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.

[Buy this at Amazon] and help support the blog. ["As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases."]

  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.

Comments on this post are now closed. If you have particular grounds for adding a late comment, comment on a more recent post quoting the URL of this one.

Tags 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s 3d printing action advent of code aeronautics aikakirja anecdote animation anime army astronomy audio audio tech aviation base commerce battletech beer boardgaming book of the week bookmonth chain of command children chris chronicle church of no redeeming virtues cold war comedy computing contemporary cornish smuggler cosmic encounter coup covid-19 crime cthulhu eternal cycling dead of winter doctor who documentary drama driving drone ecchi economics en garde espionage essen 2015 essen 2016 essen 2017 essen 2018 essen 2019 essen 2022 essen 2023 existential risk falklands war fandom fanfic fantasy feminism film firefly first world war flash point flight simulation food garmin drive gazebo genesys geocaching geodata gin gkp gurps gurps 101 gus harpoon historical history horror hugo 2014 hugo 2015 hugo 2016 hugo 2017 hugo 2018 hugo 2019 hugo 2020 hugo 2022 hugo-nebula reread in brief avoid instrumented life javascript julian simpson julie enfield kickstarter kotlin learn to play leaving earth linux liquor lovecraftiana lua mecha men with beards mpd museum music mystery naval noir non-fiction one for the brow opera parody paul temple perl perl weekly challenge photography podcast politics postscript powers prediction privacy project woolsack pyracantha python quantum rail raku ranting raspberry pi reading reading boardgames social real life restaurant reviews romance rpg a day rpgs ruby rust scala science fiction scythe second world war security shipwreck simutrans smartphone south atlantic war squaddies stationery steampunk stuarts suburbia superheroes suspense television the resistance the weekly challenge thirsty meeples thriller tin soldier torg toys trailers travel type 26 type 31 type 45 vietnam war war wargaming weather wives and sweethearts writing about writing x-wing young adult
Special All book reviews, All film reviews
Produced by aikakirja v0.1