Unlike most space opera, this novel focuses not on heroes saving planets from galaxy-spanning schemes, but rather on ordinary people using hard work and cunning to overcome the challenges of life in multi-planetary civilisation. However, this is no thinly veiled polemic or economic treaty: the plot is engaging and characters are firmly at the forefront of the narrative.
The story revolves around Ishmael Horatio Wang, a teenager forced to leave his home planet when he is orphaned. Lacking both money and sought-after skills, his only option to avoid crippling debts from passage to another planet is to attempt to find work as an unskilled ship-hand, earning a mere quarter of a share of profits.
Although there is a form of fast interstellar travel, this story is very firmly set against a background of plausible physics and its ramifications. The immense cost of moving mass from planet to planet is most obviously highlighted in the strict personal cargo limits for ship-hands, with an increased cargo allowance being possibly a greater benefit of promotion than an actual pay-rise. However, it is also implicit in ground-bound society; the cost of locating habitable planets has made them commercial objects, many owned not by their inhabitants but by corporations.
The thread of plausible explanations continues in the characterisation. Ishmael’s growth from an orphan with little idea of his future to a respected ship-hand is achieved more through his constant attempts to better himself than through luck. This lack of a great destiny immediately makes him more sympathetic to the reader.
Lowell continues the theme of improvement over acceptance in the other characters: Ishmael is paired with Pip, another Quarter Share, as soon as he joins ship; however, Pip’s complacent attitude, whether in his duties or in personal dealings, has left him without either advancement or contingencies.
The risk of status quo thinking is even shown in insignificant events: before Ishmael is challenged to make a good cup of coffee, the crew assume ship’s coffee is always mediocre; afterward they not only expect good coffee, but also discuss their preferred bean.
Overall this theme of personal-exploration-as-a-good-in-itself gives the book a sense of possibility reminiscent of the earliest space opera, without needing the cowboys-in-space plot.
Although Lowell has created an engaging story which flows naturally from a combination of realistic world and solid characters, this is very much a story of normal people facing normal challenges; it might therefore not appeal to readers who come to science-fiction only for space battles and quirky aliens.
I enjoyed this novel immensely. I recommend it to all readers whether or not they usually read science-fiction.