Sailpunk

I pitched my Navy-vs-pirates novel as “sailpunk,” a genre which does not, so far as I know, exist. But books in this genre actually exist all over the place. They just can be hard to find because people don’t generally group them together. They’re usually shelved as military scifi, or just space opera.

I define sailpunk as books set in space but inspired by the historical Age of Sail. This inspiration can be somewhat distant (Royal Navy ranks and customs on a regular spaceship) or quite exact (ships actually sail, somehow or other).

Like fantasy and scifi, I categorize things based on vibes. Does it feel like watching Master and Commander? Do I feel the salt sea breeze? Does it make me want to sing a shanty? Then I’m reading sailpunk.

Examples

The most famous sailpunk novels are probably the Honor Harrington series. Though personally, I felt they were influenced just as much by WWII era navies, insofar as characters are called “CO,” “XO,” and so on, rather than captain and first mate.

I also must admit I have not read very far into them. The style put me off. I do hope to actually finish one someday.

More recently, Winds of Marque, by Bennett R. Coles, tries more explicitly to cleave to the Age of Sail vibe. The ships have actual sails, which are able to propel the ship through a particularly chaotic portion of space. The tech doesn’t really make any sense, but that’s not exactly a necessity. After all, you can’t put a rickety wooden ship into space; you’re always making compromises.

My favorite that I’ve actually read is Into the Dark, by J. A. Sutherland. It’s the first in a longer series, which I’d like to read all of someday. Here, the sails only work in a dimension called darkspace, in which they interact with some kind of particle or other. I found that more plausible purely by virtue of being less known. I know that no “solar wind” travels faster than light, but I don’t know what a hyperspace dimension might be like!

While the plot plodded a bit, the worldbuilding made up for it, from my perspective. We have the sailing-novel standbys: learning the ropes; bullying in the midshipmen’s berth; swarming up and down the masts (in vacsuits of course); and even detailed descriptions of the rations taken on board.

A few of my opinions

Sailpunk is harder to pull off than people think. There are a lot of details that go into the vibe in books like Master and Commander, Two Years Before the Mast, Mutiny on the Bounty, or even Jacky Faber. Because you’re writing in the future, your details don’t have to be accurate, but they have to vibe. Things that vibe include: discomfort, bad rations, the mercilessness of nature, tense hide-and-seek with the enemy, formal diction, ghost stories, song, classicism, flogging, rum, elegant frock coats and cravats.

Not all of these things have to be included, obviously. But when too many are missing, it stops having the vibe readers look for when they hear “inspired by the Age of Sail.” It shouldn’t be a comfortable, high-tech ship where skill is rewarded and there’s no social class.

My other opinion about sailpunk is that we shouldn’t necessarily center the Royal Navy analog, its perspective, and its values. The historical novels we’re inspired by mostly did, but the reality is that life aboard ships during that era was hard, and often made harder by strict, classist discipline. When we’re honest about how things were, we can understand why pirates have so much of our sympathy. They were the rebels of the time–some more admirable than others.

The other option–more popular with sailpunk authors I’ve read–is to remove the objectionable parts of history. Delete the floggings and impressment, lower the death toll, make the bad guys inarguably bad. I’m not going to judge your escapism; after all, it’s not real history and you can change whatever you want. But personally, I like rooting for underdogs, not governments.

Further reading, which I have not read (though they’re on my TBR!):

The Daedalus Incident, by Michael J. Martinez

Arabella of Mars, by David D. Levine

Quarter Share, by Nathan Lowell

With the Lightnings, by David Drake

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s