Warfare, Wooing, and Whimsy: The Helmsman by Bill Baldwin

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Tales of sailing ships at war have always held an allure for seamen and landlubbers alike. One of the masters of the genre was C. S. Forester, whose character Horatio Hornblower, and the series of books that followed the character’s adventures, established a basic template used by many authors to create similar adventures. And that template was later taken to the stars with stories where spaceships replaced the sailing ships. One of my favorites of these was the Helmsman series that appeared in the 1980s and 1990s. The author, Bill Baldwin, captured the adventurous spirit of the sea tales while adding a light-hearted touch that was all his own.

In the mid-‘80s to late-‘90s, I was employed in a rather mind-numbing administrative job. Fortunately, there was a shopping center right across the street with a Waldenbooks store (anyone else out there miss those?). I used to crave going out to lunch and browsing the shelves to take my mind off the workplace. In those days, the science fiction publishers were pushing out a lot of paperback books, so there was continuous turnover to peruse. In 1985, when I encountered The Helmsman, feautring a grabby cover by John Berkey, I immediately picked it up. I saw it was a far-future naval adventure, and was immediately hooked. Naval adventures are like comfort food to me—both the historical kind and those set in the far future. The author, Bill Baldwin, had an entertaining style. There was lots of action, interesting characters, romance, and quite a bit of humor. Over the years, I eagerly looked for new installments, and I was disappointed when the series ceased to appear. In researching this review, however, I found that the author had written one more book, this time for a small press, which I immediately put on my Christmas list.

 

About the Author

Bill Baldwin (1935-2015) was not the most prolific of science fiction authors, and did not start to publish until later in his life. After serving in the Air Force as a commissioned officer, Baldwin had a long career working for NASA and NASA support contractors. He also was an avid boater.

Baldwin’s output almost exclusively consisted of the books of the Helmsman series: The Helmsman, Galactic Convoy, The Trophy, The Mercenaries, The Defenders, The Siege, The Defiance, and The Turning Tide. The fifth through seventh books reportedly drew on an autobiography of a French aviator describing service in World War II: The Big Show by Pierre Clostermann (while I have never read the autobiography, there are portions of those books that have a different tone than the rest of the series, which may reflect the influence of that source).

The first seven books were published from 1985 to 1996, with the final book appearing from a smaller press in 2011. There were also “expanded versions” of the earlier books in the series published by that same publisher (Timberwolf Press). The author intended one more book in the series, but was not able to complete it before his death. Baldwin also wrote two standalone novels: Canby’s Legion, a military science fiction adventure, and The Enigma Strategy, a WWII adventure.

 

The Royal Navy in Fiction

For centuries, the Royal Navy allowed what we know call the United Kingdom to dominate the seas around the world. Founded in the 16th century by King Henry VIII, the wooden sailing ships of the Royal Navy battled the navies of many rivals, most notably the Spanish, Dutch, and French, with many of their most famous clashes taking place during the Napoleonic Wars. By the 19th century, the Royal Navy was the most powerful maritime force in the world, and facilitated the formation of a world-spanning empire.

During its heyday, the Royal Navy advanced technology in many areas, including sails and rigging, construction, gunnery, medicine, nutrition, and especially navigation. It developed tactics, strategies, organizational structures, customs, and traditions that are today used nearly universally by other navies. Its ships sailed the seven seas, and the concept of freedom of navigation that we take for granted today exists largely because it was beneficial to the British Empire.

The Royal Navy was also notable for the brutal life it offered sailors, giving them grog rations in amounts that some say made them alcoholics, and then using those rations for reward and punishment. Corporal punishments, especially lashing, and even execution by hanging, were not unusual. To crew the Navy, men were at times “pressed” into service involuntarily—basically a legal form of kidnapping. While answerable to courts martial upon return to their ports, ship captains at sea were given complete authority over their ships and crews.

The history of this organization is filled with fascinating characters, thrilling adventures, tragedies, and great victories. There were fascinating voyages of exploration, invasions, single-ship actions, mutinies, and all manner of battles in all kinds of exciting locations. All of this offers ripe material for fictional adventures. An early author of Royal Navy adventures was Captain Frederick Marryat, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, whose Mr. Midshipman Easy (1836) provided a template that many other writers followed. The 20th century saw a number of authors writing in this vein. Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall wrote the Bounty Trilogy, based on the famous mutiny. C.S. Forester’s aforementioned adventures of Horatio Hornblower were hugely popular, and led to many a series that followed a naval officer throughout his career (the central trilogy of Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colors remain required reading for anyone who aspires to write adventure fiction).

Other popular authors included Alexander Kent, Dudley Pope, and Patrick O’Brian, with O’Brian being the most notable of these because of the depth of the characterization in his books, especially that of the two main characters Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. (Note: in the early days of Tor.com, Jo Walton reread O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series). A favorite series of mine, which is still ongoing, is the Thomas Kydd series by Julian Stockwin, a former Royal Australian Navy officer. This series is distinctive in following its main character from being pressed into enlisted service, and several of the early books describe life in the forecastle before he becomes an officer, and eventually a ship captain.

When people imagine military actions in space, the long voyages inevitably lead their thoughts in the direction of the naval model, and there have been many books following the adventures of naval officers in space, including those by Poul Anderson, A. Bertram Chandler, David Weber, Jack Campbell, and of course, Bill Baldwin.

