Thursday, September 2, 2010

Space Viking

LibriVox offers a set of downloadable installments of an audiobook for H. Beam Piper's excellent Space Viking.  You can also download a zipped copy of the book via the nice people at LibriVox, or get it from Project Gutenberg.  Just so long as you get it and read it.  Piper packs more ideas into a single page than most modern writers can manage in their whole book.  Who knew that macro economics could be both Shakespearean and full of high-risk action-adventure?  The book remains eminently readable, loads of fun, and filled with ideas that you can use/explore to your heart's content in any SciFi setting.  It would make an excellent movie as well...so long as the producers/director avoided trying to 'Star Wars it up', or make it more 'relevant' to modern audiences (read: dumbed down for morons).

Like Herbert's Dune, the original not the posthumous-pastiche-things, there are some intriguing anachronisms at work in Space Viking, anachronisms that are inherently tied-into the setting and that make eminent good sense once you follow along the author's train of thought and the chain of consequences logically following out of their world-building process.  Just as Herbert acknowledged the pre-eminent utility and enduring presence of the Knife, so Piper uses submachine guns and not lasers, 'blasters,' or light sabers.  This choice is not because of any failing in terms of the settings' technology or military prowess, but rather an outcome dictated by the way the various cultures responded to interstellar travel, and how things developed as they expanded outwards.  He was a shrewd character H. Beam Piper was, very shrewd and quite clever.

(Space Viking available at Mobipocket)

The faux-medieval trappings of Space Viking, especially in the Sword Worlds that each developed along a heroic pseudo-Scandinavian cultural dynamic, actually makes sense, as much sense as any other derivative post-colonial culture makes any sense after the fact.  Technology remains discrete but integrated along practical lines amongst the Sword Worlders.  They like the good things in life and they freely partake in the very best that technology has to offer--on their own terms.  This sets them apart from the more decadent, welfare-state worlds of petty tyrants and Orwellian beauracracies surrounding them that were once part of the Federation and who've now regressed into savagery, barbarism and bizarre and often untenable political experiments.  In some respects Space Viking feels like Robert E. Howard in space, almost.  The Neo-Barbarians are a major threat to the established order, but even so, quite ironically, they are also the one real hope that true civilization has of being revived/restored from out of the ashes of the lingering dark age that was brought on by failed social policies, bad choices, entrenched incompetence, mollycoddled decadence and just the hint of inferiority/weakness in the old way compared to the gloriously efficient and superior (fascist?) mode of getting things done that survives, even thrives amongst the Sword Worlders.  The political ramifications and implications within Space Viking could serve as the basis of very hearty discussion regarding fascism, tyranny and imperialism...possibly equal to or even moreso than Heinlein's Starship Troopers.  At least Piper avoided questionable eugenics and controversial genetic engineering programs unlike Herbert and Cordwainer Smith...though those things could get squeazed into the milieu fairly easily, especially amongst one of the planetary societies that has fallen into barbarism.

One really interesting and quite excellent synopsis/review/critique of Piper's Space Viking has been done by Joseph T. Major.  He really does the novel justice as he goes into incredible detail in his erudite and thorough analysis.  It's very well done and really takes the novel apart step by step.

Piper's use of Toynbee's and Spengler's theories is well known and you can look into that via careful clicking through the Wikipedia page on Piper and following the digital breadcrumb trail by doing a simple Googlesearch on Piper and Toynbee and/or Spengler.  The theories of Toynbee and Spengler might take a while to sort through.  Toynbee alone published a considerable number of works based upon his theories.  You could look into the Toynbee Convector blog that David Derrick is doing as a possible jumping-off point into the murky, turgid waters of Toynbee's work...or not.  I leave that up to you.  It is fascinating stuff, if you're into the study of history...

