Whenever a Science Fiction novel is reprinted after a space of a number of years, there is always the question as to whether it has been able to stand up to the stresses of technological development and scientific understanding that has occurred in the intervening time. With books from the old masters, the answer is probably no, but if it is a well-written adventure with a fast-paced plotline it may regarded as a classic, giving insights into the ethics of the society in which it was written. What was once cutting edge might have become blunted but there is enough in the content to still fire the imagination. Others fail on all counts but can be regarded as relics of the reader’s personal Golden Age. Those that survive best are often set in a far future and ignore the mechanisms of futuristic technologies. Just as most of us don’t actually know how a television works, so the characters don’t need to know the intricacies of FTL technology, just that it does work.
Ben Jeapes has managed to set ‘His Majesty’s Starship’ far enough in the future for the reader not to have to worry too much about how we got from here to there. Changes in Earth-side political boundaries are sketchy but since the characters accept them as fact, so does the reader. Although originally published in 1998, the writing here is as fresh as if it were recently penned.
UK-1 is a very large space ship. Living aboard it are all the remaining citizens of the old United Kingdom, including the Royal Family. What exactly happened to cause the exodus isn’t made clear. Its economy is sustained by mining the asteroid belt and to this end, smaller, manoeuvrable ships are employed to deter anyone from making claims on potential rocks. Michael Gilmore is the captain of one of these ships. Although the human race has yet to venture outside the solar system, aliens have made contact with Earth. The First Breed, known privately as Rusties because the skin of the quadrupeds has the colour and texture of flaking, rusting iron, make an extraordinary proposition to the peoples of Earth. Each nation that is able to is given the opportunity to send a representative to a convocation on a Rustie planet. Each will be able to make their case to govern and develop the planet and one will be chosen.
Gilmore is given the captaincy of the ship Ark Royal that will take James, Prince of Wales, to represent UK-1 at the convocation. The two men do not get on as James gives the impression of being a spoilt, arrogant brat. James, though is not the villain of the piece. That dishonour goes to Krishnamurthy, delegate for the Confederation of South-East Asia – an expanding empire in all but name. Also aboard Ark Royal with its crew of only six, is a Rustie, Arm Wild. His role is to observe as well as introduce the humans to the cultural mores of the convocation.
There is doubt as to the real motives of the Rusties’ apparent philanthropy so, much to his annoyance, information is kept from Gilmore by the prince and his father, King Richard, who have some surprises ready for all parties, as does Krishnamurthy.
In many respects, this is good old-fashioned adventure SF blended with a respect for scientific developments and a sensitivity for the other alien inhabitants of our universe. On the minus side is the conflict of Gilmore and Prince James which pitches the experienced spaceship captain against arrogant youth as seen in so many cop-movies. Then, harking back to the old days of adventure stories of all kinds is the unredeemable villain whose unscrupulousness and ambition render Krishnamurthy a recognisable stereotype. That said, the novel does currently stand up to the passage of time and is well-written. If the pulp SF of the fifties had had this quality, perhaps the genre would not have had the poor reputation it developed in the eyes of the ‘literary’ critics.
(pub: Clarion Publishing. 345 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-909016-18-7)