Space Viking. H.Beam Piper.
Originally serialized in Analog magazine, 1962-1963
Original book publication, 1963
Current Availability: Print and E-Book
Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in June 2009, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission. It appeared with permission in the July 2011 issue of Freelance Traveller magazine.
Author’s Note: I think that one of the best ways to prepare yourself to run a game is to immerse yourself in its fiction, and thus get a real sense of its milieu. Thus, this series of reviews, which looks at some of the fiction that influenced Traveller, was influenced by Traveller, or is actually set in the Traveller universe.
Marc Miller hasn’t been shy about listing the books that influenced his Traveller universe. In various interviews (Far Traveller #2, Valkyrie #13, White Dwarf #23), he’s credited Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League books (and the connected Dominic Flandry books), Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, Gordon R. Dickson’s Childe Cycle, Harry Harrison’s Deathworld and Stainless Steel Rat books, Robert Heinlein’s juveniles, Keith Laumer’s Retief stories, E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest of Terra, and Jack Vance’s Demon Princes series.
I may review some of these in future entries in this series, but right now I’m more struck by a book that Miller hasn’t listed, but which appears to have been absorbed pretty directly into the Traveller universe.
This first review discusses Space Viking, a 1963 book by H. Beam Piper and a part of his Terro-Human history. Perhaps accidentally, the setting of this book was dropped directly into the Traveller Universe. Both the book and Traveller include a cluster of planets known as the Sword Worlds, one of the most important of which is Gram. In both universes, it’s a place of space vikings, as evidenced by this book’s title ...
About the Story
Space Viking is set in a far future where the mighty Terran Federation has fallen, causing a great Dark Age to fall across its planets. One of the few points of light (TM) among these lost systems are the Sword-Worlds, a cluster of planets named after mighty weapons of lore, such as Gram, Excalibur, Morglay, Flamberge, and Durendal.
On Gram we meet Lucas Trask of Traskon. When his newly-wed wife is slain by a man who then steals his Duke’s new ship, Enterprise, Trask decides to become a Star Viking, pillaging and looting across the universe. However, when he sets up a base on a planet, to set a trap for his foe, he finds that uplifting civilization from the darkness might be a goal in its own.
Genre & Style
Space Viking is a classic space opera of the sort that you can find in many of the other influential books that Miller has listed. A Federation has risen and fallen, and now space is full of fallen planets that are trying to climb back up to the stars—often after having reverted to feudal systems. Against this backdrop, individual people, like Lucas Trask of Traskon, can make a difference.
I generally find that science-fiction novels of the 1950s and 1960s tend to be pretty heavy on the plot and pretty light on the characterization. Piper’s Space Viking certainly tends in that direction, sufficiently so that I found much of the book pretty dry—mainly because I couldn’t emotionally connect with the protagonist.
However, at times Piper manages to rise above his contemporaries in this area. Though Space Viking could have been a very simple intergalactic tale of revenge (such as Jack Vance’s first Demon Princes books were), Piper instead lets his character evolve and grow as he moves beyond his initial anger and instead begins to look toward what a life without his Elaine might be.
Space Viking also has one other particular strength: its space battles. Piper writes of a world of missiles and slugs. There are no magical shields, no beams of concentrated light. Instead warfare is real and gritty, fast and deadly. Thus, Piper’s scenes of warfare amidst the stars become some of the best parts of the book.
Overall, I think that Space Viking is a nicely evocative book, between its space battles and its visions of humanity slowly reclaiming itself. The actual mechanics and plots of the books are somewhat more mundane. Thus I’ve given it a “4” for Style and a “3” for Substance.
Applicability to Mongoose Traveller
There are two very obvious and direct links between Space Viking and the Traveller universe.
The first is the Sword-Worlds (or Sword Worlds, as they’re called in the Traveller universe). I’m not quite sure that the culture of the worlds in the Spinward Marches is the same as the culture of Piper’s worlds (because we don’t see the Sword-Worlds proper that much), but the feudal structure, the balkanization, and the militant attitude are all pretty similar. You might do better to read something like GURPS Traveller: Sword Worlds to understand the culture of the Traveller cluster, but Space Viking could nonetheless give you some interesting nuances to consider.
The second obvious connection probably won’t be of interest to Mongoose Traveller GMs, because it relates to Traveller: The New Era, GDW’s third Traveller game, set 95 years after the Golden Age depicted in Mongoose Traveller. In that era a group of people are trying to bring the lost Third Imperium back from its ashes. I never understood why these people were called Vikings, because they didn’t seem to be either Nordic or pillagers (except when they were forced to take technology from non-helpful people), but the answer can be found in this book: just as Lucas Trask ends up uplifting a planet to set a trap for his enemy, so the Space Vikings of The New Era are uplifting worlds from the darkness. (I’m still not convinced it’s a good connection, but I do think that reading Space Viking might give you some insights into the RCES of The New Era).
However, more so than these direct borrowing, I think that Space Viking offers some good looks at a universe which has some larger-scale similarities to the Traveller universe—and that’s the sort of immersion that I think can be useful for a Traveller GM.
I’ve already talked about the feudalism of the Sword-Worlds. Piper actually uses it as a major plot point, contrasting it with true democracy, which (according to Piper’s viewpoint character) doesn’t work because stupid people are too easily fooled into following charismatic demagogues. That certainly offers a nice reasoning for the feudalism of the Traveller universe.
I also talked about the space battles, which I think could give a Traveller GM great training in describing space battles of their own.
Beyond that, all of the space travel in Space Viking feels a lot like that of the Traveller universe.
Most travel is done by hyperdrive (aka Jump Space) which allows relatively fast (but not instantaneous) travel from one place to another. However, due to the lack of FTL radio of any sort, these hyperdrives are the only way info gets transmitted across the galaxy. In Space Viking you thus see the importance of rumors brought by individual spacers and how hard it is to find an individual in a universe that’s not truly connected—both fine lessons for the Traveller universe.
In contrast, local system travel takes a lot of time and as a result the outer planets of systems can be largely ignored—a point which has consequences in the book and which might have consequences (though not quite to the same degree) in the Traveller universe as well.
Finally, though the idea of rebuilding civilization doesn’t have much point in the Traveller Golden Age (and thus not generally in Mongoose Traveller), it certainly would be insightful to you if you were running a campaign set in Milieu 0 (home of T4) or The New Era (home of Traveller: The New Era).
Overall, I think the universe of Space Viking shares a lot in common with the universe of Traveller and thus can be a great book to show you what it could be like—especially if you’re fond of science-fiction writing of the 1960s, of which this is an above-average specimen.