I am a huge fan of all types of indie creativity. As the internet continues to radically alter the means of distribution for creative projects, indie makers have the ability to create product just the way want to make it, without interference from publishers and other traditional means of distribution. It is hard to over estimate the potential good we can create with this ongoing revolution in creativity. As I lose faith in a flawed and destructive political system, creative projects like Caine’s Arcade and other humanist internet memes give me hope. My feeling is that we haven’t even scratched the surface of what is possible when creators are able to take their ideas directly to the public. The load of cash currently being hurled at Kickstarter projects seems to support my view.
This is one of the reasons I spend my time hunting down indie science fiction authors and other lesser known creators to highlight their work. Back in March, I highlighted Hugh Howey and Wool just after it became an Amazon best seller. Since then, I have highlighted The Banner Saga, an indie video game which is taking its story as seriously as it does both its art and its gameplay; a book of works by Cory Doctorow, an author who began his career giving his stories away for free on the internet; and an inventive storytelling game for kids, Story Realms, which is headed for a Kickstarter campaign later this summer.
Today I want to add to my list of indie creativity Nathan Lowell, an author who started out producing his books as podcasts. Lowell’s story is somewhat similar to Howey’s. Both authors made a name without the support of a publishing house, and both have since signed agreements to have their work distributed through a traditional publisher — Howey for the British editions of his works only. Lowell’s The Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series has been picked up by small publisher Ridan, although he continues to self-publish his other works, including his fantasy stories.
I am always intrigued by books which work when they “shouldn’t.” If I said to you, I am going to tell you a story in which little to nothing happens, a story in which there are no moments of grand crisis, in a science fiction world populated exclusively by industrial star freighters and starports, a story in which the characters never set foot on an alien world or fight off an attack, a world in which they spend most of their time in the belly of a ship doing things like mopping floors and doing maintenance, would you expect it to work? Part of the genius of Nathan Lowell’s Solar Clipper series is that it does work, and it works well. Lowell himself recognizes that this series doesn’t exactly follow conventions. “From a traditional story telling kind of perspective, these books break every rule in the book. Largely because I wrote most of them before I knew the rules,” he told me in a recent interview.
At the moment, the current trend from the big six publishing houses is to demand strong world building and characters be damned. Lowell’s work demonstrates there is a market for books in which characters drive the plot, and the world building, while important, follows. Lowell refuses to create a world in which life-and-death drama drive the plot:
The story is a reaction to the current state of SF where it feels like you have to blow something up every fifteen pages and save the universe every fifty. If there isn’t blood in the scuppers and icor on the bulkheads, it’s not really science fiction. The hero is always a person of power — rich, ship captain, lost prince, etc. While I enjoy those stories, I wanted to see if there were other stories I could tell. Stories that were closer to home, closer to real people. Engaging stories that recognized that simple day-to-day survival is sometimes heroic.
Lowell is a master of getting us to care about his characters without having to resort to melodrama, and in science fiction, that is a rare feat indeed. It is also a feat which would be more difficult to achieve if an author first sought the approval of a traditional publishing firm, whose high overhead demands they follow more tried-and-true formulas.
As I read Lowell’s books, I found myself wondering why I was consuming them so quickly. I asked Lowell why he thinks they work so well when they break all the rules. His response:
I think it works as well as it does (the degree to which it works is up for grabs and varies by reader, of course), because I wrote stories that people relate to on a personal basis. One fan summed it up by saying something like, “Lots of people write about worlds that are fascinating, frightening, and filled with action. Nathan writes about worlds I want to live in.” Yeah. That’s my goal.
The Solar Clipper series follows the coming of age of Ishmael Wang, who is forced to sign aboard the Lois McKendrick, a space freighter. Eighteen- year-old Ishmael had few choices. It was either the McKendrick or the marines. Deciding the marines were not for him, the newly orphaned Ishmael leaves home, such as it was, and enters adult life with little preparation and no understanding. I am a huge fan of coming-of-age stories. Judging by the popularity of the YA genre, I am not alone. But something has been on my mind since finishing the most popular of recent male coming-of-age stories, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. Men don’t come of age at 17 or even 18 for that matter.
For most men, age 18, or thereabouts, is the beginning of a long process toward adulthood, a process which takes many of them years or decades to complete. I have written before that I believe stories play a large role in modelling possible ways to come of age. Here again, the overhead which drives corporate media thwarts what needs to be said and done. In a majority of movies targeting men, men are left with few options when it comes to memes by which they can understand their coming of age. If the story doesn’t have a male hero bravely facing mortal peril, then corporate media tends to treat men as buffoons. Our choices seem to be the rage-filled warrior whose male identity resides in his ability to solve problems with violence or the man-child who has no adult male identity and has no intention of finding one. We can hope the response to the recent Huggies ad is a sign that the Adam Sandler man-child stereotype may finally be seeing some push back from American men.
