Starship Blackbeard by Michael Wallace

Starship Blackbird is, admittedly, silly. An amusing sci fi romp that you really shouldn’t take seriously and just enjoy it in all its B-movie DNA glory. For what we have here is the world of the Pirates of the Caribbean transplanted to space: replete with doubloons, grog, pirate women in low cut garments and gold hoops, incompetent aristocrats, sugar plantations and even slaves to work there (in the form of aliens who are addicted to sugar) , and ships with the names Captain Kidd and the titular Blackbeard. At 200 pages, it’s a short read that ends just as it starts to get going.

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Story: Uptight aristocrat Drake, captain of the HMS Ajax, is falsely accused of a crime and sent to two years hard labor in the mines. But his loyal crew stage a mutiny to save him – something he doesn’t want to happen. He feels he can do the two years, survive, and then come back to clear his name. But if he allows the mutiny to happen, he’ll be branded a traitor forever. But his crew has been doing research on his crime – and have found startling evidence that Drake’s framing is part of a greater conspiracy that could topple the Albion empire. Can Drake survive long enough, especially since he is being hounded by his best friend to recapture him (a la Logan’s Run)? Can Drake assemble a new crew in time?

Pretty much most of the swashbuckling era is lifted wholesale. Albion is England, there are colonies in the form of planets, aristocrats protect their slave trade and the income it generates, and the pirates pick off the privateers and merchants while the navy hounds them. A clever idea was to make the slaves aliens – aliens who are addicted to the sugar they are forced to make in order to addict more aliens.

It all makes for grand fun but ironically I found the characters to be cliche, stereotypes, or just plain unbelievable.  Drake as the uptight aristocrat captain was a plank of wood – the loyalty he inspired in the crew inexplicable. It made for a lot of telling but not enough showing to make us believe the crew would throw away their careers and possibly lives on a mickey mouse mutiny. Tolvern, as the first mate, spends too much of the book mooning over her captain – it made her whole mutiny seem like the act of a school girl crush. The evil aristocratic admiral was lifted wholesale from Georgian romance bodice rippers – he should have been twirling a long mustache while cackling over his own incompetence. And the aliens were completely inscrutable (and did stupid things – to say what they were would be too spoilery).  But it made for a lot of unlikeable characters. E.g., the alien people are conquered and enslaved by sugar but there might be a way to end that – and Drake has the key. So he and Tolvern ponder whether it would be a good thing to free the slaves – in front of the alien they supposedly call friend who says nothing (and did a LOT of things to try to free his people just previous).  I supposed author Wallace was channeling the period – but were people really that stupid?

Since this was a quick 6 hour audible reading, it went fast. If I shut off my brain to the bad physics (people use miles?!?), it felt like the Pirates of the Caribbean movie in space.  Enjoyable but empty – the sci fi version of a Twinkie.

Note: I listened to the audible version and the narrator did a decent, if not great, job.

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