Space Viking

Review: Space Viking, H. Beam Piper, 1963.

With a title like that, I don’t really have to tell you what historical analogy Piper was working with in this Terro-Human Future History story. But, as we’ll see, Piper works with other historical parallels too.

Piper began this novel around October 1961 and finished it on May 8, 1962. John W. Campbell bought it for serialization in Analog that month even though he had a backlog of material.  Campbell really liked the story and proposed several stories set in the Sword Worlds, but Piper would not write any more stories using that setting. It appeared in the January 1963 issue of Analog.

It would turn out, with the check from Analog and Ace paperback sales, to be Piper’s most profitable book in his lifetime. 

Our story opens with Lucas Traskon, an aristocrat on Gram, one of the Sword Worlds. It’s centuries on from the collapse of the Terran Federation of Piper’s earlier stories.

Traskon is to be married to Lady Elaine that day. Before the wedding, we hear of Andray Dunnan, a man spurned by Elaine and kind of crazy. He’s sort of a stalker and refuses to believe she is willingly marrying Traskon. Dunnan also spreads stories that nobody believes that he was born before his brother. He inherited a barony but squandered his money, and his property is heavily mortgaged. He’s set to ship out soon with a mercenary company he’s formed. 

Before the wedding, Traskon meets Otto Harkaman, a Space Viking. Trask, as he’s known, doesn’t like Space Vikings. He doesn’t object to them being professional murderers and robbers – as Harkaman frankly concedes. Trask doesn’t object to raiding the worlds of the Old Federation. He does object to Space Viking raids on the Sword Worlds. They may take locals with valuable technical skills, but they also lose trained professionals in the raids. 

And after they were gone, the farms and ranches and factories would go on, almost but not quite as before. Nothing on Gram, nothing on any of the Sword-Worlds, was done as efficiently as three centuries ago. The whole level of Sword-World life was sinking, like the east coastline of this continent, so slowly as to be evident only from the records and monuments of the past. He said as much, and added:

And the genetic loss. The best Sword-World genes are literally escaping to space, like the atmosphere of a low-gravity planet, each generation begotten by fathers slightly inferior to the last. It wasn’t so bad when the Space Vikings raided directly from the Sword-Worlds; they got home once in a while. Now they’re conquering planets in the Old Federation for bases and staying there. 

Harkaman agrees Space Vikings leave the Sword Worlds, but wasn’t the Federation colonizing done with “good men” while

the stuffed shirts and yes-men and herd-followers and safety-firsters stayed on Terra and tried to govern the galaxy.

Trask argues

we’re contracting. We stopped expanding three hundred and fifty years ago, when that ship came back to Morglay from the Old Federation and reported what had been happening out there since the Big War. Before that, we were discovering new planets and colonizing them. Since then, we’ve been picking the bones of the dead Terran Federation. 

Harkaman, it turns out, is a student of history. Many Space Vikings have hobbies on their long voyages. He says,

You know, it’s odd; practically everything that’s happened on any of the inhabited planets happened on Terra before the first spaceship.

We hear about Neobarbarians – which we don’t learn that much about — to which Trask says

There aren’t a dozen and a half planets in the Old Federation that still have hyperdrive, and they’re all civilized. That’s if ‘civilized’ is what Gilgamesh is,” he added. “These are homemade barbarians. Workers and peasants who revolted to seize and divide the wealth and then found they’d smashed the means of production and killed off all the technical brains. Survivors on planets hit during the Interstellar Wars, from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries, who lost the machinery of civilization. Followers of political leaders on local-dictatorship planets. Companies of mercenaries thrown out of employment and living by pillage. Religious fanatics following self-anointed prophets. 

We hear of a local strike against robots by dockworkers. Harkman says

I know of at least forty instances, on a dozen and a half planets, in the last eight centuries, of anti-technological movements. They had them on Terra, back as far as the Second Century Pre-Atomic. And after Venus seceded from the First Federation, before the Second Federation was organized.

Dunnan shows up and rails against his uncle, Duke Angus of Gram, trying to take Omfray of Glaspyth’s holdings on the planet. (There is a war going on in parts of Gram). He also accuses Harkaman of denying him command of the newly built Enterprise

Elaine tells Dunnan to go away. 

Harkaman says of Dunnan,

Crazy men who pretend to thrones are bombs that ought to be deactivated, before they blow things up.

and wonders what Dunnan is up to with the 300 mercenaries under his command. 

After the ceremony, Dunnan shows up and fatally shoots Elaine and wounds Trask. When he wakes in the hospital, Trask finds out that, by bribing some local shipyard workers, Dunnan has stolen the Enterprise. It’s suspected Omfray of Glaspyth supplied the money for the covert operation. Trask puts up the money to finish up another ship under construction, dubbed the Nemesis, and use it to hunt Dunnan. The rest of the novel will be that hunt.

He hires Harkaman to be his captain. The old Trask is dead. The new one will be Space Viking. 

Harkaman warns him that, given that communication travels no faster than a ship can move and the distances involved, it’s likely he won’t find Dunnan. 

