Corsair by James Cambias (book review).

January 1, 2022 | By | Reply More

‘Corsair’ is the second novel to come from the pen of James L. Cambias in 2015, an American Science Fiction author who also designs tabletop games. It’s a near-future SF tale about lunar mining and the high technology pirates who want to make a quick buck from it. The book has been languishing on my TBR pile for far too long. I’m glad I finally took the time to read it, as it’s an exciting and pacy story that was well worth picking up.

The narrative takes place over a 14 month period between June 2030 and August 2031. The main plot revolves around two main characters. David Schwartz is a 28 year-old high school drop-out and amoral super-nerd whose only aim is to become so rich that he can retire before he’s thirty and enjoy the high life for evermore. He graduates from ordinary thievery of such items as credit cards and self-driving cars to stealing satellites after finding out that the average payload of Helium-3 being mined on the Moon and then sent back to Earth is worth a cool two billion dollars!

At the start of the book, David, whose risible nickname for himself is ‘Captain Black the Space Pirate’, is in the middle of just such a job, using a satellite that’s been launched into space by his anonymous financial backers to hack a second satellite that’s returning to Earth full of mined Helium-3.

However, things don’t go quite according to plan. Just as David is about to start the hack, a third space vehicle appears! This one is being controlled by US Air Force Captain Elizabeth Santiago, mission director for anti-space piracy at a base hidden deep under Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. Elizabeth’s mission, using a new and extremely expensive spacecraft, is primarily one of observation and passive deterrence.

When that doesn’t work, though, she goes for an aggressive strategy of grappling David’s satellite while he’s using it to hack the control software of the mining vehicle. This is successful, right up until a few moments after David has reprogrammed the mining satellite, sending it on a new trajectory to splashdown near the Philippines, where it will be picked up by actual pirates. His mission completed, he blows his own cheap satellite up, taking Elizabeth’s costly one with it for good measure.

The aftermath of this incident sees David, now a millionaire many times over, taking semi-retirement on an island in the Caribbean, until a new job, stealing an even bigger satellite and its payload is offered to him in such a way that he can’t really refuse. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is taken off operational duties after her high profile failure and shuffled sideways to Florida to be the USAF liaison with a Newspace start-up company. She’s told that if she spends a couple of years out of the limelight, she may be able to rescue her air force career afterwards.

What none of Elizabeth’s colleagues realise is, that for her, this is deeply personal. Seven years earlier, when she was finishing off her master’s degree, Elizabeth had a three month long relationship with David. They broke up when she found out about his illegal activities and she hasn’t seen him since. However, she recognised his MO in the helium piracy mission and is now desperate to find a way to catch him. Can she use her new job to settle the score with her ex-boyfriend and regain the trust of her air force bosses?

The story is dominated by the personalities of the two main characters, who provide a fascinating contrast to each other. While David and Elizabeth are both intelligent and highly skilled young people, he is motivated solely by money.

Whereas she has two competing drivers: her sense of duty to the US Air Force on the one hand and her wish to bring David to justice on the other, even if the latter means taking action that exceeds her authority. This conflict creates a real tension within Elizabeth and it’s notable that whereas David remains disciplined whether things are going his way or not, Elizabeth’s self-control rapidly disintegrates when her thirst for revenge asserts itself over her training.

I thoroughly enjoyed the way that Cambias used space piracy as the driver for the plot, enabling an entire near-future SF novel that’s nominally focused on activities in space to actually take place down on the ground. This enabled the author to use a large cast of background characters and interesting Earth-bound settings to liven up the story. By doing this, he avoided the risk of monotony that can arise when a novel is set in space in the near future and thus based on a small cast restricted to a single setting, such as a space station.

Above all, the plot proceeds at pace throughout and I read the novel much more rapidly than I would have expected, while enjoying it immensely, too. All in all, a highly entertaining book and one I’d recommend to all fans of near-future Science Fiction.

Patrick Mahon

December 2021

(pub: TOR/Forge, 2015. 336 page small hardback. Price: $25.99 (US), $29.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-7910-8)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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