Piper is best known for his Little Fuzzy books about cute little aliens who befriend a grumpy old prospector on a far-off planet. Those books have been in and out of print for years and there’s even an updated version of the novel by John Scalzi (author of Old Man’s War). Although a rather prolific author, Piper’s career was stopped short by his suicide in 1964. Coincidentally, that is the year Space Viking was released, a book which his fans often praise as the best work ever.
For decades I’ve hoped to come across a copy at a used bookstore or science fiction convention. Now, due to the magic of the internet, I was able to procure a used original 1964 paperback (and even then it took some doing). So now that I’ve read this legendary book, what do I think of it?
I found it fascinating how Marc W. Miller cut and pasted so much of Piper’s universe to write the hugely popular role-playing game Traveller. The setting of the novel is the far future, but characters still carry titles such as duke and baron as they fight over interplanetary fiefdoms. The emphasis of Space Viking lives is also very Traveller; they simply strive to amass wealth and power over their enemies. In fact, the plot of the book can be described as: her creates and equips a starship, goes into combat, amass wealth, and uses wealth to upgrade equipment and expand power base–then goes into combat, and repeat.
With this in mind, there is very little exploration of the characters as three-dimensional people. Our hero, Trask, makes rational decisions, builds his empire for…reasons, and only rarely shows any sentimentality or desire outside his political goals. Also, in the tradition of OLD SCHOOL gamers, there are no women playing active roles in this novel. One ship is said to have a female captain, but we never meet her and the ship explodes in battle. All the other female characters are love interests at best and window dressing at worst. This jives with the ascetic of 1964 I suppose (If Mad Men is to be taken as factually based), but without active women in this universe, how impressed am I supposed to be by the men?
It is said that science fiction author Jerry Pournelle and H. Beam Piper were friends, and I can see how the two men had a lot in common. Apparently, this was especially true in the field of politics. As in Pournelle’s works, Piper presents an almost Ayan Randian philosophy; the man in charge who inherits wealth should not be ashamed to use it—for by doing so intelligently, society will prosper as a side effect. Whereas, the man (and yes it’s always a man) who organizes the rabble and fights for social justice is the villain who’s misguided philosophy will destroy the galaxy…or whatever. In Space Viking, characters talk at length about these subjects and it’s clear where Piper stood in the matter.
So, yes, the book is flawed and dated. But I still recommend it as a study in Science Fiction anthropology because it’s clear many major players in science fiction have read this book. For example, Gorge Lucas lifted the name for planet Hoth right off the pages. As a kid in the 1980s, I played an awful lot of Traveller so I must admit that Piper’s last novel influenced my own writing quite a bit (read The Adventures of Crazy Liddy if you don’t believe me).
Space Viking is also a study of what works and what doesn’t work in space opera. When a reader picks up a book with a title such as Space Viking he or she expects lots of action and peril, not a lot of political talks. Besides, there is something “clay pidgin” about expressing one-sided politics in science fiction. The author, after all, sets up the targets and it’s no surprise to the reader when he hits the bulls-eye from two feet away.
By Clayton J. Callahan