Thursday, May 21, 2009

Guest Blog: On Space Pirates, by David Lee Summers

Greetings! My name is David Lee Summers and I want to start off by thanking Rowena Cherry for this opportunity to talk a little bit about space pirates and, in particular, how I created my space pirate characters and the world they inhabit.

To give you some background, I am the author of five novels. The first of my novels is The Pirates of Sufiro, which starts off as the story of a band of space pirates that are marooned on a distant world they name Sufiro. Over the course of the novel, the pirates who were stranded have to battle corporate pirates who try to take over the planet. Thus the book explores the idea of "piracy" from multiple angles. I have recently explored my space pirate characters even more in stories appearing in the anthologies Space Pirates and Space Sirens published by Flying Pen Press. Another of my novels, Vampires of the Scarlet Order, is a supernatural thriller, but it features a cameo by the real life pirate, Grace O'Malley.

The phrase "space pirates" conjures up images of marauding bands cruising the galaxy in space ships. Perhaps the blaster-wielding captain has a robot parrot on his shoulder and some kind of high-tech eye-patch with a heads-up display. Movies and television have invoked this image numerous times and I think such pirates can be a lot of fun, even though they're often extremely campy.

Look a little harder at the idea of space pirates, though, and an interesting picture emerges. To summarize the United Nations definition of piracy, it is a criminal act of violence, detention or depredation committed by the crew or passengers of a ship or aircraft directed against another ship or aircraft – or directed against a ship, aircraft, persons or property outside the jurisdiction of a country. Apply that idea to any vessel that is either in space or operating on a distant world, and you open up tremendous story potential.

My own love of pirates started at an early age. I grew up in Southern California and was lucky enough to visit Disneyland a few times as a kid. One of my favorite rides from the time I was about six years old was The Pirates of the Caribbean. I was also a Star Trek fan from a very young age. Though a bit too young to remember the original series when it first ran, I was exactly the right age to watch Star Trek: The Animated Series when it ran on Saturday mornings. One of those episodes was "The Pirates of Orion" written by Howard Weinstein. I already was a fan of pirates and I just fell in love with the idea of pirates in space.

In the years after that, though, most depictions of space pirates that I came across grew painful. I saw far too many actors with robot parrots on their shoulders hamming it up for the camera. As I mentioned earlier, they could be fun to watch, but they did get old. I probably would never have even tried to write a story about space pirates if I hadn't come across the Bio of a Space Tyrant novels by Piers Anthony. In the first novel, Anthony introduced space pirates that were colorful and fun, but at the same time very dangerous. These were the kinds of space pirates I was looking for.

In 1988, I set out to write my first story of space piracy for a writing workshop in Socorro, New Mexico. I wanted to create pirates that were larger than life, fun, but yet a bit dangerous, much like the good space pirates I had encountered before. That's when Ellison Firebrandt and the crew of the Legacy who appear in The Pirates of Sufiro, Space Pirates and Space Sirens were born.

As I worked to create my pirates, I spent time in the library reading historical accounts, trying to get some idea for the motivations of historical pirates and how they operated. As I read, I found the stories of Henry Avery, Bartholomew Roberts, William Kidd, Anne Bonny and Mary Read particularly captivating.

Now, I believe it's important that a writer create a world where it's believable that space pirates exist. That said, if we postulate a universe where humans are colonizing other planets in the galaxy it's reasonable to expect that pirates will exist. In my "day" job I operate telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory. It's actually hard to imagine a star empire or galactic alliance with so much money that they could patrol every possible planetary system imaginable. Likewise, it's hard to imagine a future where everyone is so well off that someone won't be motivated to try to take what someone else has. Just recently, we had the incident of Somali pirates taking an American ship not far from American warships. Even with only a small boat and a few guns, they created a very difficult situation for this country. The galaxy is a much bigger place.

