Saturday, November 30, 2013

STAR COURIER by A. Bertram Chandler

John Grimes is the Owner-Master of the deep space pinnace Little Sister.  Little Sister is a modified solid gold hulled ship, which was given to Mr Grimes by his former employer Michelle, Baroness d’Estrang, of El Dorado “in lieu of back pay and separation pay.”  A pinnace is a light sailing ship used as a tender for a larger ship, but Little Sister is fully equipped and capable of autonomous galactic space transit.

Grimes is recently unemployed and finds himself on Tiralbin looking for a mail contract.  The Interstellar Transport Commission has the mail contract for Tiralbin, but it is notoriously slow for the smaller provincial planets off the main trade routes—

“Grimes recalled especially a parcel that his colleague had torn open with great indignation.  According to the postmark it had taken just over a year to reach Lindisfarne Base.  It contained a not readily identifiable mass that looked as though it would have been of interest only to a geologist.  It was, in fact, a birthday cake that had been baked by the disgruntled lieutenant’s fiancée.”

Grimes is on planet for only a few hours when a cargo to the small wealthy planet Boggarty is offered.  The cargo is a rush consignment with one hitch: the Superinteding Postmistress Tamara Haverstock must accompany the cargo.  The expected pleasantries happens between Grimes and the postmistress until Little Sister’s inertial drive breaks down, and they are boarded by the Shaara, a very advanced bee species.
Star Courier is a simple, straight forward space adventure.  It is simple, but the sheer amount of action is extraordinary—Grimes moves from budding entrepreneur to casa nova to prisoner to conquering diety.  In short, the story is large, but it is played out on the ground and kept not only manageable by Mr Chandler, but also entertaining.  The prose is simple, crisp, and very readable.  It perfectly matches the story style, and creates a certain low level buzz of tension by pushing the narrative forward quickly and without any overwrought dramatics.

Star Courier is very unlike most of the science fiction currently being published.  It is short, full of adventure, and includes very little—no?—philosophy.  It is something very close to what Ace was publishing in the 1960s and 1970s, and if you enjoy the older science fiction—or maybe it is better described as space adventure—than you will have a great time with this one.
Interestingly, I found a quote from Mr Chandler regarding his work in his entry in Contemporary Authors Online—

“I write science fiction because I like it.  More than one unkind editor has commented that my stories are ‘costume sea stories.’”     

Star Courier felt very much like a sea story; from the use of the term “pinnace” to describe Little Sister, to landing procedures in port, to the use of mainline trading routes.  However space travel is inherently comparable with sea travel due to the long distances involved and the solitary self-sustained journeys.     
Star Courier was originally published by DAW in 1977, and it is currently available as both an ebook and in an omnibus print edition (both trade and mass market) titled Galactic Courier: The John Grimes Saga III, which also includes To Keep the Ship, Matilda’s Stepchildren, and Star Loot.

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