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Book Review: Corsair, by James Cambias

Captain Black the Space Pirate vs. an overly-ambitious Air Force officer and deprecated terrorists.


Tor, 2015, 336 pages

In the early 2020s, two young, genius computer hackers, Elizabeth Santiago and David Schwartz, meet at MIT, where Schwartz is sneaking into classes, and have a brief affair. David is amoral and out for himself and soon disappears. Elizabeth dreams of technology and space travel and takes a military job after graduating.

Nearly 10 years later, David is setting himself up to become a billionaire by working in the shadows under a multiplicity of names for international thieves, and Elizabeth works in intelligence, preventing international space piracy. With robotic mining in space becoming a lucrative part of Earth's economy, shipments from space are dropped down the gravity well into the oceans.

David and Elizabeth fight for dominance of the computer systems controlling ore drop placement in international waters. If David can nudge a shipment 500 miles off its target, his employers can get there first and claim it legally in the open sea. Each one intuits that the other is their real competition but can't prove it. And when Elizabeth loses a major shipment, she leaves government employ to work for a private space company to find a better way to protect shipments. But international piracy has very high stakes and some very evil players. And both Elizabeth and David end up in a world of trouble. Space pirates and computer hackers...James L. Cambias' Corsair is a thrilling near-future adventure!

According to Charles Stross, Helium-3 mining is not going to actually make lunar colonies economical, which is a shame since it's been a convenient trope for SF writers to use for years now.

This is James Cambias's second novel. He writes very traditional science fiction — space opera, not-quite-hard SF but with a sciencey veneer that seems plausible if you're not a physicist like Charles Stross. His novels are written in almost classic style, reminiscent of old Heinlein or modern Scalzi. (Actually, I think I prefer Cambias to Scalzi; they do have a similar style, but Cambias's characters aren't so damn smarmy and squeaky-clever.)

In Corsair, Earth in 2030 is rather boringly similar to the present day, just with more bandwidth and Helium-3 mining on the moon. Shipments of He3 are sent back to Earth by remote-controlled ships. Since they are robots, they can be hacked, and a criminal underworld has begun hijacking some of them. About one in ten He3 shipments winds up diverted to splash down in the ocean where some pirate ship can pick it up and sell it on the black market. Nations and multinational corporations have yet to devise a solution, due to all sorts of legal roadblocks and the fact that no one wants to see anyone else militarizing near-Earth orbit.

Elizabeth Santiago is one of the two protagonists of Corsair. When we meet her, she is an up and coming U.S. Air Force officer looking for an opportunity to test her stealth pirate-killing drone, with absolutely no authorization from her superiors.

Back in college, Elizabeth met an aimless, amoral genius named David Schwartz. She spent a few steamy months working off her bad-boy phase with him, before realizing he lacked either the morals or the ambition to be an Air Force officer's husband, and dumped him. Now, David is "Captain Black, the Space Pirate," one of the most notorious and skilled helium-3 hijackers.

Elizabeth and David are both kind of fucked up. Elizabeth outright lies and manipulates to get her way, so sure is she that her cause is just. It does not work out for her, and she descends into alcoholic self-pity.

David is a narcissistic little shit who wants money, girls, and notoriety, not necessarily in that order. His genius at coming up with clever schemes is rivaled only by his stupidity when it comes to dealing with other people. He takes a job for some shadowy Middle Easterners who want him to pull off a big hijacking, except it turns out that they are actually the remnants of the global jihadist movement. With oil waning in importance, they need to do something big and spectacular to make the major powers take notice of them again, and David is being gulled into facilitating a lunar 9/11. The fact that he doesn't see this coming, or that his employers aren't going to keep him alive one second longer than they need him, is obvious to everyone but David long before he's finally clued in by the bodies they are dropping around him.

The climax is a down-to-the-wire mix of chase scenes, firefights, and Hollywood hacking. If not wholly plausible in every detail, I still enjoyed this book a great deal as a tense mix of techno-thriller and space opera. James Cambias's background as an RPG writer shows — all the characters are interesting collections of talents and flaws, and you can imagine a GM somewhere throwing twists in the narrative and making sure every character has something to do, even the almost irrelevant college girl who decided to go sailing around the world and was dropped into the plot nearly at random. 8/10.

Also by James Cambias: My review of A Darkling Sea.

My complete list of book reviews.

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