Since Duke Angus contemplated a project of establishing a base on Tanith, Trask asks Harkaman if Trask went there. No, is the reply. Dunnan doesn’t have enough men to establish a base there.  He would go to an already established Space Viking base to recruit the necessary people. 

They learn that Dunnan’s force showed up at another planet and bought a lot of weapons and ammunition and is possibly bound for Tanith. But it’s hard to predict the actions of Dunnan because he’s crazy. 

At Tanith, they meet two Space Viking ships on a “chicken stealing” raid on the planet. They are Valkanhayan and Spasso. Their ships are in disrepair, and they really can’t raid any planets more advanced than Tanith. It turns out that both captains rather run their ships on a Soviet model with “elected command-councils” which appalls Trask and Harkaman.

Trask and Harkaman visit Tanith after Valkanhayan’s and Spasso’s recent raid on it, and we get this description:

The rest of the city seemed to have died of neglect rather than violence. It certainly hadn’t been bombed out. Harkaman thought most of the fighting had been done with subneutron bombs or Omega-ray bombs, that killed the people without damaging the real estate. Or bio-weapons; a man-made plague that had gotten out of control and all but depopulated the planet.

’It takes an awful lot of people, working together at an awful lot of jobs, to keep a civilization running. Smash the installations and kill the top technicians and scientists, and the masses don’t know how to rebuild and go back to stone hatchets. Kill off enough of the masses and even if the planet and the know-how is left, there’s nobody to do the work. I’ve seen planets that decivilized both ways. Tanith, I think, is one of the latter.’ 

Valkanhayan and Spasso have basically established a primitive slave system. Trask puts it to them that, to keep the planet, they can only use one ship to raid while their other ship has to remain to stop a rebellion. 

Trask and Harkaman take another trip to parts of Tanith: 

’You know, these people are civilized, if you don’t limit the term to contragravity and nuclear energy,’ Harkaman said. ‘They have gunpowder, for one thing, and I can think of some rather impressive Old Terran civilizations that didn’t have that much. They have an organized society, and anybody who has that is starting toward civilization.’

‘I hate to think of what’ll happen to this planet if Spasso and Valkanhayn stay here long.’

‘Might be a good thing, in the long run. Good things in the long run are often tough while they’re happening. I know what’ll happen to Spasso and Valkanhayn, though. They’ll start decivilizing, themselves. They’ll stay here for a while, and when they need something they can’t take from the locals they’ll go chicken-stealing after it, but most of the time they’ll stay here lording it over their slaves, and finally their ships will wear out and they won’t be able to fix them. Then, some time, the locals’ll jump them when they aren’t watching and wipe them out. But in the meantime, the locals’ll learn a lot from them.’ 

Trask decides to get investors on Gram and build a base to read valuable planets. Trask tells Valkanhayan and Spasso about Duke Angus’ original plans for Tanith before the Enterprise was stolen from him. Valkanhayan and Spasso agree to join in the project in exchange for supplies and having their ships repaired.

Trask institutes some reforms. Native labor on Tanith has to be paid and no more beating them. Offer the ones working for them the chance to leave with presents and transportation home. A token system is introduced to pay the ones that remain.

Trask and Harkaman discuss their plans. Harkaman:

’First, Khepera. That’s only thirty light-years from here. That won’t amount to much; just chicken-stealing. It’ll give our green hands some relatively safe combat-training, and it’ll give us some idea of how Spasso’s and Valkanhayn’s people behave, and give them confidence for the next job.’

‘And then?’

‘Amaterasu. My information about Amaterasu is about twenty years old. A lot of things can happen in twenty years. All I know of it— I was never there myself— is it’s fairly civilized— about like Terra just before the beginning of the Atomic Era. No nuclear energy, they lost that, and of course nothing beyond it, but they have hydroelectric and solarelectric power, and nonnuclear jet aircraft, and some very good chemical-explosive weapons, which they use very freely on each other. It was last known to have been raided by a ship from Excalibur twenty years ago.’

’That sounds promising. And the third planet?’

‘Beowulf. We won’t take enough damage on Amaterasu to make any difference there, but if we saved Amaterasu for last, we might be needing too many repairs.’

‘It’s like that?’

‘Yes. They have nuclear energy. I don’t think it would be wise to mention Beowulf to Captains Spasso and Valkanhayn. Wait till we’ve hit Khepera and Amaterasu. They may be feeling like heroes, then.’” 

The raid on Khepera is

easy; the locals hadn’t had anything to fight with. Small arms, and light cannon which hadn’t been able to fire more than a few rounds. Wherever they had attempted resistance, the combat cars had swooped in, dropping bombs and firing machine guns and auto-cannon. Yet they had fought, bitterly and hopelessly— just as he would have, defending Traskon. 

Piper doesn’t try to pretty up what Space Viking raids are like. 

Or the little company, some of them women, trying to defend the top of a tall and half-ruinous building with rifles and pistols. One air-cavalryman wiped them all out with his machine guns.

‘They don’t have a chance,’ he’d said, half-sick. ‘But they keep on fighting.’

‘Yes; stupid of them, isn’t it?’ Harkaman, beside him, had said.