In my universe, Earth recognizes that it simply cannot patrol much of its territory at all with warships of any sort. It becomes much more practical for humans to issue Letters of Marque to pirate crews and allow them to harass ships from competing systems and colony worlds.

My pirate captain, Ellison Firebrandt, comes from a poor family. His father was a miner in the asteroid belt and it looked like Ellison's fate would either be to follow in his father's footsteps or go into some other hard labor for the rest of his life. As with the pirates of old, life aboard a pirate ship seemed to offer more freedom and opportunity for young Firebrandt than a life wasting away as a miner or a laborer for one of the giant corporations of Earth. Because Firebrandt is the protagonist of the stories in which he appears, I felt it necessary to give him a moral compass. He is loyal to Earth because the government provided his Letter of Marque. He kills and robs, but he does so with the intention of aiding Earth.

In the story "For a Job Well Done", which appears in the anthology Space Pirates, Firebrandt tries to fence stolen items through a gang that secretly pulls the strings on one of Earth's colony worlds. The gang maintains control through the torture of the planet's populace. In the process of discovering this, Firebrandt meets a woman named Suki Mori and a romance is born. Though Firebrandt is, himself, a criminal, his moral compass can't abide the self-serving interests of the gang he encounters and he feels compelled to stop them. Even though the story is science fiction, it was heavily influenced by contemporary headlines.

In the follow-up story entitled "Hijacking the Legacy" that appears in the anthology Space Sirens, Suki Mori discovers the cold hard reality that her new-found "friends" really are bloodthirsty pirates. She tries to escape but throws herself and the pirate crew right into the hands of a military captain that doesn't recognize Firebrandt's Letter of Marque. This puts Suki into a crisis of conscience. She recognizes that the crew of the Legacy is composed of criminals, but she also realizes that they're the ones who saved her from an even worse criminal gang. Can she simply let the pirates be killed?

Historically, not all pirates were clear-cut villains. They often came to piracy through a series of circumstances and choices. Often times there were no good choices for these people. Sometimes it was live as a slave or live as a pirate. Sometimes being a pirate seemed less horrible than being a crewman for a ship of the "legitimate" military. In creating my space pirates, I worked to create a universe that presented my characters with many of those kinds of difficult choices from history. I worked to create characters with enough of a moral compass that those choices were interesting ones to explore. Hopefully the stories are an exciting, fun ride as well!

If you would care to learn more about my novels and the anthologies where my stories appear, please visit and click on the links for "Books and Audio Books" and "Short Stories and Poems."


Anonymous said...

Thanks again for hosting this guest blog, Rowena. If any of your readers have comments or questions, they are welcome to ask and I'll do my best to answer. Hope everyone has a wonderful Memorial Day Weekend.

Rick said...

Interesting discussion! To plagiarize myself, there is nothing like pirates in the morning news to make you feel like you just woke up in an alternate history.

The Somalia piracy invites some rethinking of assumptions about space piracy. Like parrots on the shoulder, the familiar image of pirate ships waylaying their victims in the Great Vastness is probably not how it would play out. Barring magitech like cloaking devices, unscheduled approaching ships are all too conspicuous, and obviously up to no good.

The greatest piracy risk might well be in orbital space, where a piratical mother ship is indistinguishable from civil traffic almost till the moment it strikes, giving neither the victim nor any patrol force much time to respond. Once hostages are taken, simply blasting away becomes problematic.

But for piracy to be endemic it needs a haven, a Port Royal, and that enters the realm of power politics. Any number of factors could make Port Royal (relatively) safe from attack, not the least being that other powers might find reasons to tacitly accept its presence. (As with the historical Port Royal!)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comments, Rick. Definitely some great food for thought.

Piers Anthony's space pirates are not dissimilar to what you describe. In their case, they operate in Jupiter's orbit and waylay the most defenseless craft they can find, which were refugee craft. The pirates, as I recall, were interested in capturing slaves.

