For those of you who are fans of Flashman I though it fitting to bring for your consideration one Isambard Smith. You might call him the Anti-Flashman, though the book covers at first seem similar. But look closer at that cover. Does Smith have a scantly clad woman draped around his leg? No, he’s got a dead body at his feet and is holding a mug of hot tea. Proper.
Space Captain Smith and its sequels God Emperor of Didcot and Wrath of the Lemming Men are set in a future where the British Empire has risen once more, and with it an aesthetic throwback to late colonial England. The architecture is New Gothic, ships are designed with brasswork cogs and levers, and while the computers have normal displays, numbers are often displayed with rotating dials and a handy ticker-tape that prints out relevant information.
Smith is about as different to Flashman as you can get. He’s not a womanizer, a coward, or a bully for one (well, three) thing(s). About the only thing they have in common is a decent mustache. But Smith is no larger than life hero without flaws. Outside of a good fight he’s downright awkward, especially around the opposite sex, yet he embodies everything we’re meant to see in the British Space Empire – noble and refined, with its citizens carrying a stiff upper lip and not dealing with things like “feelings” in public. Dreadnought Diplomacy is alive and well. When one speaks of “civilizing” an alien culture, it refers to how the iron fist is used if talking sensibly to the silly buggers didn’t work.
Smith’s long time friend is a M’Lak called Suruk the Slayer (Doom Purveyor, Son of Agshad Nine-Swords, Grandson of Urgar the Miffed). The M’Lak look vaguely like the Predator but their personality better fits the “noble savage” archetype from classic adventure literature (carrying the spear of his ancestors, speaking stiff and formal English, lusting for battle, that sort of thing). Of course, when Suruk has a chance to speak to his own kind you see a whole other side to his people.
To act as a foil to Smith and Suruk are two women: Pollyanna Carveth, a fugitive sex toy masquerading as the ship’s pilot, and Rhianna Mitchell, a New-New Age hippie herbalist from the American Free States. Carveth is lazy, constantly worried about her looks, and a coward (but the kind you should never back into a corner). Rhianna on the other hand is brave but a pacifist. Despite the fact she is so unlike Smith (or perhaps because of it) he can’t help but fall head over heals for her, nor can he help but blow almost every opportunity he has to score with her.
Like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, parody and satire infuses much of the novels. Frost pokes fun at the Martians from H.G. Wells, the trenchcoats and sunglasses of The Matrix, and everything in between. While these parodies sometimes stick out as a little obvious in the first novel, the second and third books have Frost finding his rhythm and the references are more seamlessly interwoven with the narrative.
Unlike Pratchett, which generally has the heroes avoid lethal violence unless absolutely necessary, the Smith books are gleefully action packed. I’m particularly impressed how Frost has avoided the temptation of making the battles like an episode of G.I. Joe (where lots of shots are fired but nobody gets hurt) just because it’s a comedy. It’s a ripping yarn, and it delivers both on the action front and the comedy. While Pratchett always puts a smile on my face, he rarely makes me laugh out loud. Frost on the other hand has had me burst out frequently.
The backdrop for the Smith books is that of impending war. The Empire on the cusp of invasion by a genocidal ant-like species known as the Ghast. These fanatical minions and their ruthless leaders seek only the death of all humans, and that’s not just human propaganda. In fact, the Ghast’s own WWII style propaganda posters makes their goal abundantly clear, as do their cookbooks. The main villain amongst the Ghast is Commander 462, who demonstrates Ghast culture and chain of command by regularly drinking pulped minion for nutrition (typically one who brought him not-so-great news).
But not all of the danger in the universe comes from aliens. The Democratic Republic of New Eden, a small militant group of colonies that represents the worst humans have to offer. Sexist, racist, intolerant religious fanatics. Some see the Ghast as servants of God the Annihilator, and work with them to bring about the end of times.
Later we have the Lemming Men of Yull who are tall, cute, and suicidally violent. They worship the war god Popacapinyo, and while your first impression of them are of kamakazi pilots, they have just as much in common with the English officers of WWI trench warfare who believed the solution to any problem was to throw more men at it. They also tend to leap off cliffs.
Plot wise the first novel, Space Captain Smith, deals with Isambard and his crew trying to escort Rhianna from the United Free States into British Empire territory, and the Ghast want to capture her at any cost. In the process they have to escape the clutches of a Ghast battleship, hide on a planet recently conquered by New Eden and then free it in order to escape. To add to their problems a universe-weary android assassin (who dreams of electric sheep) is trying to track down and terminate their pilot Polly.
God Emperor of Didcot has Smith and his crew try to recapture Urn, principal supplier of sixty percent of the Empire’s tea. This may not seem like such a big deal at first, but science has proven that tea with milk produces more Moral Fiber in humans than any other drink, and was the key to the first British Empire’s success. If mankind is to survive the Ghast invasion, the tea must flow. To succeed they’ll need the help of a commando unit so elite they only have five members, and Smith will have to visit Suruk’s clan, who have recently gone under some rather dramatic cultural changes.
Wrath of the Lemming Men starts off with the death of a family member by Colonel Vock of the Yull. The Ghast have made an alliance with Colonel Vock of the Yull, who has been assigned to Ghast 462 to try and capture the mystical Vorl for their genetic experiments. Smith and his crew have to stop them, but to do so they have to figure out what the hell is going on first, which takes them in and out of several dangerous locations.
If Space Captain Smith sounds like an ideal book for gamers, it’s little wonder why. Toby Frost is a professed wargamer and roleplayer, and is currently looking into making the Space Captain Smith universe into a roleplaying game of its own.
Space Captain Smith is perhaps the best comedy/adventure/sci-fi series you’ve never heard of, but now it’s been released in the States, so it’s up to you to discover this excellent series for yourself. Whether you appreciate it as a comedy, a sci-fi lover, or as a gamer, it’s a series you don’t have to be British to appreciate.
First Published in KODT Issue #199