The Long View: The Seafort Saga

I read David Feintuch's Seafort Saga because John reviewed the first five books in the series in 1996. I stopped after the fourth, even though two more books had been released since the time John reviewed them. I actually did this on John's advice, since Feintuch had invented a kind of pidgin for the tribal denizens of New York City, that ended up being painful in print. 

I think this book series is worth a read, although it is not the kind of book I am going to return to again and again. Fun, but not a true classic. In my own reviews, I seconded John's [and Steve Sailer's] notion that science fiction often tells you far more about the time period in which it was written. 


The Seafort Saga

by David Feintuch

Aspect (Warner Books)



Midshipman’s Hope

1994, $5.50, pp. 391

ISBN: 0-446-60096-2

Challenger’s Hope

1995, $5.50, pp. 407

ISBN: 0-446-60097-0

Prisoner’s Hope

1995, $5.50, pp. 506

ISBN: 0-446-60098-9

Fisherman’s Hope

1996, $5.99, pp. 482

ISBN: 0-446-60099-7

Voices of Hope

1996, $5.99, pp. 527

ISBN: 0-466-60333-3



Who says they don’t write space-opera like they used to? I do. The Seafort Saga is a good example of how science fiction bears the imprint of the period in which it was written.

In some ways, this series might have been written in the early 1950s. Certainly the author makes assumptions that science fiction writers have been making for fifty years. Thus, a way has been found to travel faster than light and the United Nations has become a world government. More generally, certain aspects of life in the future closely resemble life in the author’s favorite area of the past, which in this case seems to be Queen Victoria’s navy.

The author puts these familiar devices to good use. These five novels are about the career of an officer of the UN Space Navy. They are set, for the most part, in the early 23rd century. The protagonist defeats several alien invasions. There are lots of unsatisfactory people and things in the universe that need to be incinerated with lasers, and the series disposes of a large fraction of them. Indeed, had the series actually been written in the 1950s, it would have been considered remarkable for its vivid characterization and psychological insight.

On the other hand, there are many things about the Seafort Saga that mark it as a work of the 1990s. Some of these are scientific fashions, such as the notion that animal life in general and intelligent life in particular are so improbable that the human race is unique in the universe. (The alien menace, as we will see, leaves something to be desired.) The physics of faster-than-light travel may owe something to the theories of the cult-physicist, David Bohm. Aside from science, the series reflects the period of its composition in such matters as the relentlessly coed military and the fact that socialism is absent from the conceptual universe of the characters. Indeed, the most interesting difference from the science fiction of fifty years earlier is the change in the cultural trajectory of the future history the author imagines. Mid-century science fiction usually assumed that the alternative to secular modernity was barbarism. The world of the Seafort Saga, in contrast, really is postmodern in a way that will remind readers of Oswald Spengler’s forecast of the “Second Religiousness.”

The story is told mostly in the first person by the protagonist, Nicholas Ewing Seafort. His story begins with the words, “October 12, in the Year of the Lord 2194,” and he means every one of them. In this he is not unusual. The United Nations that governs the human race is a theocracy which supports and is supported by the Reunification Church. I kept expecting the protagonist to lose his faith, or at least to come into conflict with a larger secular society, but to my surprise these things did not happen. The UN is a democratic theocracy, in that its legislature and chief executive are popularly elected, albeit by a somewhat restricted franchise. Nevertheless, its legitimacy is based on a claim of divine right, and treason is prosecuted as blasphemy. One can view the author’s Reunification Church it as another Victorian parallel, a tolerant but unavoidable established church that somehow manages to incorporate all the major historical faiths as “synods” under its broad roof. Still, the universal creed is ecumenicism with teeth.

The world of the 23rd century is variously draconian. There is a great deal of hanging and corporal punishment, and imprisonment is devoid of the concept of rehabilitation. Incorrigible members of the urban underclass are forcibly transported to colony planets as unskilled labor. Despite these dark features, this is not a story about a totalitarian future. Rather, it is a time of ordinary unhappiness. The brutality of the law is the result of the horror with which respectable people look back at what are called “the Rebellious Centuries,” a period that seems to encompass western modernity from the Enlightenment to the early 21st century.

