The Scoundrel’s Last Refuge

Anything but political correctness as we trade amongst the stars.  Published by Panther Books 1969.  Cover illustration by Brian Edwards.

Anything but political correctness as we trade amongst the stars. Published by Panther Books 1969. Cover illustration by Brian Edwards.

We cannot expect that everyone who will eventually carry the empire of humanity to the stars will be decent, honest and, to put it bluntly, politically correct.  If, as I suggested in a previous Odyssey webpost – The Mother of Invention – it is trade and profit which will dictate the expansion of the human race, then the modern equivalent of buccaneers and freebooters will have their part to play.  Possibly more so than many might imagine, or indeed wish.

In that webpost, I referred to the larger-than-life character Nicholas van Rijn created by Poul Anderson, who appears in his 1964 collection of stories Trader to the Stars.  Van Rijn is primarily a trader, but his approach to life consists of indulging in food, wine and women as he blusters his way around the cosmos.  Anderson  introduced another of his daring and adventurous traders in the form of David Falkayn, who features in the 1967 collection The Trouble Twisters, in which old van Rijn himself also makes a brief appearance, but only really to persuade our hero to take on a job by offering him an invitation to his next orgy.

Falkayn, another free spirit and a merchant prince from a baronial house in the Grand Duchy of the planet Hermes, was expelled from the ducal militechnic academy for a “prank”.  He tells himself he has “excellent taste in clothes and wine.  Also women…”  His blasé attitude is summed up when facing possible death: “He was David Falkayn, with his whole life to live.  Death didn’t happen to David Falkayn.”  And, of course, it didn’t.

The idea of the reckless, almost piratical, risk-taker playing a key part in the adventure of exploration and travel is fairly well-founded in literature.  In its more extreme form, it probably has its roots in the likes of the exceptionally colourful Long John Silver in Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous 1883 novel Treasure Island.  Though, in reality, the pirates of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were anything but a likeable bunch.  You certainly wouldn’t want to meet them on a dark night.

There are elements of this approach in the character of Han Solo of Star Wars fame.  When Princess Leia refers to him as a “scoundrel” in the 1980 film The Empire Strikes Back, we know it’s the right word for him – dishonest and a bit of a lovable rogue, but a survivor who will undoubtedly cut the best deal.  At least as far as he himself is concerned.

Needless to say, there will still be out-and-out criminals.  Slippery Jim DiGriz, aka “The Stainless Steel Rat” in Harry Harrison’s series of science fiction novels built around his extraordinary career, finds convoluted ways of justifying his activities but is, at heart, a crook.  The idea of trade, honest or otherwise, doesn’t feature in his way of thinking – he’s a thief, until he’s recruited to use his skills in the interests of law and order.

But one of the most flamboyant such individuals is certainly Harcourt Fenton Mudd, who appears in two episodes of the original Star Trek series, and was played in a suitably theatrical manner by Roger C Carmel.  Unscrupulous and conniving, Mudd swindles his way around the Galaxy as a confidence trickster and smuggler, but is at heart a trader and entrepreneur, and is memorable as such.

And underlying so many of these characters is the fact that they are enjoying themselves – often at other people’s expense, admittedly, but it’s still a significant point.  No matter whether humanity’s eventual growth in space is driven by the desire to make money, or the lust for exploration and discovery, or simply from sheer necessity, let’s hope that there can also be more than a little excitement in it and, lest we forget what life should be all about, some fun.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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