‘What would you do in their place?’

‘Fight. Try to kill as many Space Vikings as I could before they got me. Terro-humans are all stupid like that. That’s why we’re human.’

If the taking of the city had been a massacre, the sack that had followed had been a man-made Hell. He had gone down, along with Harkaman, while the fighting, if it could be so called, was still going on. Harkaman had suggested that the men ought to see him moving about among them; for his own part, he had felt a compulsion to share their guilt.

Later they come across a scene,

They found themselves alone, in a great empty hallway; the noise and horror of the sack had moved away from them, or they from it, and then, when they entered a side hall, they saw a man, one of the locals, squatting on the floor with the body of a woman cradled on his lap. She was dead, half her head had been blown off, but he was clasping her tightly, her blood staining his shirt, and sobbing heartbrokenly. A carbine lay forgotten on the floor beside him.

‘Poor devil,’ Morland said, and started forward


Trask stopped him with his left hand. With his right, he drew his pistol and shot the man dead. Morland was horrified.

‘Great Satan, Lucas! Why did you do that?’

‘I wish Andray Dunnan had done that for me.’ He thumbed the safety on and holstered the pistol. ‘None of this would be happening if he had. How many more happinesses do you think we’ve smashed here today? And we don’t even have Dunnan’s excuse of madness.’” 

Harkaman and Trask discuss the trauma of the latter’s first raid (though he has scene combat on Gram). Harkaman says he had bad dreams for a year after his. 

The raid on Ameratsu is more complicated. After demanding surrender, they find President Pedrosan Pedro of Elgonsby a bit recalcitrant: 

’We are prepared to resist, but we realize what this would cost in lives and destruction of property,’ he began.

’You don’t begin to. Do you know anything about nuclear weapons?’

‘From history; we have no nuclear power of any sort. We can find no fissionables on this planet.’

‘The cost, as you put it, would be everything and everybody in Eglonsby and for a radius of almost a hundred miles. Are you still prepared to resist?’ The President of the Council of Syndics wasn’t and said so. Trask asked him how much authority his position gave him.

‘I have all powers in any emergency. I think,’ the voice added tonelessly, ‘that this is an emergency. The council will automatically ratify any decision I make.’

Harkaman depressed a button in front of him.

‘What I said; dictatorship, with parliamentary false front.’

‘If he isn’t a false-front dictator for some oligarchy.’ He motioned to Harkaman to take his thumb off the button.

“’How large is this Council?’

“‘Sixteen, elected by the Syndicates they represent. There is the Syndicate of Labor, the Syndicate of Manufacturers, the Syndicate of Small Businesses, the.…’

“‘Corporate State, First Century Pre-Atomic on Terra. Benny the Moose,” Harkaman said.

With this reference to Benito Mussolini, we see Piper not only drawing on Viking history for his story but Fascist Italy too.

It turns that Elgonsby is at war with the Stolgoland which Pedro suggests should be raided given they have a currency backed by gold. The Stogoland embassy is seized, and the ambassador proposes the army of Elgonsby be crushed by the Space Vikings and then Stogoland be allowed to occupy the company. In return, Stogoland will pay a sum in gold (rather like Danegeld).

Trask pretends to accept the offer. Five days later, Stogoland is invaded along with the staging areas for the Stogoland invasion of Elgonsby being bombed. The Space Vikings are pleased with the raid on Stogoland. There are substantial libraries for Harkaman. Another Space Viking likes the art museums since he’s something of an art authority. 

Pedro complains the Vikings haven’t left Elgonsby yet. 

’ You promised to leave Eglonsby alone if I helped you get the gold of Stolgoland.’

‘I promised nothing of the kind. I promised to help you take Stolgoland. You’ve taken it,’ Trask told him. ‘I promised to avoid unnecessary damage or violence. I’ve already hanged a dozen of my own men for rape, murder and wanton vandalism. Now, we expect to be out of here in twenty-four hours. You’d better be back here before then. Your own people are starting to loot. We did not promise to control them for you.’

With few troops in Elgonsby, the troops are unable to cope with the mobs that are pillaging in the wake of the Space Vikings. Everybody seems to be trying to grab what they can and let the Space Vikings be blamed for it.

However, the raid on “Beowulf was bad.” It has sophisticated defenses and technological. It’s a rich world, but, ultimately, it is vanquished. Valkanhayn gets his respect back as a real Space Viking, but Spasso is bought off and sent back with a recommendation for service with Duke Angus on Gram. 

This novel takes place over several years, and it’s learned eventually that Spasso becomes the police chief under the increasingly repressive Duke, now King, Angus. Piper has a bit straight out of his favorite author Machiavelli: 

That didn’t sound good. Spasso could make King Angus’ name stink all over Glaspyth. Or maybe he’d allow Spasso to crush the adherents of Omfray, and then hang him for his oppression of the people. He’d read about somebody who’d done something like that, in one of Harkaman’s Old Terran history books. 

Omfray is forced to leave Gram and go into exile. Trask isn’t really interested in affairs on Gram. He’s building his own empire. He’s now Prince Trask of Tanith and his descendants will rule Gram one day. 