Actually, as we see, the return to moral rigor has only limited success. The problem with the government, despite its moral hectoring, is really that it is too lax rather than too strict (a characterization which will perhaps also remind readers of the 1990s, at least in the United States). Universal education has been declared to be impossible, and so the world’s major cities have been almost abandoned to tribalized savages. The UN Army is remarkably corrupt and the Space Navy runs on nepotism. Nevertheless, this state of things is regarded as an improvement, particularly over the 20th century.

The first four books have the same basic plot: the young officer Nicholas Seafort assumes authority in an emergency and takes some ethically ambiguous action that makes him a hero instead of getting him hanged. He starts in the first book as a teenage midshipman taking command of an interstellar transport after all the other line officers have been killed in a shuttle accident. (The wise old engineering officer survives, but cannot take command because he does not have that kind of commission. Inevitably, he is a Scotsman.) In the second book Seafort saves another transport, though one he is supposed to be in charge of. In the third book, he saves a colony planet. In the fourth, he saves the solar system. The fifth book is more modest, since it is largely dedicated to the effort of the middle-aged Seafort’s young son to save barbarian Manhattan Island.

What Seafort mostly saves people from is a species called the Fish. The Fish look like goldfish, except that they have no eyes or mouth, and they are the size of battleships. They live in space, though they can descend to planetary surfaces through no obvious mechanism, and they can travel at superluminal speeds when it suits them. They attack human beings and human artifacts, mostly by dissolving them on contact, though they also capture asteroids and drop them on large targets, such as cities. It is never made clear whether these things are intelligent. They manifest a certain tactical sense, but they are finally defeated by a simple technical gimmick.

As space monsters go, the Fish are in fact rather perfunctory. Their function in the plot is simply to put stress on the UN Space Navy, which by the time of the first book has gone to seed in rather the way that the British Navy did between the Battle of Trafalgar and the reforms of the last quarter of the 19th century. Because of his exploits against the Fish, Seafort is given the nickname “the Fisherman.” This may perhaps be an obscure allusion to Sir John Fisher, who was in large part responsible for those late-Victorian reforms. Be that as it may, the Space Navy in the late 22nd century has many of the same incentives to institutional rust as did Victoria’s navy. Until the Fish appear, it too has no real enemies, but it does have a glorious tradition and a limited budget. In both cases, gunnery practice is a largely ceremonial affair. Tactics have either been forgotten or bear no relationship to current technology. In the Seafort books, the Navy justified itself largely as a merchant marine, since the UN forbade the operation of private transport in space. It was therefore understandable that braid-encrusted admirals, when confronted with acid-spitting interstellar goldfish, would give the order made familiar by the character of King Arthur in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”: “Run away! Run away!”

The book that stands best on its own is perhaps the fourth one, “Fisherman’s Hope.” The story there concerns Seafort’s tenure as commandant of the Space Academy. He had graduated only a few years before, but received the appointment as the only job he would take after his last adventure which, again, required that he take action troubling to his pious conscience. His stint at the academy leaves him with more than usual to be troubled about, since by the end of it he has fed a large fraction of the student body to the Fish in order to lure those clichés to their destruction. Before that, however, he makes numerous dramatic reforms, and we are treated to a better-than-average boarding school story from the principal’s point of view. Another advantage to the book is that it quotes from the earlier volumes so much that you miss little of the logic of the series if you don’t read them.

