To Keep the Ship by A. Bertram Chandler
DAW Books, 1978
Price I paid: $1.25
Although this was a low point in the ever-changing space career of the legendary John Grimes, it was not without its surprising moments. Between jobs, between loyalties, Grimes was owner and pilot of a small auxiliary vessel whose principal oddity was that it was made of gold. But precious metal or not, Grimes was running errands with it.
Until he fell into the clutches of terrorists. Susie and her comrades had a Cause and it was going to take all his efforts to keep the one thing he had to have―his ship.
Especially since they left the ship infested with a constantly increasing horde of mini-Susies―vicious little homunculi that looked exactly like their sexy prototype except that they were hungry, sharp-toothed, and their only Cause was to eat Grimes alive!
If you’ve looked at the cover of this book and didn’t immediately know why I chose to read it, I’d like to welcome you to the blog and I hope you enjoy reading your first post. Stick around! There are more ridiculous ones!
I mean, John C. Reilly/Colm Meaney is shooting at those Barbie® dolls! They’re all naked! What the craaaaap?!?
Also, the fact that Publisher’s Weekly calls this series “sf’s answer to Horatio Hornblower” perked my ears, as well. I love the Hornblower books, so I was interested in seeing what “sf’s answer” to it was like, even though I knew the answer to that, and that answer is Star Trek.
On the other hand, if you’re wondering what sf’s answer to Hornblower would be if it had some really explicit sexuality in it, you’d get the John Grimes books. At least that’s how I’ve come to understand it following this first foray into the series.
As I understand it, this book is the eleventh of the 23 John Grimes novels, which in turn are just a part of Chandler’s Rim Worlds books. The Grimes books do have a lot in common with the Hornblower books, at least in concept. They’re divided into three sections, detailing Grimes’s entry into the Survey Service, his career and hard times following that, and his subsequent career as a Rim World Commodore. This particular book takes place in the middle part.
That Publisher’s Weekly blurb was written some time after this particular book was put out, because Grimes isn’t a Commodore in this book. Awkward!
I don’t know what most of those things mean, I’m just cribbing them from the A. Bertram Chandler Website.
Oh, and I should comment on how I thought that author’s name was familiar before I started the book. Well, it turns out I’ve read him before, specifically the much-better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be The Hamelin Plague.
Anyway, DAW lied to us a lot on the back cover, which is nice because that means I can format this post by refuting a lot of the sentences.
Between job, between loyalties, Grimes was owner and pilot of a small auxiliary vessel whose principal oddity was that it was made of gold. But precious metal or not, Grimes was running errands with it.
Okay, this is true for like five pages. Yes, Grimes owns a ship that’s made out of gold. I don’t know why this is supposed to be a good thing, but it’s still true. The ship is named Little Sister and he’s fiercely devoted to it.
But very little of this book takes place on the Little Sister. The book begins with a flashback to a botched job, where Grimes was transporting some rare but dangerous animals from planet to planet and something went wrong. Specifically, he let the animals out of their cages even though he wasn’t supposed to. The instructions told him not to, but didn’t tell him why, so when they tried to kill him for having a sexy dream he woke up with a start and killed them before they could finish the job. See, the animals are telepathic and can only mate when some other creature nearby is sexually aroused, but they have to kill the creature before they can do the deed themselves.
So right off the bat I’m thinking this book is weird and imaginative and I think I’m going to like it. I was 100% right.
Anyway, because he borks up this courier job, his precious ship is impounded until he can pay legal costs. As a result, he reluctantly takes a job looking after a ship called the Bronson Star. He’s not flying it or anything. His job is literally just to sit there for a while to satisfy its owner’s insurance company’s demand that there be someone looking after the ship at all times.
Until he fell into the clutches of terrorists.
They’re not terrorists, they’re revolutionaries, and they’re not really even that. They’re monarchists, attempting to re-seize the throne of their world after the socialist revolution that sent them into exile. I guess they’re counter-revolutionaries. They’re also hilariously inept, but they do manage to hijack the Bronson Star.
