RogerBW's Blog

Henry Martyn, L. Neil Smith 18 March 2017

1989 swashbuckling science fiction. Against the background of the thousand-years' war between the Hanoverian Monopolity and the Jendyne Empery-Cirot, Arran Islay fights for freedom and revenge.

L. Neil Smith is well known as a libertarian writer, and like many such he is prone to descend into stereotyping and preachiness (see for example The Probability Broach). Here he largely, though not entirely, resists that urge, or at least sublimates it: in a swashbuckling story there should be hissable villains without a single redeeming characteristic, so the fact that they also represent the forces of utter oppression as opposed to utter freedom (those being the only two options) doesn't matter as much.

Robret and Donol labored over the shattered remains of the draywherry's antique comlaser, although the arcane ceremony they attempted proved more funeral than resurrection.

So we have sailing starships (one of the earliest examples of such I've come across), with tachyon sails and neutrino storms and so on but more importantly with large and largely-unskilled crews. We have a villain with a Beautiful but Evil Daughter. We have personal combat with "thrustibles", which generate kinetic energy, and allow for parrying in a way that boring old firearms don't. And all the technology is based on the "ยง-field", which is as clear an authorial signal as I can think of for "don't ask awkward questions, it just works".

At its heart, deep within the hemispheric shield, lay a bundle, larger than the boy's head, of four half-twisted coils, each wound at right angles to the others.

We also have rather unusual pacing: the first third or so establishes our hero and the setting, the middle third has it all falling apart, and the final third is his triumph. It is an odd setting which perhaps needs a fair bit of introduction: the technology is smart enough that technologists aren't needed to operate it, and Smith chooses to use alien words ("thille", "spreighformer") to describe it, so rather than have a glossary these all need to be shown by example. Even so this can drag; well, Sabatini too had some slow starts. Occasional explanations of why interstellar trade still happens even though goods can be built up one atom at a time largely fail to convince, particularly since we know that the real reason interstellar trade happens is so that pirates can prey on it.

Wrinkling the disfigurement he called a face, Bowmore looked a question.

There's also lots of rape, murder, arson and rape ("I like rape"), and even the non-rapey sexual politics are pretty iffy. There's blatant fetishisation of a largely-useless antique firearm, just because it is a firearm. There's a trick which, in order to work at all, is entirely reliant on the villain behaving in a very specific manner. There's only one really good sword-, sorry, thrustible-fight. But in spite of all these problems there's a sense of fun here, of bad people getting what's coming to them and good people triumphing, that allows the thing to work as a swashbuckling romp even as the joyless doctrinaire libertarianism makes it fail as a serious piece of fiction.

Followed some years later by Bretta Martyn.

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