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.
This summer, I was reading a lot of pirate stories, and I had a hankering to read even more. So I looked on my shelves, and this book immediately caught my eye. I remembered it as being full of adventure, but also a brutal tale that does not shy away from the evils that breed and inform piracy. The author, L. Neil Smith, had long been known as a writer of adventures filled with libertarian political philosophy, but in this case, it’s the adventure that’s front and center.
Some of the pirate stories I’ve been reading over recent months have already been featured in this column. E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series was full of pirate attacks, combat, and boardings in space. I decided to review the first book of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic Carson of Venus stories, only to discover that it had the main character taking to the seas in Pirates of Venus. Looking for a gripping story to feature for my 100th review in this column, I decided upon H. Beam Piper’s classic novel of interstellar warfare and revenge, Space Viking. I also found a great collection of piratical stories from Baen Books called Cosmic Corsairs, edited by Hank Davis and Christopher Ruocchio. Baen has been producing frequent themed anthologies lately that blend together older and newer stories, with all of them entertaining. That particular book I didn’t review because it was a bit too current for the scope of this column.
Looking for more piracy on my bookshelves, I came across the book Henry Martyn, with some simple but evocative cover art by Ron Walotsky. I flipped to the first few pages and found Smith’s acknowledgements: “IT WOULD BE CHURLISH (to say the least) not to acknowledge the works of Rafael Sabatini, Michael Curtiz, Errol Flynn, and C. S. Forester. Bedad, you can do it again, but you can’t do it better.” Mentioning the author of great pirate adventures like Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, along with the director and star of the movie version of Captain Blood, and finally perhaps the greatest writer of nautical adventures ever, certainly showed me that Smith intended to tell a pirate tale that hit the all the right notes.
About the Author
L. Neil Smith (born 1946) is an American science fiction writer. I’ve looked at his work before, reviewing his first novel, The Probability Broach, here, and you can find a complete biography embedded in that review. The bulk of Smith’s work is set in his “North American Confederacy,” a parallel world where a much looser libertarian government emerged out of the American Revolution. After the release of the movie The Empire Strikes Back, Smith also wrote the Star Wars Lando Calrissian trilogy. At the height of his career, Smith wrote three novels for Tor Books that contained his mix of adventure and signature wit, but with the politics more in the background. The first, published in 1986, was The Crystal Empire, where a warrior wanders across a version of North America in an alternate history setting where non-European cultures dominate the world. Smith’s other two Tor books were adventures featuring pirates in space; first Henry Martyn, published in 1989, and then Bretta Martyn, published in 1997, in which Henry Martyn’s daughter follows in her father’s footsteps.
Pirates in Fact and Fantasy
Like a lot of people, I’ve long been interested in pirates. They’ve made frequent appearances in the fiction I’ve consumed over the years, and as a Coast Guard officer, I even took a professional interest in the topic (not that I ever encountered any piracy in the course of my duties). When compared to the more serious histories of the topic, fictional portrayals obviously tend to romanticize pirates. Their leaders are often noble and principled, forced into the profession by wrongdoing or an oppressive government, and pirate crews are frequently portrayed as practicing democratic values that would not be present on any other type of warship. The reality is much darker, as at its heart, piracy is armed robbery, and pirates were and are willing to resort to violence and cruelty in pursuit of wealth.
Piracy has been with us as long as commerce has been conducted by water. It occurs not near ports, which are generally protected by government forces, but in narrow seas and straits where vessels can be overtaken. The Mediterranean Sea was plagued by piracy from the beginning of recorded history. Pirates operated throughout the Far East, and the straits of Indonesia were a particularly favorable location for the practice. The pirates that most often appear in American fiction are those who plagued the Caribbean in the days when Spanish imperial ambitions were beginning to be contested by the English and the French.
And there are some historical examples of pirates who were inspired by more than just greed. I recently read a book, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean by Edward Kritzler, which looked at history from a different perspective. In it, the author describes how Jews fleeing Spain from the horrors of the Inquisition made their way to the Caribbean colonies. There, some became pirates themselves, while others financed pirate vessels operated by others. As that piracy had a huge impact on Spanish commerce with their colonies, you could say that Spanish cruelty and religious prejudice during the Inquisition fueled one of the forces that ultimately led to the decline of their empire.
From the early pulp days, when air pirates first made their appearance in stories, science fiction has speculated on new forms piracy could take. With the current high cost of space travel, the fuel consumption required to match orbits, and the difficulty of concealing vessels in space, it is difficult to imagine space piracy occurring any time in the near future without some major leaps in technology. There may be theft and crime in space eventually, as humans seem incapable of going anywhere without our vices following us, but there are few plausible scenarios for the kind of ship-to-ship boarding actions or captures that make for thrilling fiction. Though perhaps, centuries from now, the orbits between the moons of Jupiter or Saturn could become the equivalent of the narrow seas and straits of the past. And certainly, if we develop the means to take ourselves to the stars, anything is possible…
This book not only uses the template of revenge and piracy employed so effectively in the works of Raphael Sabatini, it also contains literary devices popular in books of his era. There are many reversals of fortune along the way, and characters are often left facing almost certain death, only to have the author abandon them for whole chapters at a time. The narrator tells us the truth—but not the whole truth, often leaving out key details, and keeping information from the readers in order to surprise us later. And there are also misunderstandings between young lovers that complicate their lives. Unlike the more romanticized stories of the past, however, the book is brutally frank when describing torture, rape, combat, and death, so readers should be forewarned.
