I’ve been playing a lot of Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, and as a consequence, I’ve been thinking a lot about the world of the space trader.
Cruising the galaxy in your humble ship, trying to stay ahead of your debts, meeting exotic aliens in every port. I was looking for something to read along those lines, and a review at freelancetraveller.com sent me to the Trader Tales series by Nathan Lowell, which had the advantage of being available as free audio books on iTunes.
The premise of the series is that Ishmael Wang (pronounced either as “Wong” or as “Hwong” depending on what mood Lowell happened to be in at the moment) finds himself alone after his mother’s death. With no job and no reason to stick around on his backwater planet, Wang joins the crew of the Lois McKendrick, a bulk freighter, as a cook’s assistant. The first book, Quarter Share, covers Wang’s slow transition from civilian life into the life of a spacer. (I know that sci-fi authors like to use the word “spacer” as the astronomic equivalent of “sailor,” but that’s a false equivalency. Sails are a method of transit, not the thing you transit across. Either space sailors should be called “hyperdrivers” or nautical spacers should be called “oceaners.” Or you could just follow the Saipan rule and call everyone a “ship guy.”)
Lowell intended this series to take the glamour out of sci-fi. As he says on his web site, “It’s about the people who spend months at a time sailing between the stars, not on a warship doing heroic battle with enemies foreign and fearsome, but on a freighter just trying to make a living.” His goal was to create a relatable and fallible hero in Ishmael Wang, and for the most part in Quarter Share, Wang is just that. He is utterly lost in his new career (just count the number of times he’s told that he really should’ve read the manual) and relies on his Wise Old Mentor Figure, Cookie, and his coworker Pip (yes, the heroes are named Ishmael and Pip) because he can’t yet hack it on his own.
And yet, Wang is, in some ways, the “larger than life hero” of which Lowell complains. For instance, Wang seems to display the charisma of a dozen televangelists rolled into one: every other character he encounters takes an immediate liking to him, and he faces virtually no interpersonal conflict apart from his fear of the stern First Mate, Mr. Maxwell. You would think that tempers might flare in a small and isolated workplace like space, but maybe not. Wang’s quest to become certified in various aspects of ship-handling aren’t presented as much of a challenge, either, just as a time sink. Furthermore, Wang picks up speculative trading—buying personal goods on one planet in the hopes of reselling them elsewhere—quickly. I would’ve liked to have seen him lose his shirt on his first attempt.
The strongest parts of the story are those that draw from Lowell’s experience in the Coast Guard. He’s thought through how a spacefaring trader ought to be run—sometimes he’s a little too eager to describe it for the reader—and successfully conveys the feeling of awkwardly sliding into an unfamiliar environment. While Quarter Share isn’t, by any means, great literature, I found it a pleasant enough listen to proceed to book two, Half Share.
Half Share picks up with Wang’s promotion and reassignment to the environmental division, where he continues to work as a speculative trader on the side. At least, that’s what the first half of the book is about.
The good ship Half Share runs aground in the second half, in which Wang finds himself sexually objectified by three of his beautiful shipmates and goes on a none-too-difficult quest to get laid while on shore leave. I’m not the slightest bit able to identify with anyone in this situation, and I suspect you aren’t, either. Furthermore, the descriptions of the shipmates who crush on Wang (Beverly the musclebound punk, Diane the big-breasted Southern belle, Brill the two-meter-tall would-be volleyball player) reveal more of Lowell’s preferences than he may have intended. The whole routine becomes especially uncomfortable when you have to hear Lowell read the thing.
Now, I’m sure many of you are not the buckle-hatted Puritan I am about sex in audiobooks. You moral degenerates may be curious to learn that many of the quirks in Lowell’s writing, which I found merely unusual in Quarter Share, began to irritate me when Half Share rolled around. Lowell appears to be a devotee of the “Said is Dead” school of writing. Take a drink every time you hear him say “grin,” “chuckle,” or “giggle.” (A sign, incidentally, that all characters continue to like each other. The only antagonist to appear in Half Share is only an antagonist in the Mentos-commercial sense of the word.) On the plus side, Lowell’s realized by now that he can’t do consistent accents for his character and shouldn’t try.
The Trader Tales series has built up a fair-to-middling following, showing that there’s a market for books about the people who do the dirty jobs of the speculative fiction world. I found Quarter Share to be just good enough to satisfy that market for a while, but Half Share disappointed me. Perhaps the later books in the series get better, but the mention of a “mysterious and alluring” woman in the episode previews for Full Share don’t really fill me with hope.