The figure of the lone space pilot is a recurring one in my experience of science fiction—an image to which I pay homage in my latest novel, The Recollection (Solaris 2011)—but where did this image come from, and what is its attraction?
Some of my earliest memories are of watching Star Trek on a black and white TV in my grandparents’ house in Somerset. I enjoyed the adventures of Captain Kirk and his crew, but couldn’t help feeling that they weren’t really achieving anything. They seemed to just be aimlessly flying around, getting into trouble each week. And then along came Star Wars and Han Solo, and I realised that sometimes, getting into trouble could be the whole point.
Han was a smuggler and a pirate; he was lazy, selfish and won his captaincy in a card game. In short, he was the opposite of the hard-working Kirk; and every boy in my school playground wanted to be him. Although Kirk often rebelled against his superiors, he still fought to maintain the chain of command and preserve the Federation of Planets. In contrast, Han existed on the disreputable fringes of a Galactic Empire—an empire he would eventually help to bring down. Where Kirk and the Enterprise stood for honour, personal integrity and heroism, Han and the Falcon symbolised freedom—the freedom to go anywhere and do anything, as long as you could stay one step ahead of the wolves barking at your airlock door.
A few years later, I discovered the computer game Elite, which I played on a borrowed BBC Micro computer. In the game, the player takes the role of a space trader jumping from planet to planet, trying to achieve the titular “Elite” combat rating, and trading various goods along the way in order to pay for fuel and ship upgrades. By today’s standards, the game’s graphics are laughably simplistic; but back then, the simple wire-frame renderings of planets and starships left plenty of room for my imagination to fill in the blanks. When the computer was returned to where it had been borrowed from, I turned my attention to a role playing game called Traveller in which, as with Elite, the characters existed in, and moved through, a vast universe of inhabited planets.
These early experiences influenced my later tastes in fiction, giving me a nostalgic soft spot for scoundrels such as John Truck, the amoral loser in M. John Harrison’s Centuari Device; Beowulf Shaeffer, the freewheeling tourist in Larry Niven’s Known Space series; and Lorq van Ray, the doomed renegade in Samuel R. Delany’s classic novel Nova. Rather than enjoying the heroics of Star Trek, I now watched and empathised with Dave Lister’s plight in Red Dwarf, as the only human rattling around a spaceship the size of a small town.
As I got older, my tastes broadened, and I began to see my attraction to these fantasies for what it was: a desire to shut out the rest of the human race, to gain control over my own fate and avoid the adult world of work and financial responsibility for as long as possible. While at the time, such escapism may have seemed juvenile and destructive, I quickly realised that it was this same escapist urge that allowed me to play in my head, inventing the characters and settings for the stories I was beginning to write.
To me, as a writer, archetypal spacers exist apart from society. They are freewheeling freebooters who do not subscribe to the laws and constraints of society, and yet cling to their own—sometimes warped—moral codes. They are wanderers, criminals, gamblers and tourists with world-weary stares. They’ve drunk in every bar from here to the Core, and they’ve seen things most people wouldn’t believe; and once you know where to look for them, you start seeing them everywhere.
You can find them in the crews of the “lighthuggers” that ply between the stars in Alastair Reynolds’ novel Revelation Space. Known as “ultras”, these men and women are distanced culturally and temporally from the rest of humanity by the effects of relativity. Travelling close to the speed of light, they experience only months of subjective time, while decades pass in the outside world.
You can find direct descendants of Han Solo and John Truck in handsome trader captain Joshua Calvert, whose swashbuckling exploits and sexual adventures light up Peter F Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy; and in Mal Reynolds, an honourable malcontent whose struggles to stay one step ahead of the law, keep his ancient starship airborne and his ragbag crew fed, form the narrative of Joss Whedon’s aborted TV series Firefly.
As mentioned in the introduction to this post, I paid homage to the archetypal spacer while writing my novel The Recollection, by introducing the central character of Katherine Abdulov, the estranged daughter of an interstellar trading family. Alone and penniless, Kat has to eke out a living from world-to-world, alone with only her ship, the Ameline, for company. I tried to make Kat as original as possible. To me, she’s a living, breathing individual with her own history and foibles; but in her grease-stained fatigues, she’s also an affectionate acknowledgement of the scoundrels and adventurers to have gone before; and the creation of a writer tipping his hat and making the most of his influences.
Gareth L Powell is the author of the novels The Recollection and Silversands, and the acclaimed short story collection The Last Reef. He is a regular contributor to Interzone and his work has appeared in a number of recent anthologies.