Lowell’s Wang is a pool of cool water in a barren wasteland of bad male stereotypes. Ishmael Wang proves there are character arcs available to fictional male characters other than the soldier or man-child models. Wang doesn’t operate in our universe. For Wang, caring about other people and using his strength, wisdom, and talents to help them comes naturally, and these hint that there is an open path forward to self-acceptance and maturity available to Wang. Wang is a natural team builder. As he confronts problems, his solutions develop answers that not only help himself but also build others up at the same time. As the first three books progress, Wang’s actions create a surrogate family for himself among the crew of the McKendrick. He is highly respected among both the crew and the officers, as well as many officers on other ships. This aspect of Lowell’s work has a kind of Joss Whedon Firefly feel to it. Here is a human made family of refugees, inside its own protective bubble, facing a cold dark universe. Wang’s leadership skills are more fully developed in books four through six as he leaves behind the McKendrick for other ships and, as an officer, becomes responsible for his crew.
In the first book of the series, Wang is a bit of a Mary Poppins character, practically perfect in every way — what he touches improves. This was one of the pleasures of reading Quarter Share. Sometimes a reader can enjoy a simple story of things going right. So it came as a bit of a shock to watch Wang begin to make some mistakes in the second book, Half Share. In fact, as written by Lowell, it was really quite jarring. In Wang’s world, family, friendship, and intimacy do not mix with sex. His mother and father divorced. He has had no real relationship with his dad, and sexuality for his mother was a series of one night stands, usually picked up in local bars. Wang’s ship, the McKendrick, unwittingly reinforces this view of sexuality with an unwritten rule that the mixed gender crew does not sleep with each other. This leaves the crew of the McKendrick to seek out short-term relationships when in port, usually with crew from other ships. This separation between the affectionate loving bonds of family and sexual desire is something which Wang simply accepts as true.
In fact, he not only accepts it but embraces it whole-heartedly. In the second book, Wang visits a tailor: not just any tailor, but Monsieur Roubaille himself. Roubaille challenges Wang to see the man he is becoming in the mirror and to wear the clothes that fit that man. This pivotal scene is marvelously written if frustrating to read. It becomes clear that from this scene forward, Wang identifies himself as a successful man based upon his ability to seduce beautiful and “interesting” women. This is such a common view among young men of Wang’s age in our society that even after reading the four of the six Solar Clipper books available in print, I was not sure exactly what Lowell had in mind. Was he arguing that Wang’s sexuality was healthy? I asked him about it.
Ishmael’s sexuality turns out to be his “fatal flaw,” as he takes his philosophy of “don’t screw with crew” to the logical conclusion, and he’s forced to face up to love — a stage you won’t reach until Captain’s Share.
The books aren’t about his sexuality — although his focus on this as a reality in his life are kind of a sleight-of-hand, “nothing up my sleeve” action on my part. Ishmael’s reality is driven by the women around him — his mother, his captain, his crushes. He’s given plenty of hints about what the idea of family means, but he’s trapped in his identity in the same way I think most people — men and women — are trapped by their perceptions of their roles and how society molds them. More insidious are the ways they don’t perceive and Ishmael has a lot of those, too. He can’t talk about them because of the story’s point of view, but they’re there, and they are most commonly expressed in his views about relationships and power.
The in-station promiscuity paired with the celibacy under-way is a commentary on sexuality and how we view it. After Ishmael takes on the mantle of command in Double Share, his view of what’s allowed and how he can participate changes in fundamental ways. This comes back to bite him in the butt in the last two books of this series.
The question of how male sexuality fits with bonds of friendship and family is one with which our society continues to grapple. How to handle one’s own sexuality is a central issue for men coming of age in their twenties. Lowell’s books force the reader to question whether or not men (and women) can complete a healthy coming of age without finding a means to incorporate their sexuality into their yearnings for intimacy, friendship, and family.
As for Wang, whether or not he successfully finds a way to integrate sexuality and friendship remains to be seen. So far, only the first four books of the Solar Clipper series have been made available in text form. Readers will either have to wait, or they will have to listen to the podcasts on which the books are based. No matter the outcome of Wang’s journey to adulthood, Lowell has provided readers with a great alternative to the stereotypical male coming-of-age narratives. Most men don’t come of age in a gunfight, and, despite what the media tells us, most men don’t refuse to grow up either. Lowell’s gift is to write stories for the rest of us, and that is a big market that remains nearly untapped by corporate media and publishers. As Lowell puts it:
Mostly, what I’m trying to do is tell a story that people can relate to and enjoy. A lot of people, men and women of all ages, struggle with sex, with relationships, with identity. They struggle with finding meaning in their lives and trying to balance the daily grind against moments of epiphany. I made a lot of comments about identity, social interaction, mores, and relationships. I don’t really think I have any good answers, but I hope I’m asking some interesting questions.
Asking good questions is a gift indeed.
The first four books of the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series, Quarter Share, Half Share, Full Share, and Double Share, are now available in both paperback and electronic editions. The last two books will be published shortly. For now, impatient fans can find them as podcasts on Podiobooks.com.