RogerBW's Blog

Corsair, James L. Cambias 11 February 2016

2015 science fiction. In the near future, helium-3 mining on the Moon is big business, but the shipments back to Earth are being hijacked.

I suspect Cambias set out to write a tale of realistic space piracy; that's certainly what he ended up with. Although David Schwartz, one of the viewpoint characters, has dubbed himself Captain Black the Space Pirate, this piracy is a matter of remote-controlled ion-engined satellites matching vectors with the robot tankers as they pass through L1 and diverting them from their planned drop zones.

(Er, how's that again? Why would you pass through L1 if you didn't have to? The orbital mechanics are mostly pretty decent, but this is a bit of a hole in the plot.)

Clearly if the freighters were manned, or had more than a minimal drive and control system, this wouldn't work: but the owners are trying to save a few bucks. Meanwhile, the US Air Force has no interest in defending the shipments, mostly because it's scared of liability if any third party gets damaged. Which isn't the gung-ho US military as I understand it, but it's necessary for the plot.

There are two major viewpoints: David Schwartz, the technical genius who worked out how to do the hijacking, and Captain Elizabeth Santiago, who starts off running the USAF's one slight attempt to prevent the attacks, and ends up with a private firm that's building a better low-thrust high-impulse space drive. There's also Anne Rogers, who's really more of a plot device than a character, there to be in the right place with a boat at the right time.

Because this is basically a heist story, complete with the innocent caught up in big and scary events. Parts of it reminded me strongly of Neuromancer: not in the cybertech, which isn't here, but the flinging of company and country names at the reader in something like

On his laptop screen he saw a tiny bright dot rising above Mare Smythii on the Moon: a booster carrying four tons of helium-3. A treasure ship worth two billion Swiss francs on the spot market. It was a Westinghouse cargo from the Japanese-Indian-American base at Babcock Crater, on course for the Palmyra Atoll drop zone.

And in the principle of someone who fancies himself a bad dude running up against the real bad dudes, who are obviously going to play him and then throw him away, and every reader will realise this even though Schwartz himself doesn't.

Both Schwartz and Santiago are fairly messed up, in different ways, and it's unfortunate that Cambias should give them the background of a brief relationship in their MIT days; it feels superfluous and smells of stagecraft. Schwartz is determinedly unsympathetic until he's forced to grow up a bit; Santiago is too ready to bet everything on wild and unauthorised ideas, with no backup plan for when they get found out.

There's nothing terribly profound here, but it's all good fun, with thugs with guns, a frantic typing-speed battle to control a satellite, vaguely sensible female characters, a reverse hostage-negotiation gambit, and at least one character who realises how ridiculous his position is:

The situation was ideal for an uptight Chinese security professional with badass martial arts skills to have wacky adventures with his laid-back but streetwise Rastafarian Haitian partner as they tracked down the elusive killer and learned to respect each other, but David didn't really want to be the target of a mismatched buddy-cop manhunt.

The light humour here is what lifts it out of the ranks of generic SF technothrillers, and this ended up being rather more enjoyable than I'd expected.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 03:50pm on 11 February 2016

    Which L1 are we talking about here? Earth-Moon or Sun-Earth? I can't tell, because neither make any sense.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 04:00pm on 11 February 2016

    Earth-Lunar; all the action is within cislunar space. In the large scale, the voyage is treated as a one-dimensional one, climbing out of Luna's gravity well until you get to L1 and then falling down to Earth. I know perfectly well that James knows orbital mechanics better than this (he's a co-author of GURPS Space), and he gets other things right, so I'm rather at a loss as to why this was done.

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