What is more interesting to me right now, is how Piper developed his Neobarbarians, to quote:
"These are homemade barbarians. Workers and peasants who revolted to seize and divide the wealth and then found they'd smashed the means of production and killed off all the technical brains. Survivors on planets hit during the Interstellar Wars . . . who lost the machinery of civilization. Followers of political leaders on local-dictatorship planets. Companies of mercenaries thrown out of employment and living by pillage. Religious fanatics following self-anointed prophets."
What a very Pogo-like moment.  We have met the enemy and they are us.  The neobarbarians in Space Viking are as post-apocalyptic as you can get, and most of them are reduced to this state by their own actions rooted in fear and ignorance, the two pillars of modern marketing and political demagoguery.  Piper fairly heavy-handedly puts it right out there: barbarism is its own reward.  We either act to preserve civilization or we bring on the Long Night...hmmm...there are some very interesting political theories interspersed throughout this book, and not just jug-headed crypto-fascist rhetoric either, as some have claimed wrongly.  Quite wrongly, I feel.  Piper wasn't necessarily advocating a Heinleinian authoritarianism, but rather a quasi-Libertarian-esque policy of enlightened capitalistic self-interest that harks back to Adam Smith, but with feudal overtones.  Or at least that's my take on it at the moment.  I'll certainly reconsider my position in the light of any truly illuminating discussion or facts that suggest otherwise.

As we develop the Monarchist Worlds surrounding Aegron for the Riskail setting, H. Beam Piper's take on a capitalistic-industrialist-royalist hybrid-form of government (as well as a few other strange political structures) will definitely serve as a guiding light and an inspirational touchstone.  The whole commerce-raiding thing that Piper explored in Space Viking deserves to be more fully developed and fleshed-out, and the airships that spread outwards through the Sea Gates from Aegron are definitely ideological heirs of Piper's Sword Worlders in several respects, though not all.  At this point anyone writing about any form of futuristic feudalism in a SciFi context is inevitably going to get compared to Piper, Tubbs, Herbert, etc. so it's better to just accept it and do your best to get past the comparison by taking things farther out into unexplored territory where those predecessors didn't go before.  At least that's our approach, and our goal, in our personal efforts.

But this is post is about Space Viking, so we'll deal with Aegron another day.

One of the more intriguing aspects of this novel is that Lord Lucas Trask doesn't start this story off as a bright-eyed youngster.  He's a man in the prime of his life, coming from a fairly well-to-do Ranching Family.  He doesn't 'go up levels' in the course of his adventures, but rather makes the most of his opportunities, learns a great deal about his region of the old Federation, and exerts a powerful influence on things as he re-kindles the fire of Civilization from deep amidst the post-apocalyptic wreckage of the Federation worlds --and eventually his own people's worlds as well--that have slid into the decline of barbarism.  This approach was the one adopted for the Traveler RPG.  It also resembles the so-called 'End Game' in OD&D quite a bit.  Especially once Trask realizes that hunting down his enemy Dunnan just isn't very likely and that he'll need to ambush him instead, and to do that effectively will require a base.

Setting up a base is the start of Trask's transformation from a vengeance-driven man to a leader, ruler and ultimately monarch in his own right.  The political intrigues and machinations that develop in respect to his dealings with petty nobles who sieze the planetary throne back home and the not-so-slow (de)evolution of Trask's relationship with the new King of Gram and the implications of Trask's rise in relative power in proportion to his King gets complicated and is a riveting and memorable part of the story.

As Lucas Trask gains titles, recognition and patents of nobility, he also builds up his personal base of power and the economy of his base-world.  He plots raids in the early part of his efforts to kick-start the process, to grab some easy capital, and in the course of those raids Trask realizes a very important opportunity that leads into his establishing a network of mutual trade amongst his neighbors.  His small effort quickly escalates and the process of recovering the old Federation technology of the neighboring worlds leads to Trask creating a mutual defense treaty amongst his initial raiding-targets, and consequently becoming a major political figure in terms of more real power than the King he has sworn allegience and fealty to...and who now is growing distrustful, resentful and jealous of his success.

