A-Viking We Shall Go
I have long contended that Space Viking is a terrible title for a novel – one of the worst in science fiction – which is a shame, because it's a very good book, maybe one of H, Beam Piper's best. I am fairly certain that, if I hadn't already encountered Piper's work beforehand, I likely would never have sought out a book with this title. It's simultaneously bland and unimaginative and evocative of men in horned space helmets wielding laser-axes. Space Viking is nothing like that, though Piper clearly chose the name in an effort to draw upon the historical reputation of the Norse raiders of the early Middle Ages.
The novel, which was originally serialized in four parts in the pages of Analog magazine between November 1962 and February 1963, takes place after a war (referred to simply as "the Big War") has torn the interstellar Federation asunder. Refugees from the war settled numerous worlds (all named after mythical swords, starting with Exalibur) and had settled down into feudal system of governance. Centuries later, the inhabitants of the Sword Worlds, as they call themselves, have discovered that the "Old Federation" has largely collapsed and most of its worlds have regressed, both technologically and socially. The Sword Worlds thus begin raiding these worlds, plundering their resources in order to better themselves, hence the title of the book.
Lucas Task is a Sword Worlds baron. On his wedding day, Andray Dunnan wounds Trask and murders his fiancée out of jealousy. Dunnan is the nephew of Duke Angus, one of the greatest Sword World nobles and flees on his uncle's newly-build starship (called Enterprise, interestingly enough). Trask has never been off-planet before and indeed has been critical of the Space Vikings and their activities. However, fueled by vengeance, he pledges his entire barony to the duke in exchange for another starship and a crew of veteran Vikings to help him hunt down Dunnan and bring him to justice.
The novel details Trask's efforts to locate Andray Dunnan and the worlds he visits to achieve that end. In the process, the reader is shown the state of the galaxy after the fall of the Federation and the effect the raids of the Vikings have had on various worlds. We also see Trask's growth from a callow young man to a raging avenger to, in time, a more serious, thoughtful man, who begins to see that, if mankind is ever again to be united across the stars, it cannot be under the threat of violence. Indeed, Trask realizes that unity and advancement can only flourish in an atmosphere of peace and mutual assistance. By the time he finally catches up with Dunnan, Trask is a very different man with a very different goal.
Space Viking is short by the standards of later science fiction novels (it's less than 200 pages in most editions). Its characters, aside from Trask, are somewhat thin and only lightly sketched. Nevertheless, the overall story is compelling – not just Trask's personal quest for revenge but also the things he learns as he travels from world to world across the wreck of the Old Federation. The latter in particular left a lasting mark on my imagination and it's something I've strongly incorporated into Thousand Suns. I've even borrowed terms like "Old Federation" and "decivilization" directly from Space Viking, both as an homage to Piper but also because of what they evoke. I highly recommend all of Piper's work to lovers of imperial science fiction, but Space Viking holds a special place in my heart.