Space pirates!

From James Davis Nicoll : Five Swashbuckling SF Stories About Space Pirates

We’ve all been there: short of change to feed a vending machine, struggling to make a car payment, or even unjustly convicted of treason for unwittingly providing medical assistance to an enemy of King James II. For all these challenges, there is a simple, easy solution: acquire a heavily armed ship and begin preying on less well-armed merchantmen. This is as true in space as on the high seas. You might be interested in the following five novels about SPACE PIRATES!!

Hard to beat that opening paragraph — and hey, pirates! Seems a bit odd to have this post in December, when as we all know, especially if we just looked it up, Talk Like A Pirate Day is September 19th. Nevertheless, great topic and a great opening! Sure, James, what are some swashbuckling SF stories about space pirates?

Space Viking by H. Beam Piper (1962)

Well, I guess so! But I fear I haven’t read it.

Merchanter’s Luck by C. J. Cherryh (1982)

Hey, now. I don’t remember pirates in Merchanter’s Luck. Merchanters, yes. Pirates, no. What is Nicoll talking about? Ah, pirates in the backstory: the Mazianni. That’s true! I had sort of forgotten that’s how the important backstory element got created. I remembered the backstory tragedy, but not how the tragedy occurred. Pirates, right.

Marque and Reprisal by Elizabeth Moon (2004)

With a name like that, you know you’re looking at Space Pirates for real. In this series, the pirates are the bad guys and cause all kinds of trouble for Ky Vatta and her family. This is a good series — I like it a lot better than various others of hers.

Bodacious Space Pirates directed by Tatsuo Sato (based on the light novels by Yūichi Sasamoto) (2012)

That’s anime, apparently.

Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard (2022)

Oh, are there pirates in that one? I haven’t read it. I must say, de Bodard has the best covers:

Not my favorite cover of hers, but I do like it.

Here’s what Nicoll says about this one:

To fall into the hands of space pirates is a disaster, at least for poor wretches like Xích Si. The best she can expect from the pirates is involuntary indenture. The worst is much, much worse. Xích Si also loses hope of ever seeing her daughter again, for should Xích Si even try to contact her child, the An O Empire would execute the child as an accessory to piracy.

To Xích Si’s astonishment, she is not immediately enslaved or murdered by her pirate captors. She is saved by the recently widowed mindship Rice Fish, who needs an ally with Xích Si’s technical skills. Therefore, the sentient Rice Fish proposes a trade: if Xích Si agrees to use her abilities to expose the traitor within the pirate council, Rice Fish will marry Xích Si and provide her with exalted status and safety…at least, safety compared to the lot of a lowly slave. Death is still very much a possibility.

This does sound really interesting and potentially really good. I just love the idea that Xich Si could marry the mindship! That’s certainly an unexpected twist.

Now, who has some good SF space pirates? I prefer the space pirates to be the good guys, so not exactly real pirates, although books with real pirates as bad guys are also acceptable. So are privateers, on either side of a conflict. I can think of a handful:

Rissa and Tregare. Has anybody read this series by FM Busby? I liked it a lot and read it several times, but I haven’t read it for a while. But I can certainly tell you that there’s a terribly oppressive government, that Rissa Kergulan and Bran Tregare are both victims of the government oppression, escape, team up, return, tear down the terrible government, free the world, and actually do deal with many of the problems having to do with destroying a governing system and setting up a different governing system in its place. There’s a lot of family and found family and a difficult slow romance and really, this is a very good space opera series.

But the point that matters here is that Rissa and Tregare take over a lot of ships. They’re totally space pirates, even though they’re the good guys.

Here’s another, just as obvious, but the pirates are the bad guys:

Honor Harrington. I had to poke around a bit to figure out which book to link, but the link goes to Honor Among Enemies. That’s the one where Honor winds up commanding a Q ship (why are they called that?) to ambush and destroy pirates.

These aren’t my favorite space opera series because (sorry, Dave Webber fans!) Webber isn’t that great a writer at the sentence level. He is, however, pretty great at exciting space battles, and in this book, the battles are mostly with pirates.

Corsair by James Cambias. I mean, look at the title! In this case, one of the pov protagonists is a space pirate, though with fewer guns blazing and more clever computer work. This is near-future SF, not my favorite, but in fact Cambias made it work for me and I liked it a lot. There’s a slow, rather subtle redemption character arc in this story, which is something I like a lot.

Heart of Vengeance by Glenn Stewart. I haven’t read this. I’ve read only Admiral’s Oath, which I sort of liked? The writing isn’t all that, and the characterization is perhaps not all that either, but even so, I rather liked the story and would read the second one if it came out. And there are sort of pirates in that one, but in poking around, I see that actually in Heart of Vengeance, the pirates are really a thing.

A pirate attack with only one survivor
A conspiracy woven across the planets
A vengeance that will not be denied

When pirates seize the inter-planetary freighter owned by Brad Mantruso’s family, he is dumped into space. Saved from death by a passing Fleet ship, he is left with nothing but his skills, a gun, and a burning desire for vengeance. Acquiring a ship, he reinvents himself as the mercenary Captain Brad Madrid. Before he can pursue his enemies, however, he finds himself dragged into an unexpected conflict when his ship’s history draws new enemies to him. Beset by pirates, slavers, and a woman who might be his savior—but definitely is a spy—it will take all of his skill, cunning, and new friends to claim his revenge!

See? Pirates for sure.

Here’s one I certainly have read, more than once:

The Truth of Valor by Tanya Huff. This is the one where Torin Kerr’s lover — are they married? Can’t remember — gets abducted by pirates. Torin goes to get him back. This is a wonderful space opera series. Tanya Huff is much better at the sentence level than Weber, and her characterization is better too. Here’s a post where I compared my impressions of the writing in the Honor Harrington vs Valor series.

Oh, hey, here’s a collection of Valor short stories! I didn’t know this existed! I don’t much like short stories EXCEPT, big except, when they are set in a world I’m familiar with and preferably involve familiar characters. These fit the bill and the reviews look good, so I’m snapping up the collection.

I’ll leave you with a ghost story: Dawson’s Christian, appearing from the dead to rescue an honest merchant ship from pirates.

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4 thoughts on “Space pirates!”

  1. I like Cambias’s ambiguous relationship with libertarianism. Hey, a libertarian utopia! But it requires extreme R-strategy space lobsters. Hey a libertarian island! But…

  2. James Nicoll must be referencing Rafael Sabatini’s 1922 novel, Captain Blood. I love all seafaring novels, with or without pirates, and space pirates are also great. Jenny Schwartz just finished a series of five novels featuring some space pirates. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Dumaurier is another book someone should reexplore as a space opera. Sean Russell (not the fantasy author Sean Russell, the other one) also writes great sea fiction, +/- pirates.

  3. Thank you: have picked up the Valor short stories (wasn’t aware of them!) (love that series!) and Busby’s Young Rissa ($1.99 on American Amazon, though unfortunately not on sale in Canada, boo!).

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