Five Swashbuckling SF Stories About Space Pirates

We’ve all been there: short of change to feed a vending machine, struggling to make a car payment, or even unjustly convicted of treason for unwittingly providing medical assistance to an enemy of King James II. For all these challenges, there is a simple, easy solution: acquire a heavily armed ship and begin preying on less well-armed merchantmen. This is as true in space as on the high seas. You might be interested in the following five novels about SPACE PIRATES!!!

 

Space Viking by H. Beam Piper (1962)

Space Viking by H Beam Piper

Lady Elaine and Lord Trask’s wedding day promised to be a wonderful celebration…until Lady Elaine was killed by rejected suitor Lord Andray Dunnan. Trask, her groom was severely wounded. By the time he recovers, Dunnan and his mercenaries have long since fled the planet in a hijacked starship. Revenge will perforce be delayed…but it will happen, if Trask has anything to do with it.

Trask commissions his own heavily armed starship and sets out to find Dunnan. It might seem a hopeless task. Dunnan could have fled to any of the thousands of settled worlds in the regions once ruled by the long-fallen Federation. How to fund what could be a long quest? Simple. Trask and Dunnan come from one of the Sword Worlds, where it is an honored tradition to roam the spaceways, threatening other worlds with nuclear annihilation if they don’t pay up. Trask goes a-viking to fund his revenge.

In order to kill one man, Trask kills millions. By the end of the novel he has discovered other ways to deal with grief, but his victims are still dead. Not exactly a cheerful book.

In 1968, Andre Norton published a novel, Dark Piper, whose protagonist was a victim of space pirates. I wonder if it was intended as a reply to Space Viking.

 

Merchanter’s Luck by C. J. Cherryh (1982)

Faced with rebellion by their ungrateful colonies, the Company dispatched heavily armed warships under the command of Conrad Mazian to bring the colonists to heel. The expedition failed. Refusing to accept the outcome of the Company War, Mazian and his fellow Mazianni renounced the Company and turned pirate.

A complicated plot follows.

As I recall the backstory, Mazian isn’t just outraged that the Company stabbed him in the back by accepting peace terms. By the time peace breaks out, Mazian and company have committed war crimes and alienated all of their former allies. Their fate (should they ever surrender) would be grim.

 

Marque and Reprisal by Elizabeth Moon (2004)

Ky Vatta has survived personal and professional disgrace as well as attempted mutiny. She should be on course for a career as a successful interstellar trader as an agent of the Vatta Corporation. But Vatta Corporation’s senior management—Ky’s family—was killed by pirates. Ky and her crew have been forced to operate as free agents if they are to survive at all.

In addition to taking down the Vattas, the pirates destroyed the ansible network that binds settled space. Each world is now on its own, easy prey to better-armed pirates (who turn out to have ambitions to found an empire). The world must form a united defense; Ky and her ship are tapped as defenders. She soon finds that she must not only fight pirates, but must deal with trusted contractors who are sabotaging her mission.

Sir John Harington (1561-1612) once said:

“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?

Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”

Piracy and general brigandage follow similar rules. If you’re good enough at it, you become the government. Don’t expect praise and accolades if, for example, you make the mistake of being the antagonists in a multivolume military SF series.

 

Bodacious Space Pirates directed by Tatsuo Sato (based on the light novels by Yūichi Sasamoto) (2012)

The worlds of the warring Stellar Alliance have been absorbed by the Galactic Empire. The privateers who prospered under the fractured Stellar Alliance would now be surplus to requirements…were it not that the empire found a new role for them. They would become pirate cos-players for the amusement of tourists. This involves less carnage but more paperwork.

This is where high schooler Marika Kato enters the narrative: Unbeknownst to Mariko, her father was Space Pirate Gonzaemon, captain of the privateer Bentenmaru. On Gonzaemon’s death, his letter of marque—that license vital to legal privateering—became Mariko’s. Letters of marque can only be inherited, not sold or purchased.

The crew of the Bentenmaru pleads with the high school student to add “pirate queen” to her list of teenage pastimes. Tempting! But not only is space piracy dangerous, it may also lower Mariko’s grade point average.

This anime is notable for: exuberant high schoolers and excellent high school yacht clubs, surprising amounts of paperwork, and of course deadly space combat. IMHO, it is most notable for its opening theme song, Mōretsu Uchū Kōkyōkyoku Dai Nana Gakushō “Mugen no Ai” , which can be an incredible ear worm. I have included the video above to ensure that you know how to avoid it.

 

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard (2022)

To fall into the hands of space pirates is a disaster, at least for poor wretches like Xích Si. The best she can expect from the pirates is involuntary indenture. The worst is much, much worse. Xích Si also loses hope of ever seeing her daughter again, for should Xích Si even try to contact her child, the An O Empire would execute the child as an accessory to piracy.

To Xích Si’s astonishment, she is not immediately enslaved or murdered by her pirate captors. She is saved by the recently widowed mindship Rice Fish, who needs an ally with Xích Si’s technical skills. Therefore, the sentient Rice Fish proposes a trade: if Xích Si agrees to use her abilities to expose the traitor within the pirate council, Rice Fish will marry Xích Si and provide her with exalted status and safety…at least, safety compared to the lot of a lowly slave. Death is still very much a possibility.

Readers brought up on heart-warming entertainments like The Pirates of Penzance may be astonished to discover these pirates rob and kill people. The pirates, who are modeled on historical South Sea pirates under pirate queen Ching Shih, can make a case that circumstances force their hands and that piracy is the least bad choice open to them. Perhaps, but it is of little comfort to their victims.

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No doubt you have favourites, lurking like some sort of fox out in the stars, works that I did not mention. If so, comments are, as ever, below.

In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021 and 2022 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.

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