One of the things that was fun about editing the Space Pirates anthology was seeing how different authors interpreted the idea of piracy. Sure, we had space ships attacking other space ships, but we also had characters that stole media content and some that committed their acts of "piracy" on paper.

Robert Vardeman's story in the anthology is a fine hard science fiction story that ended up being very similar to the Somali incident. In that story, a lone, desperate pirate hijacks a ship run by three miners in the asteroid belt.

Whether the pirates appear in hard science fiction or in more of a space opera setting, I think it's worthwhile paying attention to how historical and contemporary pirates operate and their motives and then applying that to the characters that are created.

Rick said...

Piers Anthony's sound a lot like the Southeast Asian pirates of the post-Vietnam era, a thoroughly nasty bunch who also preyed on refugees. Nastiness level relates to incentives. As pirates go, the Somalis are not particularly cutthroat, because they are in the business of ransoming ships and crews, not forcing refugees to cough up what few possessions they may have hidden.

A commenter on my blog raised another maritime crime that could find a place in space: barratry, scuttling ships to hide theft of cargo. If a robotic cargo craft has a 'drive failure' and goes off on an orbit to nowhere, who can tell whether it had a cargo aboard?

Another interesting theme to consider is demi-piracy, such as corsairing and privateering, and for that matter regular naval crews motivated largely by prize money. In classical antiquity there was plenty of outright piracy but very little of this middle ground. But it was pervasive from the Middle Ages right through the early 19th century.

Anonymous said...

I think you may have pegged the source of Piers Anthony's pirates. The Bio of a Space Tyrant series was published in the early 80's, so he certainly could have been influenced by post-Vietnam War events.

Barratry certainly does sounds like something that could happen in space.

In fact, I was on a panel at a science fiction convention and the idea of robotic ships and how they might be used by pirates or as the target of pirates came up. I think there's some definite potential there that could be mined by writers.

You're absolutely right about the potential of demi-piracy. The protagonist of my stories actually is a privateer. In that universe, outright space warfare is rare. However, governments do send out privateers to disrupt the commerce of competing systems. There are definitely lots of ways that privateering and corsairing could be utilized in a space setting.

Rick said...

'Boat people' and pirates preying on them were indeed in the news in late 70s and 80s.

On barratry, over at Rocketpunk Manifesto I speculated that space barratry is already possible. If a commercial space launch blows up or ends up in the Indian Ocean, who knows if it actually had a satellite aboard? (Or commercial rivals might sabotage a satellite launch.)

Demi-piracy could emerge in any setting where the 'density of power' is low, with states seeking to exercise influence over larger regions than they have the resources to control directly. Assuming that states even exist on the Westphalian model, which is by no means a given!

Anonymous said...

I think there's a good question there about how much power density there can be in a space faring society. Can a galactic empire such as the one in Star Wars ever really arise? Could it happen if a single government, such as the United States or China, was the only one to invest in serious space colonization? Or is space just so vast and the distance between planets that could be colonized just so great that power density will remain low. The latter scenario is the one that I envision in my books, but it does raise the question how much power density could any government hope to achieve?

Rick said...

A good question indeed. I'll shamelessly link my original discussion of the subject:

Very long travel times would probably mean a low density of power - basically if the trip is longer than politicians' time horizons. Or, even if travel times are not extreme, but the effective range of commercial travel exceeds that of military task forces. (Which, for example, need to carry round trip fuel, while commercial ships don't.)

Another situation that intrigues me is summed up by the Spanish colonial expression Obedezco, pero no cumplo: 'I obey, but I do not comply.' The center's authority is acknowledged and honored, but its orders politely ignored as irrelevant. I can easily imagine a Galactic Empire operating on that principle. Paradoxically it could produce a fairly high density of power, local power centers building their prestige on adherence to the imperial principle, even if no one knows who the current emperor is.

But you as author can dial the density of power to whatever creates a good story setting. As one of my commenters once observed, spaceships always travel at the speed of plot.