Fast Ships, Black Sails, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Reviewed by Richard Larson
19 June 2009
With the resurgence of pirate narratives in popular culture, perhaps thanks to the overwhelming success of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, there has been renewed interest in plowing the genre for new seed, searching for different takes on what a pirate story can potentially offer to readers—and, of course, to capitalize on a trend by flooding the market with a plethora of somewhat generic content. Fast Ships, Black Sails, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, walks a fine line but ultimately offers more of the former than the latter, presenting an anthology of original pirate stories by new and established writers who attempt to shed new light on the genre mostly known for its preoccupation with renegade outcasts with poor hygiene obsessed with rum, parrots, women, treasure, wooden legs, and messages in bottles. The bulk of the stories in the anthology provide relatively traditional takes on the pirate narrative and feature battles at sea, the prospect of buried treasure, a palpable sense of the dangers and wonders of the unknown, and "a yearning for adventure and a desire to explore exotic locales" (from the anthology's introduction). The book succeeds as wonderfully escapist entertainment even if collecting these stories all together does some of them a disservice as individual works, revealing a consistent formula which would otherwise have been less distinguishable.
However, there is joy to be found in the discovery of a number of gems, like buried treasures themselves, which demonstrate the possibilities in scraping together a bunch of recognizable genre elements and fashioning them into something worth risking scurvy and capture by slave ships just to get a chance to read. For example, Howard Waldrop's "Avast, Abaft!" is exceedingly original (not surprising given the author's accomplished and diverse body of work) and manages to use the conventions of the pirate story to meditate touchingly on the experience of aging, reflecting upon the idea that the world eventually loses its mystery and that the promise of adventure will, in the end, fade.
It was a delight to discover that the bulk of the strongest stories from the anthology have been written by female writers, updating the idea of the pirate story with commentary on gender and sexuality. "Boojum," a collaboration between Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, features a rather unconventional living-and-breathing pirate ship which is decidedly female, helmed by a female captain, and is gradually forming a kinship with the story's female hero. The focus here is squarely on the ways in which women relate to each other across status lines. "Elegy to Gabrielle, Patron Saint of Healers, Whores, and Righteous Thieves," by Kelly Barnhill, is the beautiful and affecting story of a larger-than-life woman—a pirate, witch, and revolutionary, as the story often refers to her—who belongs to the sea and, ultimately, to the people who love her. And "The Nymph's Child," by Carrie Vaughn, is a lovely adventure story about a woman who passes as a man in order to be allowed at sea, succeeds at doing something that no man could ever have done, and whose daughter inevitably follows in her footsteps.
And after reading Naomi Novik's contribution to the anthology, "Araminta, or, The Wreck of the Amphidrake," it's easy to see how this relatively new writer has developed such a vast and devoted following. A phenomenally skilled storyteller, Novik has a gift for pacing and characterization, but besides being delightfully entertaining, the story also functions as a commentary on the idea of what women must sacrifice to succeed in a world dominated by the wills of men. The titular character, a privileged yet dissatisfied girl from a prominent family, goes off on an adventure to the colonies, only to be forced (with the aid of magic) to transform into a man so as to protect herself from being raped by the pirates who capture her. In male form, she becomes the lover of the (also male) pirate captain, learns the tricks of the trade, and eventually, after a series of remarkable occurrences, takes over the pirate ship, this last feat accomplished once she finally regains her female form. The strong sense that she is doing things, rather than simply accepting things that are being done to her, is what lends the story its credibility and ultimate success; this is a woman who has taken complete control over her own future. When asked, in the story's final pages, what she wants, Araminta realizes that it's easier to say what she "did not want: to go home and be put in a convent, to go to the colonies and be married. Not to be a prisoner, or a fine lady, or a captain's lover, or a man in disguise forever . . . [but] what she really wanted . . . was to be a captain herself, of her own life; and free" (p. 199). Thus, a story about a young woman's transformation into a pirate captain becomes a lovely meditation on female agency.
The two best stories in the anthology, also both written by women, are notable particularly for their stark originality, standing out in the crowd and lingering in the memory long after the last page has been turned. "Pirate Solutions," Katherine Sparrow's remarkably clever tale, is an experimental piece featuring a variety of first person narrators and constant jumps through time and space. The story is essentially focused on a group of contemporary computer programmers (pirates?) who drink from a mysterious bottle of rum and subsequently become, inexplicably, actual pirates. "Pirate thoughts were seductive, and once I started thinking with them, like a song or a rhythm, it was hard to think any other way" (p. 116) notes one of the characters as he ponders his transformation. And Rachel Swirsky's "The Adventures of Captain Black Heart Wentworth: A Nautical Tail," a story about two rat pirates engaged in a sort of love triangle with a cat named Pussy, is absurd and wonderful and refreshing, filled with lovely and startling nuance. "We must not allow Pussy to come between us" (p.178), insists Wentworth as he first glimpses signs of strife in his friendship—an especially poignant observation when he realizes that Pussy actually ate her previous lover. "Oh, the trials of a cat in love" (p. 180)—indeed. Rachel Swirsky's story turns convention on its head and is a joyful playground for language itself.
One of the most interesting things to notice in such a dense collection of pirate stories is the way the writers instinctively adopt an invented, yet shared, vernacular—a commonly understood slang, one which readers are trusted to recognize immediately. In "68◦ 07' 15"N, 31◦ 36' 44"W," a brilliant contribution by Conrad Williams, a sentence like "All hard, mahogany men, weathertan and muscleknot, able to take their grog, maybe they'd have taken a keelhauling with barely a grunt" (p. 93) uses portmanteau to impart a sense of character, tonality, and density to the narrative itself. The language infiltrates the reader's experience of the story, allowing for an even greater sense of escapism and fantasy, a feat repeated throughout the anthology so that the book becomes almost like a travel guide, a map of some other world of words to which these writers have been granted access.
The final story in Fast Ships, Black Sails, a fun but conventional novella by Garth Nix, feels like a return to tradition when compared to the anthology's more daring stories. A brief episode in the lives of Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz, characters Nix has spent time with before, involves them participating in an adventure at sea that includes battles, treasure, and intrigue in abundance, without necessarily challenging or pushing the boundaries of expectations. Nix's novella is perhaps a perfect conclusion to the anthology: while there are plenty of risks taken and there is plenty of originality to be found in the book, this is ultimately a no-frills collection of pirate stories, not particularly fancy or revolutionary but rather undeniably solid, reliable, steady. No weak links or holes in the hull. Readers have likely arrived here with certain expectations, all of which are met with room to spare. It may not be a pirate's life for me, but these pirates were worth spending a little bit of my time with, even if they don't necessarily display overtly refined table manners. The stories here reinforce the popular conception of the pirate ("Arrghhhh . . . ") while also serving to further romanticize the notion of total freedom, a life lived off the map. From Conrad Williams' "68◦ 07' 15"N, 31◦ 36' 44"W": " . . . we are pirates. We live for the chase, for the fight, for the silk and the sovereigns. We want to get drunk, and not on this watered-down piss. We want to fornicate and eat fresh food. We want to sun ourselves in a sandy cove. We're not stupid . . . We know this life, it's either feast or it's famine" (p. 101).
Maybe it is a pirate's life for me, after all.