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.

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11 Comments on “The Big Idea: Sheila Jenne”

  1. Two other things always strike me when I read about the Napoleonic era of naval conflict:

    First, there’s the socially accepted belief, almost an article of faith, that most people won’t live to a ripe old age, particularly children. So a high mortality rate is taken as a given (a cost of living), and it doesn’t distress people as it would distress us. I remember being horrified for days after reading an account of a naval battle with 50% casualties on one ship accepted as just another day at the office, and not a particularly bad outcome. If your Martian settlements had a similarly high death rate while getting established, this would have consequences for how people see life and death. Dum vivimus vivamus! Some people will internalize this and never think of it directly; others will introspect and ask why “it is what it is”.

    Second, if you accept the high casualty rate as normal, serving in a navy seems far less horrible than it might be if life back at home, “on dry land”, was enough worse that the navy seemed like an attractive option. “Gentlement of Uncertain Fortune” ( is an interesting read about the professions open to 2nd and subsequent sons during the Regency period (daughters, of course, had fewer and often worse options). It explains why military service was attractive to many young men. The storytelling consequences of extending this situation to Lucy and other women in your storyverse would be interesting to explore!

    You might also greatly enjoy “The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates”. ( I found it both eye-opening and a very enjoyable read. Arrh matey!

  2. Thanks for the recs, Geoffrey!

    It’s interesting comparing views on human life between the Age of Sail and space exploration today. Part of why we’ve never gone to Mars is because of concerns about living conditions on the way. What if the astronauts get a vitamin deficiency? What if they get bored with the same food all the time and don’t eat enough?

    A sailor would laugh and laugh. Scurvy is just the price you pay sometimes, and if you can’t eat weevily bread, that’s on you.

    A sailor’s attitude, transferred to space, would open up a lot of possibilities—while at the same time resulting in much more loss of life than NASA would ever accept.

  3. Indeed, one of the things that interests me about traveling to Mars or other parts of the solar system to establish colonies are the effects on our microbiota. For example, we can’t manufacture our own vitamin B12, and need to get it from microorganisms or the food we eat. If the radiation encountered during a long spaceflight kills those microbes, it’s not going to end well.

    I’m currently working on a storyverse based on a different naval tradition, and specifically based on Commodore Perry’s “black ships” forcing open Japan in the mid-1800s. Much space opera, so wow! G

  4. It’s been fun doing the research and figuring how to translate it into a future context. One of the key aspects of this translation is assuming “slow” FTL travel, so that it takes a months or more to travel between stars, the same way it took more than a month to travel from (say) San Francisco to Shanghai by sailing ship. add the assumption that there are no FTL radios, and information such as standing orders must be communicated by courier ship, and the consequence is that naval captains have far more authority to deal with “the natives” (until new orders arrive) than is probably wise. It also transforms “the prime directive” into something more like “plausible deniability”: if a captain exercises their judgment and succeeds, they’re everybody’s hero (except, of course, for the colonized), but if they fail, they clearly violated the prime directive and get spanked for it. (And probably promoted to an office job at the Admiralty or Foreign Office.)

    Needless to say, feel free to borrow and riff on those ideas (possibly with an acknowledgment if you feel that they really helped). There’s lots of room to explore them and we’ll undoubtedly have different takes.

  5. specifically based on Commodore Perry’s “black ships” forcing open Japan in the mid-1800s

    It’s an aside to the main storyline, but in the latter volumes of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, the Royal Navy’s aircraft dragon carriers play the role of the black ships.

    Optional musical accompaniment to this post, by the Pogues.

  6. I would also recommend reading (for a “Navy in space” feel) Nathan Lowell’s Horatio Wang series, starting with QUARTER SHARE.

  7. Jeff M., The Golden Age of the Solar Clipper universe is more like the East India Company and other trading consortia than Hornblower. Ish Wang encounters very little in the way of military action; when there is a shootout, it’s mostly police, the occasional pirate, and some criminal gangs.

  8. I read Quarter Share and liked it, despite the lack of action. Turns out even brewing coffee can be interesting.

    I have often felt the prime directive has a similar purpose in Star Trek. How often have we seen captains go completely rogue and get away with it so long as everything turned out all right in the end?

  9. BTW, don’t hesitate to contact me privately if you want to discuss/brainstorm any of these issues. Talking them out will also help me think through some of the issues with my own novel in progress.

  10. J.A. Sutherland did something similar with his Alexis Carew series. His space sail powered navy is based on Hornblower’s Royal Navy of 1790. His geopolitics (astro-politics?) are based on Queen Victoria’s era with Bismark’s expansionist Prussia. The events in his second book come from a mutiny in 1790, while the third is based on the evacuation of Dunkirk.

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