By H. Beam Piper
Published by LibriVox
Read by Mark Nelson
I was thrilled to discover that LibriVox had released recordings of some of H. Beam Piper’s works. LibriVox records public domain books and stories and releases then, also in the public domain, for downloading from www.librivox.org. Naturally, I downloaded a bunch and will be reviewing them here and there. If you are looking for free audiobooks of public domain stories, this is the place to go.
When I first encountered Space Viking paperbacks were still selling for $1.50 and I recalling buying it with another of Piper’s flamboyantly named novels, The Cosmic Computer. I recall opening the book with some hesitation. I mean really… Space Viking? It sounded like the B movie that ran just before the original Godzilla. But Piper based his future history on real world history and he drew a lot of parallels between the Vikings and the period in which this novel is placed.
Unlike a lot of authors who have written future histories, H. Beam Piper did not have his run in a point by point parallel to real history, but plotted the broad generalities of how it might proceed and then for each era found equivalents from the past. So his Terran Federation has a lot of parallels to the colonial period from the 17th to 19th Centuries, in that there are colonial companies colonizing the worlds explorers are finding. But the Federation is a single government for all human worlds and is centered on Terra. The Fuzzy novels I reviewed last year are set during the Federation.
Space Viking takes place later after the Terran Federation has lost control of the colonial worlds and one by one many of them have slipped into what is called “Neobarbarism.” In this period there are still some “Civilized Worlds” which in this future are defined by having both nuclear power and interstellar travel. But many worlds never had the resources need for these civilized tools or else their populations have forgotten to use them. Piper paints plausible explanation of how a civilization might collapse and lose its technology.
The civilized worlds appear to be mostly monarchies, much like Medieval Europe, and one collection of worlds called the “Sword Worlds” because each is named for a famous historical or legendary sword, has been financing ships to go raiding the old Federation worlds that can no longer defend themselves. The raiders are called Space Vikings.
On one such Sword World, Gram, Lord Lucas Trask of Traskon stands opposed to the Space Vikings because they are taking the best and the brightest from the Sword Worlds and he says that if allowed to continue the Sword Worlds will eventually slump into neobarbarism as well. Lucas suddenly changes his mind when, on his wedding day, the insane nephew of Lucas’ sovereign lord (Duke, later King, Angus) crashes the party and kills Lucas’ wife. Lucas vows revenge and sells his barony to pay for a ship with which to chase the killer.
In such a large volume of space the idea of chasing someone who left six month or more earlier is unthinkable, of course, so first Lucas needs to establish a base world and go Space Viking to pay for the improvements to his new world (Tanith) while casting about for the man who killed his wife.
In many ways Lucas is the opposite of a true Space Viking. After one raiding trip, he chooses to engage in trade instead and soon had a trade route established more financially sound than anything Space Viking raids will supply. Complications arise and the story gets both complex and interesting. In it Piper draws in parallels from world history at various stages giving the whole thing an air of reality. It’s a good story and well worth re-reading.
For anyone interested, Jerry Pournell attempted in the 1980’s to write a sequel Return of Space Viking, a title that is, if anything, even more cliché than the original, but he did not finish it, although it has been announced that John F. Carr is working on that story or one very much like it. There have been a number of other sequels written by John F. Carr, Mike Robertson, Terry Mancour and Dietmar Wehr. Some of them were authorized by the Piper estate and some were not, taking advantage of the expired copyrights. I have not read any of them, but it is a testimony to the popularity of Space Viking and to Piper’s work in general that so many authors have worked to make such a long series of what was intended as a stand-alone novel.
Mark Nelson delivers a lively reading of the book. He demonstrates a lot more emotion and enthusiasm than many readers of audiobooks do. If there was a flaw in his reading it was only that his voice does not vary much or, in some cases, at all from one character to the next so you really have to listen carefully to know who is speaking. However he sounds like he is enjoying reading the story as much as the listener should be and that is refreshing, so in spite of it all this is a very enjoyable book to listen to. If this is the average Librivox quality, I know I am going to be very pleased with the rest of my downloads.
So, summing it all up, this is a classic SF story by one of its lesser-known masters, and arguably one of his best and Mister Nelson’s reading does nothing to detract from it. I highly recommend it to all audiobook listeners. And if you insist on reading for yourself, this and other stories by H. Beam Piper are available for free download from Project Gutenberg at www.gutenberg.org.