The first two books of Nathan Lowell‘s Solar Clipper series are not crammed with incident and adventure. There are no battle scenes or life-or-death emergencies, not a lot of conflict at all. Protagonist Ishmael Wang is not a swashbuckler or a warrior or a lost prince. Yet they are not in any way boring.
What they have in place of pulse-pounding excitement and crackling drama are simple, lovely character moments and, in young Ishmael Wang, junior spaceman, an impossibly likeable protagonist — I say impossibly because, two books in, he is still seemingly without flaw: smart, hard-working, handsome (and, as we learn on a shopping expedition in Half Share, amazingly callipygious) and, above all, humble — at least as he tells it, of course! His mistakes are all innocent and harmless; his instincts always sure. One might expect to roll one’s eyes at his aw-shucks charm and his habit of making just the right uninformed-but-awesome suggestions that make everything better.
Yet one does not. Which is remarkable.
Perhaps this is because we have all been there. We have all been the new guy, unsure of his abilities, uncertain if he’ll fit in but hoping he will, eager to please but ignorant as to how, possibly overqualified for the entry-level position, but unwilling to be a snot about it. Ish has our absolute sympathy and identification from page one; Lowell knows his audience. We all want to be the diamond in the rough, found as such and polished into a brilliant stone.
As Half Share unfolds, Ish is taking on new duties on board the S.C. Lois McKendrick, moving from food service to environmental. His new crewmates already know him well from a prior episode in Quarter Share (the titles refer to the share in the ship’s profits to which Ish is entitled as he takes on more responsibilities on board), in which one of his seemingly hare-brained ideas paid off, and while he is expecting a tough time they’re glad to have him; they see his real value even if he doesn’t (later in the story one will declare that she’ll be telling her grandchildren that she knew him when). Meanwhile, Ish works to continue his forays into trading with a co-op he and a friend he served alongside in the mess hall setup — and stumbles into the most intriguing story element we’ve yet seen: a set of mysterious statuettes the pair buys as trade goods, which turn out to be more — possibly way more — than just charming local handicrafts. I don’t suspect, as the tale continues in Full Share, Captain’s Share, and Owner’s Share, that they’ll turn out to have actual powers per se, but their quality, their use amongst the crew as tokens of special esteem, and their status as personal totems seem already to imbue them with something special.
As I said, there’s not a lot that happens in these books, not even the environmental crisis that Pip’s new crewmates are always warning could happen. Half Share instead gently proceeds from discoveries (a new shipmate has a haunted past, and must be handled with care) to pranks (one of Ish’s new crewmates tricks him into studying for a higher level of qualification than he thinks he’s ready for) to shopping trips that crystallize a lattice of relationships that show promise for more intriguing moments in later stories.
Space, Lowell seems to want to tell us, will probably, eventually, be just as boring as any other job, at least if everyone is doing his job right. We get hints that things are not so rosy on other ships, but the S.C. Lois McKendrick that Ish calls home is competently led, well-maintained, and has in place a strict set of policies to keep inter-personal friction to a minimum. It’s like TNG-era Star Fleet, but with cargo ships and with no hostile aliens attacking. But since we’re seeing it through the discovering eyes of a newbie, it has the subtlest gloss of excitement that’s just right. It is, I would argue, a bildungsroman in space, and therein lies its charm.
The question for me now, as I look to the future: do I tune in for the free podcasts of the sequels, or wait for the print versions…