The fifth book is something of a disappointment. This is because it concentrates almost exclusively on the “transpops,” the urban underclass, who had played background roles in the earlier volumes. The action deals with the adventures of Seafort’s precocious son among the transpops of Manhattan, just as these detrimentals rise in revolt because their water supply is cut off. Part of the problem with the transpops is purely conceptual. Is really likely that a neo-Victorian world government would let the earth’s great cities go to seed? That is just the opposite of what the real Victorians did; they were urban reformers from first to last. In the series, the UN headquarters is still located on the East River shore of Manhattan Island. The headquarters is of course a fortress, almost totally isolated from the surrounding city. Still, it somehow seems out of character for even the most isolated government to tolerate cannibalism in the darkened subway tunnels a few block away.

The major trouble with the transpops, however, is artistic. The author has devised an urban dialect for them, compounded of Black English and Brooklynese. It is unlovely and hard to read, and it goes on for pages and pages. Furthermore, the transpops themselves are dirty and violent. They are not fun to read about even in the most lucid prose. They were, no doubt, created to highlight the inflexible puritanism of the upper classes. However, halfway through this book I, too, would have been willing to turn off their water. In his listless depiction of a derelict New York City, the author seems to acting less as a fantasist trying to imagine the future than as yet another disgruntled tourist.

Despite these reservations, the whole series make wonderful beach books. There is lots of action, much of it implausible but all of it well paced. Seafort himself, groaning under the accumulating weight of his sins, is engaging if not invariably likable. Some people might find him genuinely edifying. Reading books like these is unlikely to tell you very much about the future. The future, however, might usefully have recourse to them to find out something about the time in which they were written.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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Prisoner's Hope Book Review

by David Feintuch

506 pages; $5.50

This is the first book in the Seafort Saga that I actually started to like Nick Seafort. He's a little older, more experienced, more jaded maybe. He is still the anguished scrupulous perfectionist, but he has finally started to apply the lesson that sometimes what an officer doesn't see is as important as what he sees.

This book follows the same structure as the others in the series, the first three-quarters of each book give Nick ample opportunity to alienate his friends, disrespect his superiors, and make new enemies, while providing the background for the enormity Nick will perpetrate at the end of the book when the fish return.

The backdrop for this story is the restive colony world of Hope Nation, an agrarian world dominated by a few powerful landowners. Since Nick cannot forswear his oath to duel the Admiral who abandoned him to die in the last book, he finds himself recuperating on shore duty, reluctantly appointed as the liaison to the landowners. Surprisingly, this is a duty he discharges well, without undue self-recriminations or creating personal enemies. Which isn't to say it goes well. Nick acquires enemies and his friends suffer, but it isn't personal. Of course, the rebellion of the colonists is complicated by the return of the fish, who care little for the twists of politics, other than perhaps in having a sense of tragic timing.

John Reilly noted this series is indelibly marked as a product of the 1990s.

On the other hand, there are many things about the Seafort Saga that mark it as a work of the 1990s. Some of these are scientific fashions, such as the notion that animal life in general and intelligent life in particular are so improbable that the human race is unique in the universe. (The alien menace, as we will see, leaves something to be desired.) The physics of faster-than-light travel may owe something to the theories of the cult-physicist, David Bohm. Aside from science, the series reflects the period of its composition in such matters as the relentlessly coed military and the fact that socialism is absent from the conceptual universe of the characters. Indeed, the most interesting difference from the science fiction of fifty years earlier is the change in the cultural trajectory of the future history the author imagines. Mid-century science fiction usually assumed that the alternative to secular modernity was barbarism. The world of the Seafort Saga, in contrast, really is postmodern in a way that will remind readers of Oswald Spengler’s forecast of the “Second Religiousness.”

Somehow, the best literary representations of a point in time are the futures imagined in science fiction. The aspect of Prisoner's Hope that struck me most strongly this way is the UN resolution banning so much as the mention of nuclear weapons. Unlike the somewhat nominal capital offense of blasphemy, this ban is enforced with deadly seriousness. Like bomb jokes in an airport, even using the phrase can end in the hangman's noose. When the Cold War was fresher in memory, everyone took this sort of thing more seriously, but after the spectacular failure to find any sort of nuclear program in Iraq after 9/11, public interest is waning.