A trading alliance and defensive alliance is set up between Tanith, Ameratsu, and Beowulf. We do get a bit on what are, basically, Jews in this future: 

He had first heard of Gilgameshers— the word was used indiscriminately for a native of or a ship from Gilgamesh— on Gram, from Harkaman and Karffard and Vann Larch and the others. Since coming to Tanith, he had heard about them from every Space Viking, never in complimentary and rarely in printable terms.

Gilgamesh was rated, with reservations, as a civilized planet though not on a level with Odin or Isis or Baldur or Marduk or Aton or any of the other worlds which had maintained the culture of the Terran Federation uninterruptedly. Perhaps Gilgamesh deserved more credit; its people had undergone two centuries of darkness and pulled themselves out of it by their bootstraps. They had recovered all the old techniques, up to and including the hyperdrive.

They didn’t raid; they traded. They had religious objections to violence, though they kept these within sensible limits, and were able and willing to fight with fanatical ferocity in defense of their home planet. 

Piper may have been thinking of the recently created nation of Israel. 

From the Gilgameshers, Trask learns more about Dunnan’s activities. He seems to be based somewhere and have money. 

Six years into his quest for revenge, Trask knows he must find Dunnan, but not for revenge but what he fears a raid by Dunnan would do to Tanith. He learns things have gotten worse on Gram. Taxes were raised hurting business. Only a few big barons are left including new Baron Spasso who, supposedly, was rewarded for foiling a plot on King Angus’ life. The economy on Gram is now overextended by shipbuilding and the loss of talent to Tanith.

Angus begins to make demands on Trask referring him as merely the Viceroy of Tanith. Task is approached to overthrow Angus:

 It’s more than anybody can stand! There isn’t one of the old great nobility he hasn’t alienated, or one of the minor barons, the landholders and industrialists, the people who were always the backbone of Gram. And it goes from them down to the commonfolk. Assessments on the lords, taxes on the people, inflation to meet the taxes, high prices, debased coinage. Everybody’s being beggared except this rabble of new lords he has around him, and that slut of a wife and her greedy kinfolk.… 

Another Space Viking, in the wake of a raid on the plannet Tetragrammaton, gives Trask proof Dunnan recently raided it. The brutality of Dunnan’s raid – he used nukes – is puzzling. It was a terror raid, but why? Tetragrammaton is a poor planet not worth the trouble. Then it’s realized Dunnan seems to be terrorizing the trading partners of the planet Marduk. 

While on another raid, Trask encounters one of Dunnan’s ships. It is destroyed. Trask can’t be sure Dunnan wasn’t on it. 

Trask meets Prince Simon Bentrik of Marduk whose yacht was damaged in the raid. They and some other Mardukians discuss Gram’s and Marduk’s governmental systems: 

’You mean, the people are armed?’ Prince Bentrik was incredulous.

’Great Satan, aren’t yours?’ Prince Trask was equally surprised. ‘Then your democracy’s a farce, and the people are only free on sufferance. If their ballots aren’t secured by arms, they’re worthless. Who has the arms on your planet?’

‘Why, the Government.’

‘You mean the King?’

Prince Bentrik was shocked. Certainly not; horrid idea. That would be… why, it would be despotism! Besides, the King wasn’t the Government, at all; the Government ruled in the King’s name. There was the Assembly; the Chamber of Representatives, and the Chamber of Delegates. The people elected the Representatives, and the Representatives elected the Delegates, and the Delegates elected the Chancellor. Then, there was the Prime Minister; he was appointed by the King, but the King had to appoint him from the party holding the most seats in the Chamber of Representatives, and he appointed the Ministers, who handled the executive work of the Government, only their subordinates in the different Ministries were career-officials who were selected by competitive examination for the bottom jobs and promoted up the bureaucratic ladder from there.

This left Trask wondering if the Mardukan constitution hadn’t been devised by Goldberg, the legendary Old Terran inventor who always did everything the hard way. It also left him wondering just how in Gehenna the Government of Marduk ever got anything done.  . . . ‘He continued, pausing now and then for breath, to catalogue every tyranny he had ever heard of, from those practiced by the Terran Federation before the Big War to those practiced at Eglonsby on Amaterasu by Pedrosan Pedro. A few of the very mildest were pushing the nobles and people of Gram to revolt against Angus I.

‘And in the end,’ he finished, ‘the Government would be the only property owner and the only employer on the planet, and everybody else would be slaves, working at assigned tasks, wearing Government-issued clothing and eating Government food, their children educated as the Government prescribes and trained for jobs selected for them by the Government, never reading a book or seeing a play or thinking a thought that the Government had not approved.…’

Most of the Mardukans were laughing, now. Some of them were accusing him of being just too utterly ridiculous.

’Why, the people are the Government. The people would not legislate themselves into slavery.’

He wished Otto Harkaman were there. All he knew of history was the little he had gotten from reading some of Harkaman’s books, and the long, rambling conversations aboard ship in hyperspace or in the evenings at Rivington. But Harkaman, he was sure, could have furnished hundreds of instances, on scores of planets and over ten centuries of time, in which people had done exactly that and hadn’t known what they were doing, even after it was too late. 