Susie and her comrades had a Cause and it was going to take all his efforts to keep the one thing he had to have―the ship.
We’ve already established that this isn’t his ship. I mean, I guess he has to have it to get back home and not get sued again, but surely his employers would be able to rake in some insurance money once it’s revealed that the ship was stolen from him against his will.
Probably the most misleading thing about this summary is the implication that Susie is the main instigator of the counter-revolution. She’s not. She’s very low on the totem pole. She brings people coffee, more or less.
The real instigators are Paul and Lania. Paul is the hereditary crown prince of Dunlevin, and Lania is his wife. Lania is also the Lady Macbeth of the whole thing.
Susie begins to take pity on Grimes and they become lovers and it’s pretty damned explicit. Susie is also repeatedly stated to be against type for Grimes, who prefers slender women. Susie is described in ways that frequently border on fat-shaming, which is gross, even though she’s also never really described as anything more than full-figured. I don’t get it and it’s my main complaint with the book, to be honest.
Grimes takes the monarchists back to their home planet. In what I consider one of the most British jokes I’ve ever read, all the cities on the planet have just awful pun names in the style of cottages named “Dunroamin.” This is a thing I’m only familiar with thanks to Terry Pratchett, whose abode of the gods on the Disc was “Dunmanifestin.”
Dunlevin was originally founded by pirates, and has cities named Dunrobin, Dunsackin, Dunrovin, and so forth. After the revolution they were named things like Libertad, Freedonia, and Marxville.
The Royals disembark from the ship with their army at a place called Bacon Bay, which is, you know, pretty subtle, right?
They manage to make it about a mile or so away from the ship before somebody steps on a nuclear landmine and the entire army is destroyed.
I’m describing this book like I didn’t find it funny at all, which is exactly the opposite impression than what I want to give. This book was great, y’all, and I loved it, and I laughed at it consistently. Almost every joke hit, even though they weren’t necessarily “jokes,” I guess. It was more a matter of dry and sardonic observations, mainly by Grimes himself, who was just a great character.
I liked Grimes a lot. He was a character that relied on his wits, something I can really enjoy. Of course, that kind of character depends very heavily on whether they’re pulled off right or not. It’s one thing if you call your character something like Jason Starr, Genius, and then have them make routinely stupid decisions and observations throughout your entire book. Grimes did not fall into that trap. He was a very well-written smart guy, which was always shown and not outright told. I give the author mad props for this.
Susie did not go along with the monarchists. She’s since begun shacking up with Grimes, and has begun helping him take the ship back. Along with her is a fella named Hodge, an engineer who is Susie’s half-brother.
…infested…mini-Susies…homunculi…hungry…eat Grimes alive!
Okay this part of the summary is roughly accurate, but it was not the predominant arc of the story. It was the climax of the story, sure, but it was also only about twenty pages or so of the 175-page novel.
What happens is that Susie and Hodge realize that they’re fugitives now, and that anywhere they go in the Galaxy they will likely find themselves arrested for being part of the catastrophic plot to take back Dunlevin. They all agonize over what to do until Grimes remembers something.
He’s owed a favor by an alien named Balaarsulimaam, a member of a race called the Joognanaards, who are described as being like centaurs, except with cats and kangaroos. We’re not told in what way those two halves are arranged, which I just absolutely love. We are told, however, that they have four limbs.
Anyway, the Joognanaards are a somewhat backward species engineering-wise, but they’ve got some major biotech advances that are kept from the rest of the galaxy because the doctors and bioscientists and plastic surgeons on Earth don’t want to lose all their business and they have a strong lobbying arm in the government.
Did I mention that I love this book? I love this book.
Specifically, the Joognanaards have a method by which they can reshape a person completely, painlessly, and quickly. Grimes figures that he’ll take Susie and Hodge to their planet, get them reshaped to their liking, and then they can go off into the cosmos to set up new lives for themselves. After some hesitation, everybody agrees to it.
