The Big Idea: Sheila Jenne
Authors often use the past for inspiration. But what point does the inspiration of earlier days become a problem for the setting our author wants to write for? It’s a question Sheila Jenne confronts in this Big Idea for Black Sails to Sunward.
My dad has two major obsessions: space and the sea. Since he couldn’t join Starfleet, he joined the Navy. He always loved telling us about old Navy traditions from the Age of Sail. So it was pretty natural for me to want to combine these two family obsessions by writing a book about sailing in space.
I’m far from the first to do it, of course. There’s Honor Harrington and David Drake. Even Star Trek itself has been described as “Horatio Hornblower in space.” But, I decided, I wanted to do it better. More real Navy traditions. That real salt-air, sea-shanty feel.
To prepare, I brushed up on Hornblower, Master and Commander, and Mutiny on the Bounty. But I quickly stumbled onto a problem.
The Age of Sail was horrible.
If you really want Navy tradition, you can’t just have pretty uniforms and funny lingo. You also need impressment, flogging, and the death penalty for way too many crimes. Life ashore was brutal enough, and life at sea was worse. Could I ethically even write about this stuff? I didn’t want to do it the way many authors do, downplaying and excusing the harshness. But if I omitted the floggings, it felt less honest.
In the end, the answer was obvious: my Martian Imperial Navy is the bad guy. Of course it would be steeped in tradition, and strict class boundaries are indeed a long tradition. Even today, there’s a difference between officers and enlisted, though that difference doesn’t mean what it used to. In my books, the class differences have instead calcified: those settlers who arrived on Mars first, before the space elevator was built, are nobles, and everyone else is a commoner.
Lucy, the noble main character, arrives in her midshipman’s berth completely unprepared for any of it. Her life planetside was stratified, but she’d never seen anyone flogged before. Why, I wondered, would she put up with this?
The answer is that we often put up with whatever society has told us we should. Lucy has been prepared her whole life to prioritize her social bonds with other nobles over her conscience. It takes her quite a while to learn any differently.
Writing the story this way also contextualizes this age’s favorite heroes, the pirates. Pirates were, of course, robbers and murderers of the high seas. Why do we like them so much? I don’t think it makes sense unless you understand what the Navy was. A lot of pirates were deserters or fleeing from problems on land. There weren’t many places you could really be free of the strictures of the society of the time, especially if you were poor, queer, or non-white.
So in my book, the pirates are still a rough bunch, but we sympathize with them a lot more when we know what they’re coming from. Mars is tyrannical; Earth is the enemy. You can’t live forever in space without a source of air. So what else are they supposed to do but steal?
Fiction often shows the conflict between the forces of order and those of chaos. Sometimes we’re rooting for the good-guy space military to beat criminals and rebels; sometimes the rebels are the good guys rising up against an unjust authority. In a world where authority has gone far overboard, it’s definitely time for underdog pirates to show up and change the game.