I’ll note here that the idea of a very limited government kept in check by an armed populace is similar to the government on New Texas in “Lone Star Planetwhich Piper co-wrote with John J. McGuire.

Trask starts to hear about a Mardukian politician, Zaspar Makann. Here Piper introduces the historical analogy of Hitler’s rise to power.

He was just a smart crook, milking a lot of half-witted plebeians for all he could get out of them. Not just plebes, either; a lot of industrialists were secretly financing him, in hope that he would help them break up the labor unions. You’re nuts; everybody knew the labor unions were backing him, hoping he’d scare the employers into granting concessions. You’re both nuts; he was backed by the mercantile interests; they were hoping he’d run the Gilgameshers off the planet.

Well, that was one thing you had to give him credit for. He wanted to run out the Gilgameshers. Everybody was in favor of that.

Now, Trask could remember something he’d gotten from Harkaman. There had been Hitler, back at the end of the First Century Pre-Atomic; hadn’t he gotten into power because everybody was in favor of running out the Christians, or the Moslems, or the Albigensians, or somebody?

Visiting Marduk, Trask and his men find it a civilized world. Given their population, maybe that’s why they have, to a Sword Worlder, such a weird government. But the Space Vikings have no doubt Marduk can be taken. But Task knows Marduk won’t be raided because a sufficient number of Space Vikings would never cooperate to do it. Besides, he doesn’t want to destroy a civilized world.

A lot of rumors are started about Bentrik’s association with the Vikings (either he captured the Nemesis or the Vikings are holding him for ransom). Bentrik says the government won’t comment on the rumors. “They’ll be ridiculed when the facts are published”. Trask thinks that’s a mistake. 

King Mikhyl has a private meeting with Task and tells him he thinks Makann is the most dangerous man on Marduk.  In the discussion, Piper brings up another factor of Viking history – the role their raids played in stiffening central control and unity in France as well as, via their Norman descendants, England. He is also possibly thinking of the American Revolution and Britain’s relation to the U.S. 

’Three centuries ago, Ithavoll was a colony of Marduk— it seems we can’t afford colonies, any more— and it seceded from us. Ithavoll was then a planet like your Tanith seems to be. Today, it is a civilized world, and one of Marduk’s best friends. You know, sometimes I think a few lights are coming on again, here and there in the Old Federation. If so, you Space Vikings are helping to light them.’

‘You mean the planets we use as bases, and the things we teach the locals?’

‘That, too, of course. Civilization needs civilized technologies. But they have to be used for civilized ends. Do you know anything about a Space Viking raid on Aton, over a century ago?’

‘Six ships from Haulteclere; four destroyed, the other two returned damaged and without booty.’

The King of Marduk nodded.

’That raid saved civilization on Aton. There were four great nations; the two greatest were at the brink of war, and the others were waiting to pounce on the exhausted victor and then fight each other for the spoils. The Space Vikings forced them to unite. Out of that temporary alliance came the League for Common Defense, and from that the Planetary Republic. The Republic’s a dictatorship, now, and just between Goodman Mikhyl and Goodman Lucas it’s a nasty one and our Majesty’s Government doesn’t like it at all. It will be smashed sooner or later, but they’ll never go back to divided sovereignty and nationalism again. The Space Vikings frightened them out of that when the dangers inherent in it couldn’t. Maybe this man Dunnan will do the same for us on Marduk.’

‘You have troubles?’

‘You’ve seen decivilized planets. How does it happen?’

‘I know how it’s happened on a good many: War. Destruction of cities and industries. Survivors among ruins, too busy keeping their own bodies alive to try to keep civilization alive. Then they lose all knowledge of how to be civilized.’

‘That’s catastrophic decivilization. There is also decivilization by erosion, and while it’s going on, nobody notices it. Everybody is proud of their civilization, their wealth and culture. But trade is falling off; fewer ships come in each year. So there is boastful talk about planetary self-sufficiency; who needs off-planet trade anyhow? Everybody seems to have money, but the government is always broke. Deficit spending— and always the vital social services for which the government has to spend money. The most vital one, of course, is buying votes to keep the government in power. And it gets harder for the government to get anything done.

‘The soldiers are sloppier at drill, and their uniforms and weapons aren’t taken care of. The noncoms are insolent. And more and more parts of the city are dangerous at night, and then even in the daytime. And it’s been years since a new building went up, and the old ones aren’t being repaired any more.’

 . . .  ‘And finally, nobody bothers fixing anything up. And the power-reactors stop, and nobody seems to be able to get them started again. It hasn’t quite gotten that far on the Sword-Worlds yet.’ 

A covert relationship develops, an exchange of technical information, between Trask’s Space Vikings and Marduk’s Navy. 

Trask discusses politics with Marduk’s Crown Princess Melanie and other members of court:

 ’Well, we don’t use the word government very much,” he replied. “We talk a lot about authority and sovereignty, and I’m afraid we burn entirely too much powder over it, but government always seems to us like sovereignty interfering in matters that don’t concern it. As long as sovereignty maintains a reasonable semblance of good public order and makes the more serious forms of crime fairly hazardous for the criminals, we’re satisfied.’

