Who’s civilized and who’s not

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

Winchell Chung (@Nyrath) points to Jo Walton’s review of Piper’s Space Viking — a book from 1963 that sounds juvenile and isn’t at all literary but addresses some big questions:

Space Viking (1963) starts out looking like a story of vengeance among the neobarbarian remnants of a collapsed Galactic Empire, and then becomes a meditation on the benefits of civilization and how that is distinct from technology.

Many of the commenters seem perplexed by Piper’s anti-fascist yet not-at-all progressive views. Only Doug M. seems to “get” it — a bit:

Well, Piper was a romantic. He loved Great Men and heroic history. He adored the Confederate States, the British Empire, and ancient Rome. Empires were cool. Empire building was an inherently admirable activity. Democracy, well… “There’s something wrong with democracy. If there weren’t, it couldn’t be overthrown by people like Zaspar Makann, attacking it from within by democratic processes.”

There’s a scene in the book where the fascists (who of course call themselves the People’s Welfare Party) are rioting. Trask suggests mowing them down with gunfire.

“That may be the way you do things in the Sword-Worlds, Prince Trask. It’s not the way we do things here on Marduk. Our government does not propose to be guilty of shedding the blood of its people.”

He had it on the tip of his tongue to retort that if they didn’t, the people would end up shedding theirs. Instead, he said softly:

“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.”

It’s not really surprising that Jerry ‘fill the stadium’ Pournelle was a huge admirer of Piper.

That said, Piper wasn’t a fascist, or even a particularly authoritarian conservative. He was a romantic individualist, and his reading of history was colored by that.

Protesters are always fighting against tyranny, right?


  1. Nyrath says:

    I believe that Pournelle also was given permission to write sequels to Space Viking but never got around to it.

    The novel also notes the difference between “reign” and “rule”, the gradual degeneration of a planetary society when the best stock escapes into space, and the two ways a planet can fall into barbarianism (too few techs or too few workers).

  2. Isegoria says:

    Since Space Viking is out of copyright, you can find it — and search it — on Project Gutenberg. Here’s one such passage (p. 139) on reigning — and how Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers Party rose to power:

    “Makann won the election. Is that it?” he asked. “And Prince Bentrik doesn’t want to risk you and Steven being used as hostages?”

    “That’s it,” she said. “He didn’t really win the election, but he might as well have. Nobody has a majority of seats in the Chamber of Representatives but he’s formed a coalition with several of the splinter parties, and I’m ashamed to say that a number of Crown Loyalist members — Crowd of Disloyalists, I call them — are voting with him, now. They’ve coined some ridiculous phrase about the ‘wave of the future,’ whatever that means.”

    “If you can’t lick them, join them,” Trask said.

    “If you can’t lick them, lick their boots,” the Count of Ravary put in.

    “My son is a trifle bitter,” Princess Bentrik said. “I must confess to a trace of bitterness, too.”

    “Well, that’s the Representatives,” Trask said. “What about the rest of the government?”

    “With the splinter-party and Disloyalist support, they got a majority of seats in the Delegates. Most of them would have indignantly denied, a month before, having any connection with Makann, but a hundred out of a hundred and twenty are his supporters. Makann, of course, is Chancellor.”

    “And who is Prime Minister?” he asked. “Andray Dunnan?”

    She looked slightly baffled for an instant then said, “Oh. No. The Prime Minister is Crown Prince Edvard. No; Baron Cragdale. That isn’t a royal title, so by some kind of a fiction I can’t pretend to understand he is not Prime Minister as a member of the Royal Family.”

    “If you can’t …” the boy started.

    “Steven! I forbid you to say that about … Baron Cragdale. He believes, very sincerely, that the election was an expression of the will of the people, and that it is his duty to bow to it.”

    He wished Otto Harkaman were there. He could probably name, without stopping for breath, a hundred great nations that went down into rubble because their rulers believed that they should bow instead of rule, and couldn’t bring themselves to shed the blood of their people. Edvard would have been a fine and admirable man, as a little country baron. Where he was, he was a disaster.

    He asked if the People’s Watchman had dragged their guns out from under the bed and started carrying them in public yet.

    “Oh, yes. You were quite right; they were armed, all the time. Not just small arms; combat vehicles and heavy weapons. As soon as the new government was formed, they were given status as a part of the Planetary Armed Forces. They have taken over every police station on the planet.”

    “And the King?”

    “Oh, he carries on, and shrugs and says, ‘I just reign here.’ What else can he do? We’ve been whittling down and filching away the powers of the Throne for the last three centuries.”

  3. Isegoria says:

    Here’s the passage (p. 162) referenced earlier, which has a rather small-c conservative tone:

    Little Princess Myrna spoke: “If my grandfather is still alive, he is your King; if he is not, I am your Queen, and until I am old enough to rule in my own right, I accept Prince Simon as Regent and Protector of the Realm, and I call on all of you to obey him as I will.”

    “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,” Bentrik said.

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