Alfred Coppel (1921-2004) was a prolific author with an extremely varied output. He produced respected works of Science Fiction (the Goldenwing Cycle, Dark December), bestselling political thrillers (Thirty-Four East), and works of historical fiction (The Burning Mountain). He was also a highly prolific pulp author through the 50s and 60s, and appeared in most of the big name pulps and later the slicks under a variety of pseudonyms.
One of the more interesting permutations of his career started with a story in the pulp Planet Stories in 1950 called “The Rebel of Valkyr”, which was later anthologized in Brian Aldiss’ Galactic Empires collection, which is where I read this story and became fascinated by the possibilities of it.
“The Rebel of Valkyr” is a real, honest attempt at depicting a Dark Age in space. It shows us a world far in the future, after a galactic-scale empire has risen, and then fallen into ruin. The past has been garbled or forgotten, technology is looked on as witchcraft, and society has devolved in a feudal order of lords and their armies. The difference is that interstellar travel is still accomplished by the use of the remaining starships, so automated that they can be operated by men who do not understand their full workings. The “navigators” who control star travel have become a quasi-religious sect that sees to the function of machines they cannot really comprehend.
No other technology has really survived, so the story presents you with the rather delightful image of starship holds full of horses and armored warriors, lit by oil lamps because nobody knows how to turn on the lights. When the people of this age go to war, they don’t fight ship to ship, but invade from space by landing the vast starcraft and then unloading legions of cavalry.
The fiefs of the feudal lords have become whole worlds, and the empire is a fractious agglomeration of proud star-kings held in thrall to the supposed emperor. In the story, the emperor is an inexperienced boy left in the wake of his more warlike father, and the tale unfolds a litany of treachery, revenge, revolt, and war that bursts at the seams of the mere 15,000 words of the story.
The idea of the starships enduring without proper maintenance over centuries seems more than a bit preposterous, but the ensuing action is so much fun you largely don’t care about that. Coppel is an old hand at pulp action and it shows, as he fills this story with enough warriors, kings, minstrels, traitors, duels, and battles to fill a tale by Dumas. It’s very much in the tradition of Nordic sagas, tales of Charlemagne and his Paladins, or the Musketeers, and while the action is not Howard levels of violent, it has a lot of grit.
Coppel later expanded the idea into a series of books under the pen name Robert Cham Gilman, and I have to say I think he mishandled it. He renamed the planet of his main hero from “Valkyr” to the less cool-sounding “Rhada”, and he also wrote the books for what was then called the “juvenile” market, which means the plot was simplified, the action was softened, and the whole thing has a much lighter tone. I suppose they must have done all right, as he got to write four of them, but the essential fire and hard edge of the original story was lost. I mean the novel version of the same plotline, The Rebel of Rhada, is 35,000 words longer, but does not add much to the original story, so the formerly tight plotting becomes loose and slow-paced.
The original story has not even been anthologized for thirty years, and so is not nearly as widely-read as the later books, which would tend to put off an adult reader. The original tale is dynamite, and crackles with intensity. Its story of fighting to save a tottering empire is more old-school adventure fiction than truly Sword & Sorcery, but I find the idea itself audacious and exciting, and I wish Coppel had gone in another direction with it. If you made the story darker, more violent, and added some inhuman space gods, then you would have a Sword & Sorcery setting to conjure with.