Quarter Share

July 12, 2014
Nathan Lowell

If there's something that instantly turns me off a science fiction book, it's when the back cover blurb advertises the usual greater epic nonsense about the Chosen One having to go on an Epic Quest to Save the Galaxy/Universe — in other words, stories that might as well have been told with dragons and magic instead of spaceships and (fictional) science. What I particularly find grating about such stories is that the sheer, incomprehensible magnitude of the galaxy (or Universe) means that it doesn't really lend itself to plausibly being saved by a few canned apes with a bunch of large firecrackers — and it especially doesn't really lend itself to being threatened by a canned ape (or bug-eyed lizard, as it were) with an atomic firecracker either.

Nathan Lowell's Solar Clipper series is sort of what happens when you go to the other extreme: It's a bunch of stories about the lives of some people who happen to live and work in space. There's no cosmic mystery, no grand plot, no back-stabbing intrigue and no evil empires to defeat. They're set in a future where massive faster-than-light-capable trading vessels (the eponymous solar clippers) form the economic backbone of an interstellar civilization, in which some worlds are controlled by the Confederacy (basically a "United Federation of Worlds" stand-in), and others are entirely owned and controlled by corporations.

Quarter Share starts out on such a world. The 18-year-old protagonist, Ishmael Horatio Wang (seriously), has led a peaceful if sheltered life with his single mother, who made her living as a professor of literature at the local university. Unfortunately, she is killed in a traffic accident, leaving Ishmael to fend for himself — but with no income, and only his mother's modest life insurance to live on, he's essentially living on borrowed time. He thus decides to sign on as an unskilled spacer on a trade vessel, earning a modest salary plus a quarter of a share (hence the title) of the ship's profits. Essentially, it's a coming-of-age story much like those people wrote about young men working on seagoing trading vessels in the 1800's.

The other books are named Half Share, Full Share, Double Share, Captain's Share and Owner's Share, so you can probably guess a bit about the pay structure on solar clippers — and about Ishmael's future character trajectory. In Quarter Share, we see that he has some degree of business talent; he starts a little trade co-op with some of his crewmates (using their personal effects mass allowance as tiny cargo slots) to earn a little extra on the side.

The book was a mixed experience. The good part is that Nathan Lowell is an extremely gifted wordsmith, who is capable of making the mundane details of everyday life on a spaceship seem interesting. A two-page description of how to make a very good pot (well, giant industrial urn) of coffee, with the cook's quip about the coffee urns being the "beating heart of the ship" distributing black caffeinated lifeblood to its crew, popped back to my mind when I used to work in a web development company whose employees were similarly powered by caffeine. The characters who live and work on the ship have distinct personalities, and all seem both believable and interesting, indicating vivid backstories that we don't get all the details of.

Unfortunately, it's also marred by two major flaws. The first is that nothing happens. I get that this isn't a "the Galaxy is in Danger!" story - I liked that aspect of it. However, conflict of some kind is usually what makes for an interesting story, and there was essentially none of it - no external conflict for the ship to face, no internal conflict among the crew. It all seems too honest, pleasant and friendly to be of much interest. There's less actual story than in a TV sit-com.

The second flaw is that Ishmael is probably the worst Gary Stu I've read in a long time. Sure, he doesn't have supernatural powers and isn't exactly a Heinlein/Niven-style Übermensch, but there's simply nothing that seems to present a serious challenge to him. He just wanders from success to boring success until, hey presto, he's managed to impress everybody up to and including the Captain, and gets himself a promotion to a half-share environmental systems worker.

If you're in the mood for a not-too-demanding read and are tired of greater sf epics, you might enjoy it. It's a quick read, but … well, a bit on the boring side, to be honest.

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