Nick turns to the forbidden nuclear weapons out of desperation, both personal and professional, fully expecting to pay for his sins, personal and professional, with his life. Of course, it doesn't turn out that way. In a twist, Nick ends up covered in glory by trying to protect his friends from the [perceived] enormity of his crime. If he been more true to his iron code, the ultimate sacrifice he inspires in others could have been given its due. Providence never gives Nick a break.

My other book reviews

Challenger's Hope Book Review

by David Feintuch
407 pages; $5.50

The last time I read through David Feintuch's Seafort Saga, I stopped here. The second time, I forged through to Fisherman's Hope, the fourth book in the seven [eight] book series. I can at least recommend that anyone who is interested in this series persevere that far. I hope to finish the last three books soon. There was an eighth in the pipeline when Feintuch died, but I don't know if it will ever see the light of day.

I liked Seafort the least in Challenger's Hope. I blame his youth, and his unexpected, but unrelinquished, authority. At the august age of twenty, he is insufferable in command, although other fictional Captains I have known have done better at that age. However, this is the crucible where he forges his character, for better, well actually for worse, and the rest of the series would be incomprehensible without it.

I think the hardest part of this book for me is how I find Seafort a little too much like myself. Seafort suffers from the spiritual malady a Catholic would call scrupulosity. James Chastek at Just Thomism recently penned this bit about scruples:

-Scruples: They are a trick that keeps us from seeing our true faults. We obsess and worry over dramatic faults and wonder if we have fallen into something that we have no real love for or even temptation towards, when in fact what we need to work on – the evils we are much more attached to – go unnoticed.

Those who suffer under scruples are eaten alive by them, but it helps to see them as impediments to moral growth. Whether by subconscious connivance or a trick of the devil, they are smokescreens that keep us from getting to the things that we really need to work on and change. We continually fantasize about dramatic moral improvements when in fact the real real improvements we need to make are at once more obvious and harder for us to see in the face of scruples.

Nicholas Seafort's faults are many, but they are precisely not the things he worries the most about: being a poor leader, and being damned for breaking his oath. I blame his father for that. His father did do well, by his own lights, but he did poor Nick a disservice by passing onto him a strict interpretation of the creed his personality could not sustain. It helps to be a Catholic, rather than a Protestant. Especially an English Protestant. After Henry VIII made a mockery of religious oaths, the Jesuit order in particular helped push away from the inspirational, but very literal interpretation of oaths that was popular in Christendom pre-Reformation. So much else the English non-conformists tossed away, but this thing they kept, and cherished, and polished to a bright hue. And by this thing, Nicholas Seafort felt himself damned, when he is really the most dutiful, and honor-bound man in the United Nations Naval Service.

Nick can forgive anything, except himself. What he really needs to do, is admit that he is a great man. Nicholas Seafort inspires men to die for him. Of course, he makes mistakes, loses his temper, and makes a general mess of things. In fact, I think I hated him here. So did many others. However, he inspires greatness in others, precisely because he expects more of himself than he does of anyone else. And because he really is incorruptible. No one cares less for their career, or their life, than Nicholas Seafort. Of course, Feintuch makes him suffer for it. Everything Seafort does advances his career, no matter how hard he tries to resign. Providence reigns in his life. There is something else he needs to do.

My other book reviews

 

Midshipman's Hope Book Review

by David Feintuch
$5.99; 391 pages

The cover blurb says this book is

In the triumphant tradition of Starship Troopers and Ender's Game

I disagree. Midshipman's Hope is nothing like either of those books, other than being military science fiction. What Midshipman's Hope is really like is Mr. Midshipman Hornblower or Master and Commander. Each of these works is about the Napoleonic British navy, and tell the tale of a young lad who grows to the fullness of command through daring and luck.

