Rebooting space pirates
June 13, 2011
With another Pirates of the Caribbean movie out, and me deep into a space pirate project, it’s time to spill a few words on the topic.
I love pirates. There, I said it.
I collect pirate Legos. I thought Cutthroat Island was a decent flick. I think Pirates of the Caribbean is a work of inspired genius (minus the superfluous undead subplot). I’ve even seen the movie Ice Pirates more than once. I have studied pirate history both colonial and recent and still find it endlessly interesting. (I recommend Pirates on the Chesapeake, an interesting read about pirate attacks during the mid-Atlantic’s colonial days, and since I live in the Chesapeake, it’s extra special.)
And don’t get me started on privateering. I even own a privateering coloring book.
These days though, pirates in fiction are passed off as rock stars, leading rock star lives (Johnny Depp ran with this idea, but he didn’t create it). Back in the Errol Flynn/Captain Blood days, pirates were savvy gentlemen, Robin Hoods with sailing ships. To each era their own pirate, I guess.
And real pirates have gone from comical to outright murderers. Until they started killing people, the Somali pirates were kind of interesting. Interesting in that these folks stole a ship that had Russian tanks on board. Did they know that ahead of time, or did they react like, OMG, check out what’s under this tarp!
What about space pirates? They are a sci fi trope, prominently featured in kiddie sci fi. But other than that, they are nearly invisible as far as a trope goes these days. David Lee Summer’s anthology was a recent exception, but a good chunk of that is campy. They are little seen in print, TV or movies. Usually the only show up as offscreen savages in military sci fi, little more than scenery that merely gives the hard-assed protagonist with a heart of gold a thirst for revenge, an injustice to right or a tragic upbringing to struggle against (Elizabeth Moon’s Sassinak, for example). Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
And in fiction you rarely see any sea-based or space-based pirates actually, you know, pirating. It’s more the characters are portrayed as pirates as a fashion statement, or as an exercise in self-labeling. Jack Sparrow doesn’t pirate crap, other than fantastical McGuffins that belong to no one (making him not much worse than Indiana Jones).
Isn’t the most exciting thing about pirates the actual pirating? The carefree nature of being beholden to no one, and yet striving to bring home the loot? Throwing off the yoke of an increasingly suffocating authority and seeking revenge, while having fun and becoming rich? The older I get, the more attractive the idea seems of throwing it all to enact revenge on those who would throw us under the bus as soon as the faintest sign of an opportunity appears.
I brought all this up because I’m working on a project about a modernized, rebooted concept of space pirates. A new take that puts them front and center, grounded, funny, realistic, and likable. No kitsch or camp or shirts with ruffles. And they pirate things, threaten financial markets, and get tangled up with gangsters and explorers. Space pirates can be exciting, and funny, and their potential seems largely unexplored. Stay tuned here for more.