I have never read a bad Ace Double, and despite the voluminous stack of books next to my bed to be read, when I see one for sale at a used book store, I always buy it, imagining the pleasure of an afternoon of light reading. And so it was when I saw the cover of "The Pirates of Zan", by Murray Leinster, written in 1959, one half of an Ace Double, the other side being The Mutant Weapon, also by Murray Leinster. The cover showed a bearded, bandana'd pirate, gun in hand, entering through the door of a spaceship. Looks like time for some swashbuckling...in space!
One of the reasons that I keep on buying and reading Ace Double books, even as Ulysses stares at me, half-read, from next to my bed, is that they provide a snapshot of what American popular culture was like, when science-fiction was linear stories of adventure. So while reading this story, I kept an eye on that: was this story set in a time when men were men, aliens were Russians, and women were prizes?
The story follows one Bron Hoddan, who comes from a clan of space pirates. Bron Hoddan has eschewed this life to go and live on a more peaceful planet. It turns out to be a bit too peaceful, as Hoddan's desire to invent disturbs the staid society. He ends up in legal trouble, so he flees to a more backwards planet: a feudal planet run by warlords where might makes right. He isn't happier there, but luckily he is a skilled engineer and quite crafty, and he ends up using his pirate abilities, his engineering abilities, and the strength of the barbarians, he ends up working his way across the galaxy, helping an armada of refugees, and injecting a little bit of adventure into a galaxy that needs it.
What is interesting to me is how the story manages to keep some of the stereotypical aspects of the space opera, but subverts many others, which is often the case. While the hero is an individualist who manages to fight the odd through grit and in the end, win the Space Princess to his side, he does so by intellect. The story is a pacifist story: it is pointed out many times that the weapons are only stun guns and no one is killed. The central struggle of the story is that Hoddan finds himself out of place in both the overly civilized world of Walden, or in the barbaric world of Darth. The point of the story seems to be to find a medium between conformity, and barbarity.
After coming to a basic thesis about the book, I did some biographical research on the author, who I wasn't familiar with before reading the book. At the time he wrote this story, he had been writing science-fiction, pulp and western stories for over forty years, before science-fiction was really a genre. So if this book departs from the standards of "rocket ship and ray gun" science-fiction, it is not because the author was trying to subvert the genre. Even in its heyday, and even with writers who were firmly pulp, science-fiction was always more involved than it is sometimes remembered.