Sunday, 28 July 2013

Review: Ships of My Fathers

Ships of My Fathers
Ships of My Fathers by Dan Thompson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very old-school space opera in which an orphaned young man finds out who his real father was. It suffers from excessive detail, over-reliance on genre tropes and over-use of luck to get the protagonist out of trouble, but redeems itself somewhat with a good ending. That ending took it from the solid three stars which it had been sitting at through most of the book to a shaky three and a half (rounded up to four).

When I say it's "old-school", I mean that it's very much in the style of space opera's heyday, around the 1950s, if I had to pick a date. I grew up reading Andre Norton's Solar Queen series, which were about 20 years old even then, and there's really nothing in this book that couldn't have been written back in that era. It's set in the late 34th century (as far from us in the future as the rise of Islam is in the past), yet not only is there no sign of technologies that are set to take off in the next 5-10 years, like 3D printing or augmented reality, but even technologies that have come into common use in the past 10 years are conspicuous by their absence.

Unlike you or me (and unlike Ishmael Wang from Nathan Lowell's Solar Clipper books, which appear to have been an inspiration), Michael Fletcher, the protagonist of Ships of My Fathers, does not carry a powerful pocket computer which can connect him to information, and other people, wherever he happens to be. He has to bribe his way into a bar to use a "terminal". It's not in order to stay under the radar (though that would be a reasonable explanation); he just doesn't seem to have an alternative. Likewise, he has to spend an exhausting day acting as a runner, carrying physical documents around a space station before cargo can be unloaded.

Of course, there are the spaceflight technologies which make the story possible: the tachyon sails and the artificial gravity. On the other hand, I found myself questioning as I was reading through why the story had to be science fiction at all. Apart from the presence of women in the ship crews, there really wasn't much that couldn't have been re-skinned as a story from the days of sail. So much so, in fact, that the size of ships is given in terms of their "displacement", which makes sense if you're talking about a ship that sits in the water and displaces it, but not so much when your ship is in vacuum. There, mass is the more usual measure. The protagonist even laces up his boots, something which reads oddly if those boots are expected to be used with a spacesuit.

Now, these are not problems of this single book, by any means. These are problems of the space opera genre in general. The setting tends to be technologically unsophisticated and off-the-shelf; the stories tend to be sailing-ship stories "in spaaace". Space opera can be much more than that, though, and at its best it is.

The influence of Nathan Lowell shows, to me, in a few ways. The close-knit, helpful crew is one. The fairly meaningless sex that doesn't come from or lead to a committed relationship is another. I like the first, could do without the second, personally.

I mentioned excessive detail. Early on, there's a very long section which gives a great deal of detail about shipboard operations, most of which has no relevance to the plot or characterisation. It's just worldbuilding for its own sake, and not even exciting worldbuilding. Later, there are a couple of times where the author does something like this: "Possibility A was that blah blah blah blah, but that didn't apply because blah. Possibility B was yada yada yada." In my view (as a person who's somewhat impatient with detail, and I know not everyone feels this way), we don't need to know about possibilities that didn't apply unless we can see - not hear about, but see - the characters pursuing them and being disappointed, and probably not even then.

Now, luck. One of the Pixar Rules is that you shouldn't rely on luck or coincidence to get your protagonist out of trouble, only to get them into trouble, and it's a good rule. I counted at least six consecutive pieces of good luck (some of which were actually highlighted as such), including the hoary old "convenient eavesdrop" where the hero just happens to be in a position to overhear the antagonists discussing some vital information that he couldn't otherwise get hold of. These pieces of luck got the protagonist out of trouble.

It's true he had to work for them, something which was overdue. This was about 80% of the way through the book, and up to this point the protagonist hadn't really been a protagonist, just a main character. He was being led around the nose, or other protruding organs, by other people. He had his own agenda, but he hadn't really made the decision that he had to work towards that agenda with determination until about two-thirds of the way through, and even then he was heavily manipulated. In the Seven Point System of plotting, the moment that the protagonist decides to take action, rather than being forced or manipulated into action, is known as the "midpoint", and the fact that it arguably comes 80% of the way through this book highlights that the first 80% of the book may be longer than it needs to be.

Once his luck ran out, though, the book improved. He took action - action that involved doing three time-consuming things before someone with a gun already in hand could fire, but he did take action - and he got a resolution out of it that I, as a reader, found satisfying.

The best character in the book, in my opinion, dies almost on the first page. This is Malcolm Fletcher, who brought Michael, the main character, up. Quotations from him stand at the head of each chapter, and they're the best writing in the whole book: compact, pithy, funny, vigorous. In a sense, the book is about Malcolm Fletcher, and who he was, and what he did.

If the author can take the writing ability that he shows with the character of Malcolm Fletcher and put it into the next book, without long digressions on meaningless detail, without relying on luck and coincidence, and without leaning too hard on the adventure-story tropes, then that next book will be a solid four stars, even if it continues to be outdated space opera that could equally well be set on historical Earth in the age of sail.

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