The fifties was a period of considerable angst. There were the Commies (foreign and domestic) and the ever present threat of nuclear destruction. It was also a time of prosperity and wonder. Television had penetrated most homes. Martinis were popular. Cars had really big fins. The science fiction of the day reflected both scenarios. There were certainly plenty of stories about the former. Totalitarian states, vast wastelands, mutant radioactive monsters. There was also another thread wending its way through the genre, one that didn’t take itself so seriously and which liked nothing better than to skewer the society that allowed it to flourish.
The Pirates of Ersatz belongs to the latter school. The hero, Bran Hoddan comes from the impoverished planet of Zan where the only industry that flourishes is space piracy. Bran, however, doesn’t want to be a pirate. He wants to be an electrical engineer, get rich, and marry a delightful girl. When he tries to find work on the wealthy planet of Walden he is framed for murder and is forced to flee which leads to the inevitable series of adventures.
No one, not the wealthy powers of Walden, the rustics of the planet Darth, the space pirates, even Bran himself, escapes Leinster’s sarcasm. The galaxy, as viewed by the author, is populated by a horde of bumbling bureaucrats. The warlords of the planet Darth are a blundering lot, and the pirates rely more on bluster and bombast than on bloodshed. Pitted against these opponents, Bran succeeds in saving his hide only because he is slightly smarter than everyone else.
The original title The Pirates of Ersatz uses the German word “ersatz”, a term used during World War II for replacement substances that could not be imported, such as ersatz coffee, a vastly inferior beverage. I think this captures the spirit of the novel better than the later title The Pirates of Zan which was obviously the work of some P.R. person trying to promote it as a pure adventure yarn.
Murray Leinster had a long and illustrious career as a science fiction author from the twenties through to the seventies. Much of his work is serious or straight adventure, but he also could write with a lighter touch. Several of his novels from this period are just plain fun. His goal was clearly just to create an enjoyable read.
The Pirates of Ersatz was first published as a serial in the February, March, and April editions of Astounding Science Fiction. It was later printed as a novel with the title The Pirates of Zan. Read it in the spirit that was intended.