Book Talk: 'King David's Spaceship' by Jerry Pournelle - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'King David's Spaceship' by Jerry Pournelle

Alexander Wallace visits Prince Samual's World.
Jerry Pournelle wrote for a very specific type of nerd, one that is as interested in history and political theory as they are in science and futurology. His books are rich in the sense that you are reading history in the making, even if it’s not your history (and sometimes a history that can never come to pass, like Footfall, co-written with Larry Niven). Pournelle was a man who liked to write characters who were well-versed in military history, and reading his books can teach you an interesting tidbit or two on the subject even if they are set on distant planets.

The Prince, an omnibus of a series he partially co-wrote with S. M. Stirling, is one of my favorite works of science fiction I’ve ever read, but that’s not we’ll be talking about today. Today, we’ll be going over a shorter novel of his set in the same universe as The Prince (usually called the Co-Dominium universe) and originally published in 1980: King David’s Spaceship.

The setup is simple: you have the mostly pastoral King Samual’s World, a ‘lost colony’ after the fall of the First Empire of Man. Their way of life is rudely interrupted with the arrival of a fleet from the Second Empire of Man who has come to unify the entirety of the human species under one banner. Through watching a political drama that the imperials have brought with them, the Samualites learn that the privileges accorded to each new world in the Empire differ according to their level of technology. Specifically, those with manned spaceflight have much more autonomy than those that don’t. Seeing this, and that the possibility of winning a war with the imperials is nonexistent, the Samualite king David orders his men to build him a spaceship so that the Samualites may enter the inevitable with dignity and not subjugation.

One of the things that strikes me about this book is the settings, particularly Prince Samual’s World. The whole planet feels like a science fictional version of the romanticized Scottish Highlands as seen in things like Outlander; it is an intensely patriarchal society dominated by the politics that exist between the different clans. And, of course, the men wear kilts. It’s a setting that doesn’t get used all that much in science fiction and fantasy, and so its presence makes this book unique to me; likewise, part of King David's Spaceship is set on a planet clearly modeled after Indonesia, which is also interesting.

Pournelle likes writing stoic protagonists in military positions that place high value on tradition, honor, and the proper use of power. Here, that man is Nathan MacKinnie in Samualite service, tasked to lead the endeavor to build King David’s spaceship. He echoes very strongly another of Pournelle’s characters, John Christian Falkenberg of The Prince, being the soldier-philosopher that allows Pournelle to talk about arcane points of military history (which, at least to me, is quite entertaining). Pournelle’s lead characters strike me as being the ideal conservative hero, one with great respect for tradition and law and the role of institutions in public life.

One particular bit regarding MacKinnie that shows Pournelle’s writing ability: being a man with power in a ruthlessly patriarchal society, he has views on the role of women we would consider to be dated. That being the case, Pournelle never lets the narrative be misogynistic; there is a character Mary Graham among the task force building the spaceship, and she consistently shows her worth (and in the process gets perhaps the best moment in the book) no matter how much the narrator MacKinnie is skeptical of her.

The book can be read as a discussion of the interaction between empire and imperialized, colonizer and colonized. The conditions imposed upon Prince Samual’s World by the Imperial fleet remind me of what Thomas Friedman refers to as the ‘iron straitjacket:’ the set of economic reforms required to participate in the global economy after the fall of the Soviet Union by institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, backed by the government of the United States and other developed countries. Pournelle demonstrates very well a principle put forth by Henry Kissinger:
“Empires have no interest in operating within an international system; they aspire to be the international system.”
King David’s Spaceship is two things at once: a fascinating science fiction adventure tale and an insightful look into how less powerful countries (what we would nowadays call the ‘third world’ or the ‘global south’) have to interact with the titans of their day. Read it either way; you’ll find something regardless.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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