King David's Spaceship
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.
The action opens on a planet called 'Prince Samual's World'. Bombed heavily during the Secession Wars, it has spent 400 years in isolation. Much of the technological knowledge of the First Empire was lost; when ships of the Second Empire find the system, the planet's technological level is somewhere around that of 19th century Europe.
Colonel Nathan MacKinnie is famous for his masterful defense of the city-state republic of Orleans against King David's expansionist kingdom of Haven. Even after the battle of Blathern Pass, for which the colonel was famous, Haven embarked on a new campaign, with decisive battle that, had Orleans won, would have broken Haven's ambitions. The campaign is but a lure to get Orleans' forces into the field—weapons of the Second Empire, allied with Haven, wipe out most of Orleans' troops and with them, MacKinnie's fiancée. With few troops left, McKinnie is defeated, and is forced to surrender. He is pensioned off by the conquering Haven authorities.
Many months later, drinking in a Haven tavern with his top sergeant, Hal Stark, he overhears a drunken Imperial officer boast of having been on Makassar, a primitive planet with a store of old Empire knowledge in a temple. Leaving the tavern, the two are taken by the Haven secret police to see their leader, Citizen Malcolm Dougal. Dougal offers MacKinnie an opportunity to serve Haven, and indeed the entire world, by going to Makassar disguised as a merchant and returning with information to help Haven build a spaceship. Dougal tells MacKinnie that he has disposed of all those who may have heard the officer's remarks.
Dougal has found out that under Second Empire law, planets with space travel at the time of assimilation into the Empire have a higher status than those without. Haven has benefited from Imperial help in unifying the planet, but Dougal has uncovered what the Empire has failed to tell Haven: once the entire world is conquered, Prince Samual's World will become a colony, governed by outworlders. But if Dougal and his lord, King David, can launch a spaceship, however primitive, they can petition for self-governing status.
MacKinnie has little choice in the matter, as Dougal's actions have made clear. He is no friend of Haven, but he has no desire to see the planet ruled by outsiders. With Stark and a collection of Haven agents, including Mary, a young woman with (most unusually for Haven) a University education, disguised as a merchant company, they board a ship of the Imperial Traders Association for the trip to Makassar. They are restricted to arming themselves with chain mail, shields and swords - no new technology can be introduced to the more primitive planet.
Reaching Makassar, MacKinnie and his cohort learn that the Traders have played them for fools, leaving them in a city with few trade wares. Their only purpose was to have paying passengers on an otherwise unprofitable leg of their tour. The Havenites are stranded in a port blockaded by pirates. However, the situation does help the Havenites by giving them a motive to travel to the city where the First Empire artifacts are located. With the help of a Haven Navy commander in his retinue, MacKinnie buys and refits a sailing ship with leeboards. Although a primitive technology in Second Empire terms the leeboards are an advanced one in Makassar terms and allows the ship to travel much faster than any other on the planet. He recruits a skeptical, if veteran local ship captain and a crew desperate enough to man it.
The new ship outruns most of the waiting pirate ships, only having to defeat a reduced force—using superior tactics. They arrive at the city of Batav where the Temple is located. The city is under the control of the Temple priests, but is besieged by vast hordes of barbarian horsemen. There are also Second Empire missionaries stranded there.
MacKinnie convinces the city leaders to let him recruit citizens into an army. He maneuvers the most intelligent and suspicious of the high priests and his Temple guards into a suicidal trek while he defeats the barbarians, again utilizing superior tactics. Returning in triumph, he uses the resulting power vacuum to install the Second Empire clergymen as religious leaders. The grateful clerics are willing that MacKinnie's people get access to the archives. One of MacKinnie's men is a physicist chosen for his eidetic memory. While the expedition will take home hidden advanced memory storage cubes, he must memorize the information they need as it is unlikely the readers can be built for the cubes in Haven. After the battle, coup and an unsuccessful assassination attempt, MacKinnie and Mary become lovers.
The churchmen are unexpectedly supportive. They too resent being used by the Traders. The barbarians are Muslims of Indonesian origin who originally gave the planet its name. The killing of Imperial missionaries would have provided the ideal pretext for Imperial intervention.
MacKinnie and company sail back in time to board ship and return to Prince Samual's World. Stark remains (having failed to persuade MacKinnie to as well) and will guide the army the offworlders created, in MacKinnie's name. Back home, they use their newfound knowledge to build from old designs by pioneers such as Robert Goddard, one of which was a rapid firing cannon using high-explosive shells detonating behind the ship to provide propulsion. It is a desperate measure, but it works. In the presence of Imperial witnesses, the ship reaches orbit around the planet, although it cannot re-enter. Haven then requests that the Empire ship rescue the pilot, Mary, and soon thereafter, requests that Prince Samual's World be admitted to the Empire as a self-governing world.
The Imperials eventually admit defeat, but they exact a price. The Samualites have embarrassed the Navy and must be seen to be punished. While the Imperial Navy is quite willing to try MacKinnie and Mary for interfering with the orderly development of Makassar, the political representatives broker a solution. Using the pretext of the illegal introduction of new technology - horse collars - on Makassar, which will seriously disrupt society, MacKinnie and his new fiancée, Mary, are exiled to Makassar. They gladly accept—MacKinnie never had wanted to leave—and return to Makassar to carve out their future—and Makassar's.
References to technology
In the novel, MacKinnie introduces horse collars to improve the efficiency of his army. In Makassar terms, this is a disruptive technology for the following reasons, as explained in the novel. Makassar society uses slaves. Slaves are even used as draft animals, because they cannot exploit the full ability of the horse with a simple harness fastened around the neck. A horse eats as much as five men and so must perform better than five men to be worth using. With a wooden collar bearing 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.