‘But that’s just negative. Doesn’t the government do anything positive for the people?’

He tried to explain the Sword-World feudal system to them. It was hard, he found, to explain something you have taken for granted all your life to somebody who is quite unfamiliar with it.

‘But the government— the sovereignty, since you don’t like the other word— doesn’t do anything for the people!’ one of the professors objected. ‘It leaves all the social services to the whim of the individual lord or baron.’

‘And the people have no voice at all; why, that’s tyranny,’ a professor Assemblyman added.

He tried to explain that the people had a very distinct and commanding voice, and that barons and lords who wanted to stay alive listened attentively to it. The Assemblyman changed his mind; that wasn’t tyranny, it was anarchy. And the professor was still insistent about who performed the social services.

‘If you mean schools and hospitals and keeping the city clean, the people do that for themselves. The government, if you want to think of it as that, just sees to it that nobody’s shooting at them while they’re doing it.’

‘That isn’t what Professor Pullwell means, Lucas. He means old-age pensions,’ Prince Bentrik said. “Like this thing Zaspar Makann’s whooping for.’

He’d heard about that, on the voyage from Audhumla. Every person on Marduk would be retired on an adequate pension after thirty years regular employment or at the age of sixty. When he had wanted to know where the money would come from, he had been told that there would be a sales tax, and that the pensions must all be spent within thirty days, which would stimulate business, and the increased business would provide tax money to pay the pensions.

‘We have a joke about three Gilgameshers space-wrecked on an uninhabited planet,’ he said. “Ten years later, when they were rescued, all three were immensely wealthy, from trading hats with each other. That’s about the way this thing will work.’

One of the lady social workers bristled; it wasn’t right to make derogatory jokes about racial groups. One of the professors harrumphed; wasn’t a parallel at all, the Self-Sustaining Rotary Pension Plan was perfectly feasible. With a shock, Trask recalled that he was a professor of economics.

Alvyn Karffard wouldn’t need any twenty ships to loot Marduk. Just infiltrate it with about a hundred smart confidence men and inside a year they’d own everything on it.

That started them all off on Zaspar Makann, though. Some of them thought he had a few good ideas, but was damaging his own case by extremism. One of the wealthier nobles said that he was a reproach to the ruling class; it was their fault that people like Makann could gain a following. One old gentleman said that maybe the Gilgameshers were to blame, themselves, for some of the animosity toward them. He was immediately set upon by all the others and verbally torn to pieces on the spot.” 

It’s interesting to note that Piper doesn’t seem bitter about not getting a pension himself despite working for a railroad for decades before being laid off nor was he getting Social Security. 

Trask sees a ranting speech by Makann on tv, and he is struck by how similar Makann is to Dunnan. The face is different (which could be plastic surgery) but the crazy eyes are the same.  He tells Benrik he’s shocked that Makann has been allowed to have a private army though they are not, yet, armed. 

A treaty is proposed between Tanith and Marduk. It is mentioned that Gilgameshers are on both planets and what one Gilgamesher knows they all do, and they co-operative with Marduk intelligence.

That would be why Andray Dunnan was having no dealings with Gilgameshers. It would also be what Zaspar Makann meant when he ranted about the Gilgamesh Interstellar Conspiracy.

The treaty is announced. and riots break out demanding the Space Vikings go home. Three policeman are murdered when they are sent out unarmed. Trask is asked how he would have dealt with the riots: 

Put up about fifty combat cars. Drawn a deadline, and opened machine-gun fire as soon as the mob crossed it, and kept on firing till the survivors turned tail and ran. Then sent out more cars, and shot everybody wearing a People’s Watchmen uniform, all over town. Inside forty-eight hours, there’d be no People’s Welfare party, and no Zaspar Makann either. 

He’s told that’s not how things are done on Marduk  To which Trask replies,

I’m sorry, Prince Edvard. You had a wonderful civilization here on Marduk. You could have made almost anything of it. But it’s too late now. You’ve torn down the gates; the barbarians are in. 

More pleas come for Trask to lead an expedition against King Angus. Harkaman agrees with him not doing so: 

’We don’t need to do business with the Sword-Worlds at all. We have our own industries, we can produce what we need, and we can trade with Beowulf and Amaterasu, and with Xochitl and Jagannath and Hoth, if we can make any sort of agreement with them; everybody agrees to let everybody else’s trade-planets alone. It’s too bad you couldn’t get some kind of an agreement with Marduk.’ Harkaman regretted that for a few seconds, and then shrugged. ‘Our grandchildren, if any, will probably be raiding Marduk.’

‘You think it’ll be like that?’

‘Don’t you? You were there; you saw what’s happening. The barbarians are rising; they have a leader, and they’re uniting. Every society rests on a barbarian base. The people who don’t understand civilization, and wouldn’t like it if they did. The hitchhikers. The people who create nothing, and who don’t appreciate what others have created for them, and who think civilization is something that just exists and that all they need to do is enjoy what they can understand of it— luxuries, a high living standard, and easy work for high pay.’ 

