This is a review of Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, a science fiction series by Nathan Lowell comprised of the books Quarter Share, Half Share, Full Share, Double Share, Captain’s Share, and Owner’s Share. The series is reviewed as a whole.
Call him Ishmael–and forget the Moby Dick reference at your peril. This really IS a series about a whale (a dolphin, actually) and the man who is ruled by it. Nathan Lowell’s “Trader’s Tales” starts as a coming-of-age novel. Over the course of six gently-paced books, it becomes something unique: a coming-of-age epic. A meditation on the nature of adulthood through the eyes of a man trapped by the very tragedy that catapults him off into the cosmos to seek his destiny.
I won’t bother re-summarizing the books here. You can find the details at Nathan’s website.
Over the last four years since the series started, I’ve heard the accusation bandied about that in these books “Nothing happens,” which is only true in the most profound, rather than the most mundane, sense. While it’s true that these are not action-adventure books, they do indeed have plots, and progressions of action. And yet, there is sense in which the entire point of the series is that nothing happens. The hero Ishmael Wang is a man who, though not passive or unlikable, nevertheless seems a spectator in his own life, sliding down the surface of things. He’s a man around whom everything happens, and who makes everything happen, and yet who is affected by remarkably little. It’s never off-putting, nor does the reader feel the disconnect that Wang feels, yet the fact that “nothing happens” in the heart of the protagonist is perhaps the most disturbing–and most profound and provocative–part of the story. It is the very center of the Trader’s Tales.
The books themselves are stories of quiet adventures that sometimes spike very loud. They are delightful, well-thought-out explorations of commerce and shipboard life and the trader’s life rich enough to serve as a primer on the subjects without being pedantic or didactic. They are built on a baseline of wonder at the cosmos and the infinite spaces of the “deep dark” outside the heliosphere. But these things are not what set them apart.
What sets them apart is their honesty.
Let’s face it: coming-of-age stories are anticlimactic. They’re usually a con. They promise the young reader amazing adventures in realms untold, ending with a happily-ever-after that nonetheless usually implies that a character’s best, most spectacular times come in their angst-ridden, clueless, misspent youth. Did you ever have a high school teacher or parent in their mid-life crisis tell you “These are the best years of your life” when you were a teenager? Well, just like the typical coming-of-age adventure, they were completely full of crap–and that’s the story Trader’s Tales tells.
In these books, we travel with Wang from his teens through his forties, each time meeting bigger challenges, each time coming up against the reality that, although adventures end, life goes on. In order for that life to make any sense at all, one must learn to meet it on its own terms: unfair, irrational, and subject to the designs of people and impersonal forces that an individual cannot hope to control.
Pretty heavy for a coming-of-age series that gets slotted as YA? Maybe so. But a person could do a lot worse than to devour these books in junior high or high school. For contrast, take a look at another very well-written YA series:
Harry Potter teaches the value of being the Chosen One with Good Friends so you can defeat the Evil Overlord and settle down to a boring life as a middle-class parent…which doesn’t exactly sound all that appealing once you take a breath and get past the excitement of being the Chosen One. Harry Potter essentially retired when he hit age 20. Kind of depressing in a world where more and more people are tickling the edge of the one-century mark and staying vital almost all the way to the end.
Trader’s Tales, on the other hand, doesn’t just show how challenges and opportunities get more spectacular and interesting throughout life, it’s a story about an ordinary man who, though he has an extraordinary effect on the people around him, eventually must learn to affect himself if he wishes to find his own life worth living. The whiz-bang adventure of “out there” can only sustain him for so long before he must finally learn the habit of wonder and suffer the poignancy that comes with it.
This truly is a coming-of-age series for people living in the Long Now. In Lowell’s universe (like our own), life goes on, and it’s never boring unless we shut ourselves off from it. With Trader’s Tales, science fiction finally returns to the golden age of marvel and embraces a future as full of promise and flaws as every human heart. Five stars out of five.