I was a fan of James Cambias’ debut novel, A Darkling Sea, a complex tale of First Contact that left lots of room at the end for a continuation of that story. Instead though, Cambias took a pretty strong detour with his second novel, Corsair, which as its name suggests has to do with space piracy, though perhaps not in the usual fashion.
The phrase “space pirates” usually conjures up in one’s mind (well, this mind at least) a space opera-like story, with FTL ships barreling along in interstellar space, energy weapons and force fields, spaced suited and armored boarding parties a la all those books from my youth: Isaac Asimov’s Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids, E.E. “Doc” Smith’s LENSMAN series, several Robert A. Heinlein juveniles.
Cambias eschews the old style version, though, instead presenting this novel’s particular “space pirate” (David Schwartz, aka Captain Black the Space Pirate) as a computer geek happily ensconced in his hotel room slapping a slew of neuro-patch stimulants on his skin while he hacks into a rocket’s guidance system and sends it to a pre-determined drop site for his employers. The rockets in this near-future scenario are cargo ships carrying a billion dollars’ worth of Helium-3 from the moon to Earth, to be used as fusion plant fuel.
The story opens with Schwartz pulling off a successful heist despite the efforts of Air Force Captain Elizabeth Santiago (an old girlfriend, it turns out). That incident gives Schwartz the money to retire and live the good life, while it sends Santiago off from her current post to another one as a liaison for a private satellite company. As often happens though, Schwartz gets convinced to pull “one last score — the big one” and the two are soon on opposite sides again, though it also turns out Schwartz’s employers haven’t been fully honest with him. Meanwhile, a third character, Anne Rogers, sets out to sail around the world and eventually becomes embroiled in the machinations, along with an FBI agent who has been trying to track down “Captain Black.”
As mentioned above, Corsair is a pretty big departure from A Darkling Sea: near-future rather than far-future, near-space (if that; 90-plus percent takes place on Earth) rather than interstellar space, an all-human cast (even if one has some questions about the bad guy’s humanity), and a far lighter tone.
I would call it a slighter book in most ways, with less complexity or depth of character, plot, and theme, and to be honest, I didn’t enjoy it as much as A Darkling Sea. That said, Corsair is a solid read that has its entertaining moments as it sends its two main characters into some tense moments (as well as some comical ones); I just happen to prefer wrestling with things a bit more.
Plotting sometimes relies a bit too much on coincidence, and certainly readers will see much of what is coming before the characters, though it does move along quickly and smoothly. Anne’s segments feel more contrived than the other threads, and her early segments especially were a bit too detached, though she does have some personality/thematic resonances with the other two. Meanwhile, those who like their science in their science fiction will applaud Cambias’ attention to detail here with regard to thrust calculations, orbital mechanics, payload weight and the like (it all seems well researched, though I’m hardly the guy to know).
I’m not sure I’d label the characters fully or sharply drawn, but I did like that they are flawed, screw up in big and usually realistic ways (at times things felt a bit implausible), and that they don’t magically change their stripes to suddenly become less so or more “likable.”
The world-building is somewhat thin, and I never quite got a good grip on the various entities involved on either side. While these are probably more the result of the author’s intent and desire to have a tightly focused plot, it still would have been nice to have a greater sense of how things have changed in the world — socially, economically, politically.
Though the book as noted is a bit slight, Cambias doesn’t shy away from at least referencing some larger, darker issues, such as our modern surveillance state, the debate over a law enforcement versus a militaristic response to terror, and sexual exploitation. At the other end of the spectrum, he does show at times a nice comical touch, especially in one hostage negotiation scene that had me chuckling out loud.
I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit Corsair was a bit of a disappointment, but I can’t fault an author for going a different route than I’d prefer, or for broadening his repertoire. If Corsair is a slighter sort of novel, a bit thin in character and plotting, it’s hardly a bad one, and it’s more than possible that those coming to Cambias fresh, or who like this sort of novel more than I do, will find it more than satisfactory.