Russell Letson reviews James L. Cambias

Corsair, James L. Cambias (Tor 978-0-7653-7910-8, $25.99, 336pp, hardcover) May 2015

Corsair, James L. Cambias science fiction book reviewCross-genre interbreeding has long been a feature of the SF/fantasy genre space, though it sometimes seems as though the pace of mixed marriages has picked up in the last decade or so, producing ever more exotic offspring – alternate-history-vampire-Nazi-spy-adventures and whatnot (or Napoleonic naval sagas with dragons). James L. Cambias’ second novel, Corsair, earns a fistful of hyphenations: a near-future techno-thriller heist-caper with a sizable dose of hard-engineering space-stuff and maybe just a dash of cyberpunk. It all fits together so smoothly, though, that one hardly notices the joins and overlaps.

The container story line is an elaborate heist, a familiar construction of multiple viewpoints and their converging plot-threads, accompanied by assorted flashbacks and asides to solidify character relationships and set up eventual collisions. Hacker-scammer-sybarite David Schwartz has pulled off the first successful remote-control hijacking of a spaceborne cargo – lunar-mined helium-3 to fuel the world’s hungry fusion plants. He is tempted out of a rather restless retirement by the prospect of a bigger challenge and an even-more-princely payday – and the chance to devise something ‘‘unexpected and clever and ballsy and elegant.’’ Air Force Captain Elizabeth Santiago has some history with David – they had a brief encounter at MIT, and she later failed to prevent his first exploit. She would dearly love to thwart his new project but finds herself stymied by the military, legal, corporate, and logistical limitations within which she must operate.

There are several subsidiary characters and threads (notably FBI agent Dominic Yu, fruitlessly pursuing the fake identities behind David’s ‘‘Captain Black the Space Pirate’’ nom-de-crime), but the odd thread, apparently unconnected to any of this high-stakes competition, follows Anne Rogers as she buys a small cabin cruiser in Oklahoma and makes her way to the Gulf Coast and then into the Caribbean. It is clear that David and Elizabeth are on a collision course, with Yu forever playing catch-up, but Anne’s role in this dance – and the significance of her experiences along the way – do not become clear for quite a while.

The story’s two main threads, however, are classically procedural: How David stole that first load of helium-3 en route from the moon to Earth; how Elizabeth came to work on a private-sector space vehicle (and why she buys hand-loaded GyroJet ammo); how David’s new employers organize their covert project of building, launching, and operating another pirate craft. These story lines are reinforced with generous dollops of technical and textural detail about designing, engineering, programming, guiding, and hijacking a spacecraft, which grounds the caper in the hard-SF constraints of orbital mechanics and cost-effective parts-sourcing. (At one plot point the reliability of a particular valve makes a difference.) This also helps to prevent the more exotic and melodramatic heist-intrigue elements from flying off into the wilder reaches of thriller territory – not that David doesn’t find himself deep in Hitchcockian plot-twist country when he comes to realize that he might not be as valued or as invulnerable as he had thought. Similarly, Elizabeth burns some bridges when she finds that no one will turn her loose to stop Captain Black. When it’s finally time for a showdown, alliances and priorities have been rearranged considerably and surprises abound.

Corsair is entertaining and well carpentered (or perhaps, given the genre, ‘‘well engineered’’ is more apt): it’s more than halfway to being a crowd-pleasing summer movie with big CGI sequences, a couple of charismatic thirty-somethings in the leads, and a gang of burly character players to do the threatening. (Why do film comparisons keep coming to mind? Is it because I’m writing as the season’s new film trailers are all over TV and YouTube?) If I have any second thoughts about the book, they have to do with wondering what Cambias might come up with should his imagination take a darker, gnarlier turn, toward territory explored by, say, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Walter Jon Williams. The near future could be a much nastier place to run cons and heists.

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