Susie gets herself morphed into the spitting image of Grimes’s dearest old flame, a woman named Maggie. She figures this will please Grimes. It does not. She leaves the ship, but not before bestowing a gift to him. It’s a small replica of Susie in a glass bottle, made of flesh left over from the process. (Maggie was a lot more slender than Susie.)
Grimes isn’t totally sure whether the flesh in there is alive or not, and he’s not exactly happy to think about what might happen to the replica over time. He especially doesn’t like the idea of watching a tiny replica of a former lover rot in jar.
A problem happens with the ship’s Mannschenn drive, a means by which the ship is displaced in space and time so it can go ftl. Grimes fixes the problem, but when he examines the ship to survey the damage, he finds that the bottle has fallen off his desk. A tiny body is lying on the floor in a protoplasmic mess. He throws it away.
It’s not long before the ship is infested with tiny replicas of Susie that are ravenously hungry and feral. He fights some off and then takes steps to starve them out. Later, the sole survivor appears and it’s grown to regular Susie-size, but is still as vicious as the tiny versions.
Grimes solves the problem by calling for help. Another ship shows up, boards his, and they discover the evil Susie dead at his desk. Grimes tells the other ship a lie about how Susie tried to take over the ship and went crazy and probably died of cardiac arrest, leaving them in the dark about the whole homunculus thing. He flushes the body out of an airlock and continues back to Bronsonia, where the Little Sister is impounded.
He doesn’t fully get the ship back before the story ends, but he does sell his story to a tabloid magazine, which gets him well back on track to pay of his legal fees. And that’s the end.
Like I say, I liked this book. I enjoyed it very much. It had some problems, mainly with the portrayal of women, but it was a witty and snappy story that didn’t waste a lot of time. Grimes is a great character and I think I’d enjoy reading more of his adventures. He had some flaws that bordered on chauvinistic, but they weren’t so severe as to be a major detriment to the character. He was firmly a product of the seventies, which isn’t an excuse, but there you have it.
The book did feel like it was several shorter stories all combined to make a single book, but they flowed from one another in a way that made it feel like a complete narrative instead of a bunch of unrelated incidents. Still, the book didn’t feel completely unified and might have performed better if it had been broken up. It’s hard to tell. Still, it clicked along at a brisk pace and I never felt the need for a nap while reading it, which is pretty high praise.
I’d need to read more of the Grimes books to get a better feel for how I feel about it all, but based on this one, I don’t think that would be much of a chore. I certainly hope they’re good. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a lost classic or anything, but it’s definitely worth reading. It was a lot of fun.
6 thoughts on “To Keep the Ship”
I really enjoy your blog. This is the first time you’ve described one of the books I truly love. Pretty much all the Grimes books are good. The only thing is that they can get kind of repetitive, so don’t try to read too many at once! I’d suggest The Road to the Rim, the first one in internal chronological order, but not the first one written.
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Thank you very much!
This is probably one of his lesser books. I enjoyed the earlier ones more. And the Commodore Grimes books were almost all written before the DAW books, so don’t let apparent chronology stop you. Much of his work is available for free via Bean books online.
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I’ve passed over Chandler over the years, and now i think i’ll have to give him a try. He’s like the Australian version of Jack Williamson: people tend to overlook these prolific and consistent authors, because they seem to lack a signature title.
“feel like it was several shorter stories all combined”
It is. ABC favored short stories. But there was money at book-length also. Many of his books are “patch-ups” of short stories. The Far Traveler is clearly short-stories. The next, Star Courier, is two incomplete long short stories leaning against each other. Matilda’s Stepchildren is all one work. To Keep… picks-up a short which did not get into Courier (it may have been written much later) and goes out on a tangent.
FWIW: in nominal retirement, ABC did serve just as Grimes does: baby-sitter for an idle ship at anchor. Maybe he got bored and thought up what “could” happen to make a watchkeeper’s life interesting.
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Neat! Thank you!