. In fact, the science fiction elements are fairly hard. Sure, there’s hyperdrive, but other things are handled with a little bit more realism. For instance, hyperdrive doesn’t work very well as a precision instrument, so most ships have to drop back into normal space to get to a particular planet within a system. The upshot of that is that while you might get from Star A to Star B in a hundred hours or so, it’ll take you just about that long to get from the fringes of that star system to the planet you want to be on.
While the book seemed to have a particular beef with democracy, it turned out that in the end the lesson was more that humanity really hasn’t come all that far in the millennia that it’s existed and that government as a whole isn’t an especially good idea. The book wasn’t necessarily advocating some kind of libertarian pseudo-anarchy, though. Basically the conclusion was “Humans are humans. We’re going to screw up a lot, but at least it’s in our nature to try and do a little better next time.”
I think that’s actually a pretty good lesson, especially for a science fiction novel. At least it wasn’t necessarily preachy, nor was it trying to advocate any particular political opinion or another in a way that would look completely naive, if not ludicrous, a few years down the road.
The problem is that I didn’t read this book to learn about human nature and how it will constantly breed Hitlers because that’s how we are. I wanted to read a book about a man who is a SPACE VIKING with a vendetta against the guy who killed his wife and is crossing the length and breadth of the galaxy in a mad quest to find him and bring him to justice. I didn’t get an awful lot of that.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I enjoyed everything about this book except for the actual story, which itself was pretty sparse anyway so I guess that’s a good thing? Man, I have to think on this.
4 thoughts on “Space Viking”
I’ve found something about H Beam Piper’s work just keeps me from getting to quite like it. There’s a lot of elements that seem right and yet the whole thing just leaves me cold and shrugging.
I seem to remember reading somewhere that Piper’s novels of the future were inspired by a then-prevalent theory that human history goes through “cycles” of “barbarism” to “civilization” to “decadence,” back to “barbarism,” ad infinitum (I believe Toynbee was the best-known historian to posit this). Books such as this would seem to bear that out (see also his novel THE COSMIC COMPUTER).
That really makes a good deal of sense, and now I want to read more of the series just to see where Piper takes it. My roommate really enjoyed The Cosmic Computer so I think I’ll go there next.
Space Viking is classic H Beam Piper adventure. Some 15-20 years ago Ace pubbed pretty much all his works (Federation, Empire, Paratime, Fuzzy trilogy) as mass-market paperbacks, and some may still show up in used bookstores or on used book sites.
All in all, a good read of the period.
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