The book opens as a young Henry Martyn is tortured into revealing everything he knows about his home planet, and then tortured to death for the entertainment of an unnamed evil villain (in other words, he’s not the Henry Martyn the book is named for). We then meet young Arran Islay, whose father, Robret, the Drector-Hereditary of the planet Skye, is returning from the capitol of the Hanoverian Monopolity, with a new bride in tow. The bride-to-be is Alysabeth, the daughter of Robret’s old wartime comrade, Tarbert Morven.
Arran has a much beloved tutor, the ancient Henry Martyn (whose namesake grandson has recently gone missing, but who seems much too old to become a famed pirate). Arran’s older brothers are Robret and Donol, and all of them are eager to meet their new stepmother. But at the wedding of the younger Robret to his true love Lia, Tarbert betrays his old comrade and takes over the planet. The three brothers escape, and decide to split up to fight the usurper. Robret will become a rebel, Donol will pretend to support the usurper, and Arran will attempt to go to the Hanoverian capitol by ship to summon help.
There is much ink spilled in establishing how, in the thousand years between the present and the future, technological advances have turned the galaxy into an analog of the high seas of the 18th and 19th centuries. I’ve read many tales lately that cover the same ground, so I often find these descriptions tedious, but Smith has a witty approach that kept the process interesting. This is far enough in the future, the 31st Century in the old reckoning, that people refer to Earth as the “Airth-a-Legend,” and there are references to a thousand-year war, which suggests that mankind didn’t peacefully spread through the galaxy, but exploded like a malignant fungus from our solar system.
Smith also uses clever terminology to set his scene. The term CEO, now ceo, has become a general term for a leader. They read barquodes on packages, and use spreighformers to build all sorts of manufactured items from their component elements, and construct buildings from universally sized building blocks with lugs on the top and slots on the bottom that they sometimes call “legos.” The discovery of something called §-physics has transformed industry and technology, permitting spaceships to neutralize inertia, enclose themselves in a breathable atmosphere, and spread sails made out of §-fields to catch the tachyon winds and move faster than light. Fighting is done using thrustibles on a personal level and projectibles between ships, weapons that both create a concussive force for attack, and a protective field for defense.
After leaving Skye, Arran is viciously raped by a group of men when he is discovered stowing away on a ship, which is run by a brutally indifferent captain. But a kindly officer helps him out, and when he realizes Arran is educated, begins to train him in officer’s duties. Arran takes revenge on the men who brutalized him, and through his actions and initiative, begins to win over the ship’s crew. But after he distinguishes himself in battle with a corsair, going overboard to sabotage the enemy vessel, the captain leaves him drifting in space.
Smith then leaves Arran’s narrative to go back to Skye, and check in on his brothers. Robret is leading a fierce rebellion in the field, while Donol is doing a good job ingratiating himself with the usurper (as we later find out, perhaps too good a job). Morven is not finding success in his attempts to pacify Skye, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his brutality and willingness to destroy any who oppose him. We even visit the Hanoverian capitol to meet some entirely new characters, including Loreanna, the headstrong and beautiful young daughter of a powerful family. And interspersed throughout all of this, there are reports of a pirate preying on commerce—someone who calls himself Henry Martyn.
When we finally do get encounter Henry Martyn, in the latter half of the book, it is when the pirate captures the beautiful Loreanna. And it turns out that Henry Martyn is young Arran, who has taken on the name of his beloved tutor as a nom de guerre (something that was spoiled in the dust jacket blurb, so I don’t feel too compelled to keep it a secret). Arran wins the heart of Loreanna only to lose her almost immediately. Eventually, over the course of many struggles, the book brings all its various threads together for a satisfying conclusion that takes place on and around Arran’s home planet of Skye.
In the process, Smith manages to weave his libertarian philosophy into the book after all, even though you may not notice it up front. The totalitarian crony capitalism that underpins this novel is the antithesis of the libertarian utopias that Smith has portrayed in his other books. And in the end, young Henry Martyn makes a speech in defense of libertarian values as he pledges to take down the corrupt status quo. (And the name “Henry Martyn”? It’s has a real-life historical counterpart in a pioneering economist and essayist who argued in defense of free trade decades before Adam Smith made a similar argument.)
Henry Martyn is an engaging adventure tale, full of all the action and elements a reader expects from a pirate story. It is sometimes more brutal than I would have liked, and I was occasionally frustrated by the meandering nature of the plot, but it kept me turning pages right to the end. I’ve read a lot of futuristic space pirate tales, and this stands as one of the best.
And now its your turn to chime in: If you’ve read Henry Martyn, I’d love to hear your thoughts! I’d also like to hear your thoughts on the other pirate tales I’ve mentioned, or your recommendations on other piratical books I might read, so please share them in the comments below…
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.