Trask, who has been reading up on Hitler, offers a theory,

It wasn’t the war that put Hitler into power. It was the fact that the ruling class of his nation, the people who kept things running, were discredited. The masses, the homemade barbarians, didn’t have anybody to take their responsibilities for them. What they have on Marduk is a ruling class that has been discrediting itself. A ruling class that’s ashamed of its privileges and shirks its duties. A ruling class that has begun to believe that the masses are just as good as they are, which they manifestly are not. And a ruling class that won’t use force to maintain its position. And they have a democracy, and they are letting the enemies of democracy shelter themselves behind democratic safeguards. 

Civil war breaks out on Gram, and, on Marduk, Makann wins his election. Members of its royal family fearfully take up residence on Tanith. Marduk ships are ordered to fire on any of Trask’s ships they meet. 

Increasing pressure comes to bear from his Vikings for Trask to intervene on Gram. It is feared that the Prince of Xochitl, another Space Viking base, will attack Gram. Trask is against attacking Xochitl. It’s a long ways away. It is possible that the fleets of both worlds would simultaneously attack their enemy’s undefended planets while each was gone.

(Spoilers ahead)

In a blatant example of what John F. Carr, in Typewriter Killer, calls the theme of the Big Lie in Piper’s fiction, Trask is inspired by his reading of Hitler to tell one. Trask tells his men that Marduk is the real danger. One of his followers even spontaneously suggests Makann is Dunnan in disguise.

Makann launchs his coup on Marduk. Secret arsenals are brought out by the People’s Watchmen. Opposition leaders have been arrested, the Crown Prince assassinated. Makann, claiming to have discovered a plot against the government, attacks the army and wipes it out. Bentrik fosters a mutiny in the Mardukian Navy before escaping to Tanith, and it uses a heavily fortified old base on Marduk’s moon. 

It’s also discovered that Dunnan has ships on Marduk. It turns out maybe Dunann was reading Hitler too and, thus, realized the only way to take over a great civilization was to subvert it.  A secret base is found that Dunnan established on the ice planet Abaddon in Marduk’s system. Dunnan has been supplying weapons to Makann. The Big Lie turns out to be true.

We also hear that King of Marduk is now a prisoner and Makann declared himself regent. 

In a space battle, Dunnan and Makann’s forces are defeated. 

The future government of Marduk is discussed by Trask and eight-year-old Princess Myrna. She says will be queen in the absence of her grandfather the king and with Prince Bentrik as regent. 

We get the following discussion: 

’You didn’t say anything about representative government, or democracy, or the constitution,’ Trask mentioned. ‘And I noticed the use of the word ‘rule,’ instead of ‘reign.’

‘That’s right,’ the self-proclaimed Prince-Protector said. ‘There’s something wrong with democracy. If there weren’t, it couldn’t be overthrown by people like Makann, attacking it from within by democratic procedures. I don’t think it’s fundamentally unworkable. I think it just has a few of what engineers call bugs. It’s not safe to run a defective machine till you learn the defects and remedy them.’

‘Well, I hope you don’t think our Sword-World feudalism doesn’t have bugs.’ He gave examples, and then quoted Otto Harkaman about barbarism spreading downward from the top instead of upward from the bottom.

’It may just be,’ he added, ‘that there is something fundamentally unworkable about government itself. As long as Homo sapiens terra is a wild animal, which he has always been and always will be until he evolves into something different in a million or so years, maybe a workable system of government is a political science impossibility, just as transmutation of elements was a physical-science impossibility as long as they tried to do it by chemical means.’

‘Then we’ll just have to make it work the best way we can, and when it breaks down, hope the next try will work a little better, for a little longer,’

Carr says this seems to represent Piper’s own political views. 

Trask gives Bertinek some advice: 

Simon, speaking as one sovereign prince to another, you have a lot to learn. You’ve learned one important lesson already, that a ruler must be willing to use force and shed blood to enforce his rule. You have to learn, too, that a ruler cannot afford to be guided by his fears of what people will say about him. Not even what history will say about him. A ruler’s only judge is himself.

Harkaman goes to a city where Makann’s forces are being killed after the inmates of a concentration camp were armed by the Space Vikings. In Dreppelin, home of Makann’s support, one Space Viking commander asks permission to use a nuke. Trask moves locals to loot

Dreppelin instead. The King is found, his body and mind broken by torture. Makann is found dead.

Dunnan is turned over to Trask by some locals on condition of amnesty. Trask barely recognizes Dunnan, and Dunnan mistakes him for some local leader. 

‘Your dotard king couldn’t rule without Zaspar Makann, and Makann couldn’t rule without me, and neither can you,’ he said. ‘Shoot this gang of turncoats, and I’ll rule Marduk for you.’

Trask tells him who he is and then shoots Dunnan. 

