“Yakking about who’s civilized and who’s not”: H. Beam Piper’s Space Viking

Space Viking (1963) starts out looking like a story of vengeance among the neobarbarian remnants of a collapsed Galactic Empire, and then becomes a meditation on the benefits of civilization and how that is distinct from technology. It contains a fundamentally flawed assumption about the way society works, but it’s a fast fun read. It isn’t my favourite Piper, but I’m fond of it and re-read it fairly often.

One of the things Piper’s very good at is taking a historical situation and translating it to space. Here as you’d expect, it’s the centuries after the fall of Rome, spread out across the stars. The obvious comparison in Asimov’s Foundation—and what a very different kind of book this is. Foundation is all about the centuries and society seen in stop-motion over time. Space Viking is one moment (about a decade) as time goes on heedless. Foundation is detached from time, seeing it from outside. Space Viking is immersed in it.

Another thing Piper is good at is having the one competent man (and it is always a man) who changes the world. Lucas Trask leaves his homeworld of Gram prepared to risk everything to seek revenge on the lunatic who killed his bride at their wedding. On the way to revenge, almost by accident, he builds a star-spanning trade empire, becomes king of his own planet, and realises that he’s become absorbed in building civilization and finds revenge an irritating distraction from that. Trask’s adventures completely change the history of six planets, and possibly more.

In a neat bit of worldbuilding, the Swordworlds, where the Space Vikings come from, are named after famous swords—the first one was Excalibur. The ex-Empire planets are named after gods of ancient pantheons. This means the reader can immediately and easily tell them apart without a scorecard—if a planet’s Baldur, you know it’s an old Empire planet, if it’s Durendal it’s a swordworld. All of the science fictional details make sense and fit together, the contragravity, the nuclear weapons, the wars on planets and in space. Time is given in multiples of hours, which is very authentic but which I find slightly irritating as it means constant mental arithmetic.

The thing Piper gets wrong, and which you have to bite your lip and ignore in order to enjoy the book, is the idea that when you take people out of a society the old society can never recover. If this were true, there would be no Einstein, no Tolkien, no Beatles, because the boldest and best people had already abandoned Europe for America and once that had happened no more intelligent people could ever emerge. It’s true that if all the educated people leave a planet it will temporarily collapse, but if some leave and the schools are still there, which is what we see, in a generation it won’t matter because genes don’t work that way. If you lose a thousand trained engineers out of a population of a billion, which is what Piper says, there’ll barely be a wobble. And the whole eugenics angle is even more distasteful.

One of the things Piper’s interested in here is showing how civilized planets collapse, and how barbarous planets become civilized. There are two examples of the first, Gram and Marduk. Gram is feudal and is decivilizing from the top down, as the leaders squabble and cheat the populace—timarchy decaying into oligarchy. Marduk suffers a classic democracy-collapses-into-tyranny modelled on the rise of Mussolini. Now this is all in Plato (what do they teach them in these schools?) and it’s all very pat—too pat. When you can choose your examples from anywhere you like it starts to look like dice loading. Any writer’s doing this with any choices, but it works better if it doesn’t look like special pleading. If it wasn’t for the whole eugenics thing putting me on edge, I’d probably have let this Platonic cycle thing slide past without thinking too much about it.

In any case, the story begins with a madman committing murder and ends with the same madman dead, and everything else, the rise and fall of civilizations and Trask’s journey back to being able to love, is what happens along the way. Like most Piper, this is a great book for teenagers. I gobbled it up uncritically when I was fourteen, and it did me no harm at all. My copy, with a horrible generic spaceship cover, was bought new for 85p.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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