Last summer over at the Castalia House blog, Jeffro posted about A Spaceship for the King as a largely unrecognized inspiration for the Traveller pen and paper game. My interest was piqued by his exposition, and I later recognized author Jerry Pournelle as the same gent who co-wrote the Mote in God’s Eye – another great scifi novel I read some years back. As a matter of fact, the two books happen to belong to a larger series penned by Pournelle in occasional collaboration with fellow scientifictioneer Larry Niven.
Late last year I picked up a copy of King David’s Spaceship – an expanded version of A Spaceship for the King (which was originally a three part serial). You know, this one turned out to be a great example of why you sometimes have to force yourself through an opening chapter or two. I was initially a little turned off by what I was reading – a typical fantasy tavern scene, complete with giggling and squealing serving wenches being pinched as they served “countless” drinks to soldiers and other handsy patrons. To be fair to Pournelle, when he wrote this thing originally, it probably wasn’t such an overused trope.
Once past that somewhat clumsy opening, though, I had very little to complain about. To the contrary, I found King David’s Spaceship a most enjoyable read, with a lot to unpack. A few further thoughts, then, from my notes (*Spoilers to follow*):
1. Pournelle did a skillful job of crafting conflict without any real villains, perhaps aside from the Moorish barbarian horde, who were arguably relatively unimportant characters to the story. The Imperials and more specifically the Navy are painted as the chief antagonists throughout most of the book. But when we get a glimpse of matters from their perspective, what do we see? Bean counters and bureaucrats; a professor; a young sailor; a petty, stick-up-his-ass middling officer. These are flawed, but not evil men. Many of them are well-intentioned.
Physically, to MacKinnie and his band, Dougal and his fellow Samualans ultimately pose as much of a threat if not more.
2. This is a story of a determined group of primitives (“colonials” they are derisively called by one Imperial) triumphing, in a way, against an overwhelmingly technologically superior foe. In spirit, I found it somewhat reminiscent of Anderson’s the High Crusade.
“Superiority” is a slippery thing. Where the Empire is strong, rich, and advanced, it is also slow. The Imperials are constrained by their highly ordered bureaucracy, laws, and political intricacies. And because their Navy is staffed by men who are the product of such a society, they are prone to complacency and routine. They are vigilant of enforcing their rules, but often lack the vision to anticipate such as the “colonials” are able to pull off.
3. As Jeffro noted in his piece, the Catholic Church (referred to as “New Rome”) is featured prominently and without the malicious undertones or even explicit hostility that increasingly pervades much of modern SFF. Clerics in this story are practical yet seemingly sincere in their faith and benevolence.
4. I found the characters to be serviceable, but nothing to write home about. Our main man is a competent soldier and commander. We’re told that he attracts followings and engenders supreme loyalty in his men, though we’re not really shown very much of this charisma. His best buddy and manservant is a competent lieutenant and superb fighter. The protagonist’s eventual girlfriend is a competent…logistician? She’s certainly written to be a “strong” woman — brave, willful, not stunningly beautiful but attractive. The scientist and the scholar in the group are also competent, with a little bit of flavor text to tell us that one is portly and one is somewhat of a priss. The native captain and mercenaries that the protagonists recruit on Makassar are also competent. Haven’s spymaster is competent, as is the King and his minister and the head of the University.
That’s what we get – competent characters, some of whom are well fleshed out and some who are less so. And that’s fine. But come the end of the story, I didn’t really feel attached to any of them. They played their roles in the plot, and I suppose that was enough.
5. When it comes to the “realisticness” of what constitutes hard science fiction or military science fiction, I’m no authority. But still, this felt like a good example of both. A lot of science was discussed and implemented by the characters. Some of the most interesting parts of the story, for me, were the military tactics employed by MacKinnie to liberate the Temple from the barbarians.
6. There were a few scenes that felt a little sloppily executed. In particular, this scene kind of bothered me:
Now I readily admit, this is a such a minor story point…it winds up not even really being important to any of the proceeding events. Still – this assassin has time to rush through a crowd, lop off a pikeman’s arm, presumably slay several others, take a javelin to the chest and pull it out while still attacking…let’s for a moment set aside the improbability of one man with a knife being able to get so far through a crowd of armed soldiers. Hal , the competent lieutenant and superb fighter, has no time to draw his sword during all that? Come on. Even if the assassin was able to accomplish all that in a few seconds – how long does it take to draw a blade, especially for a seasoned soldier?
Still, it can be overlooked in light of the rest of the book. Since getting into Vance and Anderson and the like, I’ve become a fan of this implementation of science fiction – high tech mixed with low tech; swords and spaceships. It’s a lot of fun.
If I were rating King David’s Spaceship, I’d probably give it 4/5. Good stuff.