King David's Spaceship
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First UK edition
|Original title||A Spaceship for the King|
|Cover artist||Peter Jones|
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Publisher||Simon & Schuster (US)
Orbit Books (UK)
|Followed by||The Mote in God's Eye|
King David's Spaceship is a novel by science fiction author Jerry Pournelle. It was originally published in 1980. Another version appeared as 3-part serial in Analog as "A Spaceship for the King" December 1971 through February 1972.
In content it resembles Pournelle's military fiction series Falkenberg's Legion, also from the CoDominium series, in that it is the story of a capable military leader undertaking a campaign on a backward planet. In this case the leader is from a planet that has recovered technologically to the steam, steel and coal stage, who visits a planet of city states surrounded by barbarians, fighting with medieval weapons.
The story is notable for showing the conflicting motives of the different factions without demonizing any of them, save possibly the merchants' faction whose motives are to use the forces of the Imperial Space Navy to enhance their own profits.
A planet called 'Prince Samual's World' had been bombed heavily during the Secession Wars and had spent about 400 years in isolation. As a result, much of the technological knowledge of the First Empire was lost on the planet; when Second Empire ships found the planet, its technological level was somewhere around that of 19th century Europe.
For years, Colonel Nathan "Iron" MacKinnie had been famous on the planet for his masterful defense of the city-state republic of Orleans against the expansionist kingdom of Haven (ruled by King David), highlighted by his victory at the battle of Blathern Pass. After allying with the Second Empire, Haven embarked on a new unification campaign, and MacKinnie set up a decisive battle that, had Orleans won, would have broken Haven. However, unknown to MacKinnie, the new Haven campaign was a lure to get Orleans' forces into the field, so that the Second Empire's more advanced weaponry (including spaceships) could destroy them. These weapons quickly killed most of Orleans' troops, as well as MacKinnie's fiancée. After the loss of its army, Orleans was forced to surrender, and MacKinnie was then pensioned off by the Haven authorities.
Months later, drinking in a Haven tavern with his former top sergeant, Hal Stark, MacKinnie overheard a drunken Imperial officer boast of having been on Makassar, a nearby primitive planet that had a store of First Empire knowledge in a surviving building that locals treated as a temple. Leaving the tavern, MacKinnie and Stark were arrested by the Haven secret police and taken to see their leader, Citizen Malcolm Dougal (who was secretly a key advisor to King David, although without official government portfolio). Dougal offered MacKinnie an opportunity to serve Prince Samual's World by going to Makassar disguised as a merchant/trader and returning with information to help Haven build a spaceship. What Dougal had learned through his spy network (and told MacKinnie) is that (although the Imperial politicians had not been honest with Haven about this), under Imperial law planets without manned space travel at the time of assimilation into the Second Empire will become colonies, governed by outworlders and at the mercy of the Imperial Traders Association; but planets with manned space travel, even primitive space travel, will be admitted into the Second Empire as self-governing.
Dougal also told MacKinnie that he had killed every non-Imperial in the tavern who may have heard the Imperial officer's remarks except for MacKinnie and Stark. To save both Stark's life and his own, MacKinnie accepted Dougal's offer. With Stark and a company of Haven agents not known to the Imperials, including Mary Brown, a young woman with (most unusually for Haven) a university education, he boarded a ship of the Imperial Traders Association using a pseudonym, disguised as the leader a merchant company looking for trade opportunities on Makassar. They were restricted to arming themselves with chain mail, shields and swords, because Imperial law mandated that no more advanced technology may be introduced to a more primitive planet.