Finally the King of Gram goes too far and Trask declares independence...and he has the power and backing of his allies to discourage the King of Gram from launching any retaliatory raids.  In fact, it is Trask's allies who begin to prey upon the now declining Sword Worlds.  It's an ironic turnabout that follows logically, consistently and smoothly from the situation as established early on in the book.  The whole trajectory of Trask becoming a King in his own right is far more interesting than the pursuit of vengeance that set him upon this path in the first place, but that does get settled as well, and in a very satisfying manner.

I can't recall another rip-roaring adventure yarn that delivered as much in-depth and detailed socio-political commentary and that featured economics so prominently and yet readably.  Even the throw-away bits of exposition are filled with wonderful nuggets of information that show the incredible depth to which Piper developed his setting.  It truly is a crying shame that he decided to end things early, and his suicide leaves a gaping hole in SciFi that will never be filled, not even by Jerry Pournelle.

At heart, Space Viking is built-up around an idea: self-reliance.  Both individually and societally.  It's just an idea.  An idea used in a work of fiction that reflects one guy's opinion and vision and worldbuilding.  I'm not sure what I think about the full implications of his set-up, or his conclusions, but I do find Piper's writing engaging and his imagination entertaining and his ideas thought provoking.  Not bad for a 'Space Opera.'

Piper also wrote a number of stories set in his Federation, Empire, and Paratime settings, including the much beloved Little Fuzzy...which is very much worth reading.  If you've never heard of Piper previously, definitely give Space Viking some consideration.  It's easily one of the ten best SciFi novels ever written, at least as far as I'm concerned...

Some interesting H. Beam Piper sites to check out:
Zarthani An excellent first-stop on the road to discovering H. Beam Piper and his works, especially the TerroHuman Future History, Paratime, Little Fuzzies and his other works.

The very nice H. Beam Piper Memorial site.

Hostigos offers some support for Piper's Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, including the sequels by John F. Carr.

A great many H. Beam Piper eBooks are available via ManyBooks, including Day of the Moron, Ministry of Disturbance, and Omnilingual (which leads into Space Viking...)

Mark Damon Hughes has produced an Unofficial H. Beam Piper website.

There is a Summary Bibliography of H. Beam Piper at the Internet SF Database site.

Frederick Pohl remembers H. Beam Piper.  (Warning: If you don't already know the fate of Piper, this is heartbreaking to read.  Heck, it's heartbreaking to read even if you do already know how the story ends.)


Thousand Suns: The Piper Transmissions is a supplement for the Thousand Suns SciFi RPG from Rogue Games...which I haven't had a chance to look over in any real depth as of yet.  Thousand Suns looks very interesting, and sounds like a lot of fun, delivering an Imperialist/old school take on space opera that is obviously very closely allied to the sorts of fiction that H. Beam Piper wrote.  It reminds me a little of the early days of the Little Black Books for Traveler, before the Imperium took hold and it wasn't quite the free-for-all for anyone desiring to design their own SciFi setting any more.  That could be a lot of fun.

Speaking of the Little Black Books and Marc Millar's RPG-classic Traveler, you can check out the Traveler Wiki, explore the Traveler Web-Ring, give the Mongoose Traveler a look-see, or join-up at the Citizens of the Imperium forums.  The Traveler RPG is very much alive and well and going strong.  There are even a couple of efforts at converting it into aFantasy-context RPG, which are interesting and could be a lot of fun.

A Sidetrack Excursion into an Alternate Version of Traveler
If you want to examine the ongoing real-time efforts of a dedicated designer trying to convert Classic Traveler into a Fantasy-context RPG, check out Doc Grognard's blog, it's an idea that keeps re-surfacing from tie-to-time, especially since Mongoose announced the Traveler OGL license.  There's just something inherently appealing about adapting Traveler to a more Fantasy-oriented environment.