Five books that really evoke ship life
I grew up on a boat. Tight quarters, sparse living. It wasn’t living aboard a spaceship, and it wasn’t military naval service, but it was a taste of what it’s like to keep your own environment with you. I also spend time working around crew on other ships of various sizes. And one thing that resonates with me are books that give me a taste of crew-life.
Merchanter’s Luck by C.J. Cherryh
Probably one of my favorite crew-life books, I encountered the Science Fiction Book Club edition of this 1980’s SF novel in the back of a storage room I was cleaning out for someone when I was a teenager in the US Virgin Islands. I lifted it for myself at lunch and it somehow found its way home with me.
The depictions of merchant crew life aboard the future’s version of aging tramp steamers grabbed me by the eyeballs and didn’t let me go. Cherryh thinks through the issues of watches, varying personalities, relationships, and the constant struggle of the little guy against larger corporations and military conflicts.
My biggest complaint? You can’t buy it as an ebook right now. Which is just criminal. I’d buy a copy in a split second.
Consider Phlebas by Ian M. Banks
With a weird title and an over-the-top James Bond-like opening chapter, there’s a lot to like about this introduction to the Culture series by Banks. Criminally under-rated over here in the US, the series is dynamite, imaginative space opera. And while the Culture series is a favorite of mine, what I really enjoyed most about Consider Phlebas, and what converted me to a fan when I first read it, were the depictions of crew life.
The grubby, mercenary crew of the ship Clear Air Turbulence are messy and complicated. And the dynamics between Horza and the crew he comes to lead as they adventure through some of the incredible scenery that makes up the Culture universe were fraught and engaging. And the intensity of emotion that can build up between people cooped up in a small space, to the point of hatred, is embodied totally in Horza and Kraiklyn’s feud.
The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Warrior’s Apprentice is the first book in the Vorkosigan Saga featuring the famous Miles Vorkosigan. The Saga is well known within the SF community, the latest novel in the series is up for a Hugo. The Warrior’s Apprentice features a young Miles Vorkosigan, washed out of military academy, getting his hands on a freighter and slowly building up a crew. Using brain, not brawn, Miles ends up the commander of a mercenary fleet and a smuggler.
While not filled with quite as much crew authenticity as the previous two books recommended, it still captures that sense of a tight crew of personalities bonded in the small confines of a ship, navigating a larger universe full of potential hostile surprises. Which makes for a good read.
Leviathan Wakes by James Corey
It’s space opera, but on a planetary, near-ish future scale. James Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) has put together another team of tight misfits all stuck together in a tin can ranging its way through space, and an exceptionally explosive universe just outside their airlocks. Grizzled blue collar tramp steamer types pick apart solar system-wide conspiracies, fall in love, get angry, and just try to stay alive long enough to keep the ship going. Everything you want in a ship oriented science fiction novel.
Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds
A lot of Reynold’s Revelation Space features crew life (Chasm City for example, hooked me with its personalities and exploration of that fantastic world building), but Pushing Ice gets the nod for ship life examination. The crew of a comet-miner gets caught up in the expedition of a lifetime when they go chasing after an alien artifact in the solar system and get caught up by it and taken far out beyond the ship’s ability to return to Earth. The crew are forced to build a life in a strange environment. Again, it’s about personalities who are trapped together. That can build deep bonds, or lead to life-altering hatreds and fights. There’s nothing halfway about being stuck in a small space.
Born in the Caribbean, Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling author. His novels and over 50 short stories have been translated into 17 languages and he has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author. He currently lives in Ohio.