Reaching Makassar, MacKinnie and his company learned that there were few trade goods in the main city on Makassar, which was blockaded on both land and sea by pirates, but Dougal had already anticipated that this would be the case (which is why Dougal believed a military commander would make a better leader for the company than a real trader). MacKinnie, with the help of a former Haven Navy commander in his company, bought and refitted a sailing ship with leeboards. Although a primitive technology to Imperials, leeboards were an advanced one in Makassar terms (which the Imperials failed to appreciate) that would allow their ship to travel much faster than any other on the planet. MacKinnie's ship outran most of the blockading pirate ships and soon arrived in Batav, the city where the First Empire artifacts were located. Batav was under control of Temple high priests who were in turn besieged by vast hordes of barbarian horsemen (Muslims of Indonesian origin who originally gave the planet its name). There were also Second Empire missionaries stranded in Batav, who figured out that the Traders allowed them to travel to Batav because the killing of Imperial missionaries would have provided the ideal pretext for Imperial intervention on Makassar.
MacKinnie convinced the high priests to let him recruit Batav citizens into an army. He then maneuvered the most intelligent and suspicious of the high priests and Temple guards into a suicidal mission while his army defeated the barbarians, utilizing superior tactics. Returning in triumph, he used the resulting power vacuum to install the Second Empire clergymen as Batav's new religious leaders. The grateful clerics, who already resented the Traders, were unexpectedly supportive of MacKinnie's secret mission and were willing to allow MacKinnie's company full access to the Temple archives. One of MacKinnie's men was a physicist chosen for his eidetic memory, to bring back knowledge of space travel that could be used in the remaining time before planet unification. After an unsuccessful assassination attempt on MacKinnie by the barbarians (which leaves Stark injured), MacKinnie and Mary Brown, who served as commander of the commissary for MacKinnie's army, became lovers.
MacKinnie and company (minus an injured Stark, who remained on Makassar as commander of the army in MacKinnie's name) returned to the landing point in time to return to Prince Samual's World. Back in Haven, they used their acquired knowledge to build a manned spaceship, using a pioneering low-tech design by Robert Goddard -- a rapid firing cannon using high-explosive shells detonating behind the ship to provide propulsion (but which might blow up the ship). Because the ship would not be airtight, only members of MacKinnie's company (who were provided with space suits for their trip to Makassar) could pilot it, and because it would only be able to carry a minimal payload, Brown (the lightest of the company) volunteered and was chosen as pilot. Before the launch, MacKinnie proposed to her, and she accepted. As soon as Prince Samual's World was unified, and in the presence of unsuspecting Imperial witnesses, Brown's ship was launched and achieved orbit, although it could not re-enter the atmosphere. King David then immediately requested that Prince Samual's World be admitted to the Second Empire as a self-governing world capable of manned space travel, not as a colony (and also that the Imperial spaceship rescue Brown from the ship, which it did).
The Imperials eventually admitted defeat on the colony/self-governing issue, but they realized that MacKinnie and Brown (who have now become the most famous couple on the planet) must have been part of a Dougal plan to acquire knowledge for the spaceship from the First Empire library/temple during the Makassar trip, which embarrassed the Imperial Navy. The Navy officers insist that MacKinnie and Brown, at least, be visibly punished, while the political representatives want to give Makassar a chance to continue to develop. Using the pretext of the illegal introduction of new technology - wooden horse collars - on Makassar, the political representatives offer MacKinnie and Brown exile on Makassar as punishment (while reminding them that Dougal would not tolerate their fame for long if they remained on Prince Samual's World). They gladly accept — MacKinnie never had wanted to leave Stark and his army behind - and the Imperials move on.
References to technology
In the novel, Brown introduces rigid wooden horse collars to Makassar to improve the efficiency of her commissary with the limited number of horses she has. Although this seems like a trivial improvement, this will become a disruptive technology on Makassar, because Makassar society still uses slaves. Slaves are even used as draft animals, because Makassar cannot exploit the full ability of horses with its current technology: simple harnesses fastened around the neck. A horse eats as much as five men and so must perform better than five men to be worth using, but it cannot with a simple harness. However, with a wooden collar bearing weight on its shoulders, a horse can pull ten times as much as a man at high speed. The effect of this is either to render a large number of slaves useless, or to free them for other uses. Either way the economic structure of the society will change radically, and with it the political and power structure.