 

The Helmsman

Sub-Lieutenant Wilf Brim fights his way through the snow in a cold waterfront district. The anti-gravity beams that lift Imperial Fleet space warships cause damage on the ground beneath, which makes seaside basing the best option. This opening evokes all sorts of naval imagery, and is the first, but certainly not last, time in the book where the technology is driven by style and plot considerations. Very quickly, the reader is exposed to the author’s sense of whimsy. There will be death and destruction in the tale, but we are not intended to take this too seriously. The book may or may not be set in our world, although if it is, it’s in a far future where the Earth has been forgotten. That being said, the Empire Brim serves is clearly an analog of the British Empire of the 18th through 20th centuries here on Earth. Their biggest allies are the Great Sodeskayan Bears, humanoid bear creatures whose culture bears a strong resemblance to pre-Soviet Russia. And the enemy minions of Emperor Nergol Triannic’s League of Dark Stars are vaguely Germanic in nature.

Brim is a lowly Carescrian, a product of a harsh mining planet (in a historical novel, he might have been from a mining village in Cornwall), who lost his family to an enemy attack. But his background has also given him skills in piloting barge-like ships with balky propulsion systems under adverse conditions…and compared to them, piloting naval starships, while challenging, is straightforward. He owes his commission to the new Admiralty Reform Act, which allows commoners to join the royalty in the ranks of officers.

Brim reaches his new ship, Truculent (like many British ships from history, with a warlike adjective for a name). She is held in place in a “gravity pool” by “optical mooring beams” (whatever those might be). The first crewmember he meets is the massive but clumsy Barbousse—a meeting played for comedy, but this is someone who will become a loyal companion on many a future adventure. He also meets Grimsby, the more-than-slightly-odd wardroom steward, and then engineering Lieutenant Nik Ursis, who like many engineers in the fleet is a Sodeskayan. Brim also encounters Sub-Lieutenant Theada, an arrogant aristocratic officer who is also joining his first ship, and then the two of them call upon Truculent’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Collingsworth (a name that evokes the famed British naval commander Collingwood). Collingsworth is a woman, the first we meet in the mixed-gender, but mostly male, Imperial Navy. And from description we’re given of her, it’s clear that Baldwin has written these adventures with a very distinctive male gaze. Brim volunteers to conn the vessel into orbit, and immediately establishes himself as a young officer worthy of respect.

Romance is also a very big part of this book. In a wardroom reception, Wilf meets Naval Intelligence Lieutenant Margot Effer’wyck, who turns out to be an actual princess, and he is instantly smitten. Wilf is not well read, but he loves poetry (largely because used poetry books were cheap where he comes from). She loves poetry as well, and this fosters an immediate connection between the two. Her duties require her to marry another, but their attraction is too strong to ignore.

Starting a military adventure series with the protagonist as a junior officer can be challenging, as there is a lot of learning and tedium involved in the lower ranks. But in the case of Wilf Brim, Baldwin pulls every trick in the book to keep things interesting. Truculent is sent on blockade duty, and soon Theada and Brim are sent out on a boarding party to inspect a blockade runner. Theada, with his aristocratic arrogance, and streak of cowardice, becomes a danger to those around him. The boarding party is captured by enemy vessel, but Brim slips away before he can be counted. He kills one of the Controllers, referred to as “Overmann” by ordinary enemy sailors, as the man is using TimeWeed, a drug that supposedly enhances paranormal abilities. These black-suited officers remind me of the political officers used in the Soviet Navy to ensure loyalty.

Wilf is able to cripple the enemy vessel, but is then captured and tortured by the enemy captain, Prefect (or lieutenant commander) Valentin, initiating a rivalry that will continue into additional volumes. The crippled enemy ship is captured by Truculent, and Wilf awakens in surgical suite, where Doctor Flynn has given him a new shoulder and some new teeth and expresses macabre disappointment that he didn’t get to do even more repair work. Truculent goes to yard, and in the midst of a lovely and sexually charged dinner with Margot, Wilf is summoned for detached duty.

Baldwin knows that keeping his character aboard a ship in the yard would stop the narrative dead in its tracks, so Wilf is sent to augment an army unit deployed to the planet of the winged A’zurnians, where the enemy has established a military research facility, with hostages held in the compound to deter bombardment. Wilf is part of a detachment that will operate captured enemy equipment, artillery similar to guns used by the Imperial Navy. The army commander he is attached to is captured, and Wilf and his mismatched crew single-handedly rescue the A’zurnian hostages, allowing bombardment of the military research facility, and rescue the Army officers. The Army commander attempts to take credit, but it is clear to many that Wilf is the real hero.

These adventures alone might be enough to fill the first book of many an adventure series, but Baldwin is not one to stint on action. Truculent gets underway again, there is a thrilling rescue mission, and later a fierce naval battle against impossible odds. Wilf also gets to spend more time with his beloved Margot, receives some belated recognition from a visiting A’zurnian Crown Prince, and is even given an audience with Crown Prince Onrad himself. Finally, with Baldwin having kept the readers far from any hint of boredom, Wilf and many of his comrades then move on to their next assignment to face new challenges.

 

Final Thoughts

The Helmsman, with its mix of action, romance, and humor, hit the spot for me when I first read it. Because the setting is so divorced from our own world, it has aged very well, and the re-read was like a pleasant return to the company of an old friend. The novel can still be found at used bookstores, and an expanded edition is currently available in both paper and electronic formats. If you’ve never heard of the series, it is definitely worth a look.

And now I turn the floor over to you: Are there any old-timers out there who also read the adventures of Wilf Brim when they first appeared? Or those who discovered the series later on? If so, what did you think? Did you enjoy the stories and their setting as much as I did? And if there are other quasi-naval science fiction adventures you enjoy, I’d be glad to hear about those, too.

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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