Volume 08, Number 01, Winter, 1990

Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum

Henry Martyn

By L. Neil Smith

TOR Books; August 1989; $17.95; 437 pages.
Reviewed by Bill Ritch
July 2020

On the surface Neil Smith's latest book, Henry Martyn, is a simple story of usurped fiefdoms, noble heirs and piracy in deep space. It is, of course, a more complicated book than that. On one level Henry Martyn is a libertarian polemic. On another level it is a stylistic experiment. And on a third level it is a "juvie", reminiscent of Heinlein juvies, but aimed directly at adults—filled with sex and violence. Oh yes, and it is a fun-filled pirate story, also.

Henry Martyn is not about Henry Martyn at all, or rather it is about him in a rather oblique way. The book is the story of young Arran lslay, youngest of three heirs to the throne or Drectorship as Smith calls it) of the planet of Skye. When the book opens, he is 13 years old, recovering from a mild case of juvenile cancer and rather bored. His boredom leads him to explore his castle, thereby discovering an antique .22 calibre Walther. This is a pivotal moment in his life. Although in the 31st century a .22 is barely a toy, this is Arran's first weapon. It begins his fascination with antique weaponry upon which many plot points turn.

Being armed is a constant and important theme in Smith's work. As he shows again and again, a weapon is the essential leveller of men that God does not create equal. A gun allows a small boy to protect himself and his family against a larger, stronger foe. It protects a woman from bing attacked by a man. Smith stands in opposition to the Zeitgeist: weapons are not something of which to be ashamed—they are to be respected, learned and loved.

On the day of the eldest brother's wedding, political machinations against the pater familas succeed in the destruction of the Islay family castle, the death of the father and the usurpation of the throne. The three brothers vow to avenge their father. To accomplish this they draw lots to decide which one must lead a revolution on Skye (the eldest), turn himself in to the Usurper to be the inside man back at the castle (the middle). and stowaway on a space ship to seek the assistance of the Islay family supporters off-planet (the youngest, Arran).

The book follows the stories of each brother—separate and inter-twined—as they grow accustomed to the new lives that fate has chosen for them. Robret, the eldest, grows into the role of rebel leader naturally, his father's son more each day. Donal, the middle brother, becomes seduced by the new life at court, by the Usurper and his daughter. Arran rises in the ranks from galley slave to cabin boy, to first mate to pirate captain. At the denouement, Aren confronts the Usurper and his traitor-brother and…

All pretty standard stuff you would say. This is just like an old-fashioned pirate novel that might have been written by Rafael Sabatini, then turned into a movie starring Errol Flynn and directed by Michael Curtiz, but with space ships instead of sailing ships. Indeed Smith seeks this image, rather than avoid it. Sabatini, Flynn and Curtiz are listed in the acknowledgements. The space ships sail on the interstellar winds of tachyons. The vast starsails must be manipulated by the sweat and labor of men because the physics that makes the ships able to sail the tachyon streams also disables normal electromagnetic motors. Smith builds all the parallels he can between the 31st century Hanover Imperium-conglomerate interstellar empire and the 16/17th century British Empire. The speed of transportation is also the speed of communication. Piracy is rampant. Much of the fighting is man-to-man when a ship is boarded. The central government is strong and ruthless, but the upper class is decadent and affectatious. Once again, a standard pirate novel transplanted to the 31st century.

But this is L. Neil Smith, and he is a libertarian. The Sea Hawk knows that Queen Elizabeth approves of his adventures—if only he can persuade her that the Spanish ambassador is secretly planning war. Captain Blood must await a change in government before he can be vindicated. In Henry Martyn the reader is drawn into this mode of thinking through every chapter of the novel. By concentrating on the lives of the three brothers, who are, after all, part of the nobility; by focusing on the life at court both on Skye and at the Hanover capitol; and by detailing the political machinations of each of the characters the reader is all set for a resolution involving the public discrediting of the Usurper, intervention by the Emperor (called here the Ceo), and the reinstatement of the Islay family as lords of Skye. However, three-quarters of the way through the book, the reader is taken in another direction.

Slowly and subtly Smith introduces an opposing view: the libertarian view. It is obvious to us when he does so, but to the normal "non-political" reader there is a slow realisation that all the governments involved are evil—that the only "good guys" are some individuals such as Arran Islay. This is an excellent book for getting the "non-political" interested in libertarianism.

Unfortunately, the book has a flaw. Both of Neil Smith's forays into the prestigious and rarified realm of hardcover Science Fiction represent stylistic departures from his normal writing style. Smith seems to experiment with a large number of styles, tailoring them for each new book he writes. The style of Henry Martyn is very convoluted. Sentences are inverted. Long participial phrases are interrupted by longer phrases. This difficult style would not be bad by itself. Smith Ls an excellent writer and after a few chapters of Henry Martyn the reader can begin to follow the strange sentences. Smith is also using a very odd vocabulary to further complicate reading. He uses a lot of archaic words to convey the feeling of archaic times. Then he creates new words to describe the new items of the 31st century. "Writing" and "words" become "barquoding" and "barquodes". A holographic storage device is a "thille" and the act of recording upon it is to "enthille". An old-fashioned Sci-Fi blaster comes a "kinergic thrustible". It is the combination of complicated sentences. archaic words and invented vocabulary that makes reading the book difficult. Eventually the reader learns enough words—old and new to read more easily in the book, but by then many lesser readers might have given up. I wish that Smith had kept the vocabulary, but used a simpler sentence structure. It would have made the book more "accessible" and probably a lot more influential.

The book is, nonetheless, one of Smith's best. Aside from the libertarian philosophy to entertain the reader, there is quite a bit of violent action and kinky sex to keep things interesting to the less philosophically motivated.


HISTORICAL NOTE: In the book, "Henry Martyn" is a common name on the planet Skye. It also becomes a symbolic name for the various rebels about in the galaxy. "Henry Martyn" is also an old folk song about a Scottish pirate who vexes King Henry VIII. Henry Martyn is also called "Any Barton" or "Sir Andrew Barton" in some versions of the song. In Henry Martyn, Smith rewrites one of the versions of the song to tell the tale of his novel. The original version can be found in "One Hundred English Folksongs" by C. J. Sharp (1916).

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