Feintuch's favorite period is apparently the Victorian, however. Whereas the Napoleonic navy offered plentiful opportunities for glory and treasure, the Victorians bestrode the world like a colossus, and consequently their navy had glorious traditions, but little to do other than swab the deck one more time. Enter Nicholas Seafort, first middy of the Hibernia. Space travel manages to be even slower than sail, with voyages of up to 18 months between worlds. This provides ample time to polish the bulkheads and study regulations.

The United Nations world government is a firm ally of the Yahwehist Reunification Church, a rather toothless low church version of the Church of England. While blasphemy is officially a capital offense, it is rarely invoked. In fact, the Reunion Church is broadly tolerant, not only of other sects, but also of every sexual vice and hedonistic practice imaginable, with the exception of carelessly procreating and smoking tobacco. Is is refreshing to see a reminder in fiction that theocratic societies aren't uniformly grim and repressive, but in fact can run the gamut from laxity to strictness.

The central psychological drama comes from Seafort's own rather Puritan upbringing. He is grim, loyal to a fault, and incapable of breaking an oath. This makes him simultaneously fascinating, and a bit depressing.  Through a series of misadventures, Nick finds himself in command of the Hibernia, and he manages to do more right than wrong as Captain. But he cannot forgive himself for his failures, or sometimes even for his successes.  Nick has no greater critic than himself, and in space, you have far too much time inside your own head.

There are not quite as many books in this series as either Hornblower or the Aubrey-Maturin collections, but 7 books should be enough to keep most people occupied for a while, if you can stand Nick Seafort.

My other book reviews

Different Books at Different Times

One of my favorite things about books is how the same book can seem completely different at different times in your life. The best books can be profitably read again and again, with new insights each time. There have been a few books I tried to read, but I found that I had no enthusiam for them. For example Farmer Giles of Ham, by J. R. R. Tolkien. I found the short story rather boring the first time I read it, but I came back to it a few years later, and I greatly enjoyed it. Conversely, there have been books I really liked the first time I read them, like The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson, that I had to put down unfinished on a second reading. I hope it means my taste is getting better, but there really is no telling.

After recently finishing Burning Tower, I moved back to the Seafort Saga, by David Feintuch. I started these books two years ago on the recommendation of my late friend John J. Reilly. John's website, now defunct [but available on the Wayback Machine], had a review of the 5 of 7 books in the series that were available in 1996.

Who says they don’t write space-opera like they used to? I do. The Seafort Saga is a good example of how science fiction bears the imprint of the period in which it was written.

In some ways, this series might have been written in the early 1950s. Certainly the author makes assumptions that science fiction writers have been making for fifty years. Thus, a way has been found to travel faster than light and the United Nations has become a world government. More generally, certain aspects of life in the future closely resemble life in the author’s favorite area of the past, which in this case seems to be Queen Victoria’s navy.

John was my intellectual mentor on the internet, so I see things through lenses I got from him. I got into this series because I am interested in the cycles of history, and Feintuch created a world where the Second Religiousness took the form of a unified Christianity with a distinctly Anglican flavor. In fact, the whole world has a very English flavor, the United Nations Navy in space is an imitation of the Victorian Navy, and the social mores of the world have an early Victorian flair to them.

The first time I read this book, I was struck by the character of the eponymous Nicholas Seafort. I think he seems a lot like me, in a bad way. Whereas Colonel John Falkenberg is the man I wish I were, Nicholas Seafort is the man I am afraid I am. Perfectionistic and self-critical to a fault, alternating between decisive action and the brink of despair, awkward with the men under his command, apt to legal literalism, and quite lucky. I found the series a bit too depressing, and I had to put the book down.

The second time through, now I am struck by the kinds of choices Seafort makes in command, comparing and constrasting them with other novels about command that I like (cf. Pournelle corpus), and my own actions as the leader of an engineering team. I'm just enough older to feel more comfortable in my own skin, even though I still see in Seafort something of myself. I also see the strictness of the neo-Victorian navy's regulations in a different light. The regs are interpreted with an eye to the long term stability of the entire system, rather than looking primarily to see that justice be done here and now.