Thursday, May 21, 2009
Space Pirates by David Lee Summer
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 davidleesummers.com and click on the links for "Books and Audio Books" and "Short Stories and Poems."