Cool Things: Raiders From the Rings

Time for a classic sci-fi tale. Raiders From the Rings is a space opera of limited scope that is none the less of excellent quality. Written by Alan E. Nourse and published in 1962 this story is both entertaining and purposeful and, to an extent, it holds water today.

Which is not to say it doesn’t suffer from zeerust, that peculiar brand of datedness that accompanies pretty much any work of science fiction published more than ten or fifteen years ago. Ben Treffon’s space ship runs on atomic fission and antigravity generators, but it’s mother computer reads magnetic tapes and takes commands from punch cards. So before we start, yes, not everything here is bleeding edge scifi. But, if you remember your space opera basics, that’s really not the point.

Plot summary time: Ben Treffon is a member of the Spacers, a group of interplanetary colonists. Ben calls Mars home but the Spacers are scattered everywhere within the Sol system.

Everywhere, that is, but Earth. Earthmen shut the Spacers out a long time ago, casualties of a Cold War that lasted much longer than the one we know. While the vastness of space provides plenty of room for the Spacers, there are some things you can’t get in space. So periodically the Spacers gather together and launch a Raid, diving recklessly through layers of defense satellites and ground based missiles to reach the ground and grab valuable supplies of grain and meat.

The Spacers are very humane, armed with web guns and striving hard not to hurt anyone on their way in or out, and they insist that given the chance they would trade for what they need rather than fight for it. The Earthmen aren’t buying it, however.

Because on ever raid the Spacers also make a point to abduct women.

Not just one or two, but dozens.

Ben Treffon is about to set out on his very first raid and his assignment is mauki recruitment (read – kidnapping duty). After months of careful study, consultation with agents on the surface and analysis of previous Earth response patterns, Spacer High Command have conceived of the following plan:

  1. Crash the Earthling’s singles night.

  2. Abscond with females.

  3. Profit!

Unfortunately, like most plans, this one does not survive it’s encounter with the enemy. In fact, by the time Ben gets back into space, he’s juggling not one but three distinct problems:

  1. He’s abducted a girl but she hates his guts. So much that she’s kneed and elbowed him in them repeatedly.

  2. The girl has a brother, who has come along for the ride in an attempt to rescue his sister. While abducting women is totally kosher, taking men of Earth into space without their consent isn’t just frowned on, it’s illegal.

  3. Decades of raids have allowed Earth to crack some agents and feed the Spacers false information, setting them up to get hit hard this time around and giving Earth time to launch their own fleet and hit the Spacer fleet as it lands. Now, most of the Raid fleet is wreckage and the space between Earth and Mars is crawling with hostiles.

Problems? Ben’s got them. And did I mention the invisible spaceship that’s stalking them?

Nourse is actually kind of leisurely in dealing with all his plot threads, carefully explaining one thing at a time until we have all the pieces and we just have to wait for Ben and company to decide what to do with them. In fact, what Ben and his Earthman companions choose is the hinge of the plot on more than one occasion.

This is where Raiders holds up. As a genre about ideas, science fiction also presents us with the choice of what ideas we will choose to operate under. Nourse goes to a great deal of trouble painting a picture of two conflicting ideas of thought, how they came to be and what people might do about them.

Unfortunately, at the same time, one of his schools of thought, and how that school of thought might become dominant over it’s opponent, are a little naïve and fail to take into account important aspects of human nature. In the world of the Raiders, all that’s needed for peace is less ignorance and more music. While that’s a noble sentiment, and may take your part of the way to achieving your ends, I’m afraid I don’t think it will actually usher in an era of human peace.

But that’s okay! While some aspects of human behavior in this book may look unbelievable, Spacer society itself is quite fun looking, especially once we understand all the dynamics behind it (such as those that lead to the constant kidnapping.) Many of Nourse’s ideas for what might be done with the outer solar system remain in discussion today, a sure sign that he was on the right track with his technological innovations, even if he did wiff on some of the details.

On the whole, if you’re looking for a quick, fun, kind of light-hearted space opera that’s both meaningful and classic, Raiders From the Rings is a good choice.