The book ends with Trask pondering his past and the future: 

Be a good idea if he adopted the title of King of Tanith for himself. And cut loose from the Sword-Worlds; especially cut loose from Gram. Let Viktor of Xochitl have it. Or Garvan Spasso. Viktor wouldn’t be the last Space Viking to take his ships back against the Sword-Worlds. Sooner or later, civilization in the Old Federation would drive them all home to loot the planets that had sent them out. \Well, if he was going to be a king, shouldn’t he have a queen? Kings usually did. He climbed into the little hall-car and started up a long shaft. There was Valerie Alvarath. They’d enjoyed each other’s society on the Nemesis. He wondered if she would want to make it permanent, even on a throne.…

Elaine was with him. He felt her beside him, almost tangibly. Her voice was whispering to him: She loves you, Lucas. She’ll say yes. Be good to her, and she’ll make you happy. Then she was gone, and he knew that she would never return.

Good-by, Elaine. 

I liked the novel though not as much as Piper’s Four-Day Planet or The Cosmic Computer and mostly for its discussions of “decivilization”. You can see why Campbell liked this story – especially the idea of freeloaders with dangerous ignorance of technological societies they inhabit and sometimes lead. I largely agree with Piper’s observations on civilizational collapse, especially the influence of guilty elites devoid of confidence in their own culture. (Though, since I’ve been listening to an audio presentation of Joseph Taintor’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, I certainly think are other factors are involved in civilizational collapse.)

Campbell wanted more stories set in the Sword Worlds, but Piper never wrote them.

I did find – perhaps due to inattention – some of the combat scenes a bit confusing.

In Typewriter Killer, Carr has much to say on Piper’s view of history and politics as per this novel. He quotes a John H. Costello’s piece on Piper for the fan magazine Renaissance. Costello described Piper’s politics:

Piper was a 19th Century Liberal, a creature with whom neither conservatives nor libertarians can be completely comfortable; and like their creator, he did not believe that anyone had a right to automatic sustenance. Throughout his career, he remained a 19th Century Liberal and a Citizen in the Campbellian sense—quite firmly dedicated to the ideal of Civilization and individual self-reliance.

Carr says Trask is in the vein of several Piper heroes

The essence of the Piper hero is best described by himself in “Oomphel in the Sky,” as a person who ‘actually knows what has to be done and how to do it, without holding a dozen conferences and round-table discussions and giving everybody a fair and equal chance to foul things up for him.’ This is a fair description of Pappy Jack from Little Fuzzy, Conn Maxwell of Cosmic Computer, Lucas Trask of Space Viking, Calvin Morrison of Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, Campbell’s Citizen and for that matter Piper himself. 

The villains of Piper’s work, says Carr, are also similar: 

Their foils are the fools, the venal, the misguided, the lazy, the do-gooders and the mad King John figures, like psychotic Andray Dunnan and his Hitler-like creature, Zaspar Makann of Space Viking

But Piper also believed civilizations couldn’t endure. Trask isn’t able to bring civilization to the remnants of the Old Federation. We know from Piper’s Empire stories, like “A Slave Is a Slave”, the Space Vikings will become decadent too. 

Carr compares Piper’s conception of the common man as barbarian echoes José Ortega y Gasset’s “mass-man” in his Revolt of the Masses

As described by Ortega, mass-man feels at one with everyone else regardless of station or achievement and reacts to being evaluated with resentment and hostility. Mass-man is natural man, desiring to impose his will upon the rest of the world. When mass-man determines the course of Government, the result is hyperdemocracy and then fascism. 

Ortega believed “mass-man” and Noble Man could exist in a liberal democracy. In his Federation stories, Piper advocates, Carr argues, for representative government. I’m not sure about that given his global governments which would be difficult to check by the sort of armed citizens on the Sword Worlds, but it’s mostly true. But, in his later years, Piper seems to have started favoring an enlightened monarchy.

Carr says the era of the Space Viking corresponds to Arnold Toynbee’s conception of the “interregnum” which succeeds the Universal State (the Federation) and the “time of troubles.  I haven’t read Toynbee, but I would think you could say Space Viking is set in a “time of troubles”. Specifically, Toynbee talked about “chaotic intrusion of a barbarian heroic age”. However, Piper did not, notes Carr, follow Toynbee’s non-materialist, mystical explanations for history’s cycles.  Carr argues Piper’s thought is closer to Ortega’s than Toynbee’s. 

Ortega identified three kinds of “historical consciousness” in history: “decadent”, “plentitude”, and “vitality”. Space Viking takes place in a decadent period, but it shows possibilities for vitality, a feeling of great potential. Mostly, though, it’s decadent. Trask doesn’t have that many feelings of great potential, just betterment. 

Carr claims – and I can’t argue — that Space Viking has a more detailed future history than any science fiction writer since Olaf Stapledon. 

Since my recent reading of Piper was prompted by reading a book on the literary inspirations for the role-playing game Traveller, I’ll note that this novel would seem to be the Piper work that most inspired the game. For weapons, we have missiles and slug-throwing small arms. There are no ray guns or force fields. We also have “contragravity” vehicles, another technology used in the game. Finally, of course, there was the Traveller supplement called The Sword Worlds which used many of the planets named in this novel.

2 thoughts on “Space Viking

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