RogerBW's Blog

Artifact Space, Miles Cameron 30 January 2023

2021 SF, first of a series. Marca Nbaro has committed various forms of fraud to get aboard one of the nine treading Greatships that link human worlds (and the enigmatic aliens). This turns out to be a very good thing.

This is very much a story of personal growth, but at the same time Nbarro turns out to be extremely good at the skills needed for shipboard life both in general and when called on in a crisis. You could say "Mary Sue" if you wanted to, I suppose, but as with Tanner Malone in the Rich Man's War series her success is mostly a matter of keeping her head in a crisis, combined with a reasonable dose of luck, and the desperation (having come from a much less padded background than her shipmates) to get a wedge into any slight opportunity for betterment that presents itself.

It's quite reminiscent of the Free Traders in Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy: while these merchant crews aren't a completely separate society, and indeed members of some classes are required to do a merchanting run as part of their education, it immediately becomes clear that they definitely are their own subculture. Indeed, Nbaro, who's had an extremely abusive upbringing, starts off extremely defensive whenever anyone tries to interact with her in a positive way (because to her that's always meant they're lining up to screw her over); it's not laid out explicitly, but this sort of positivity is clearly something that's outside her experience.

There's also an awful lot of crunchy detail, and if you can't work out that Cameron has served aboard a large aircraft carrier then you really aren't paying attention. On the other hand, the jargon makes some degree of sense:

"Honestly, I don't know. Half our jargon is from the old United States Navy and the other half is from the ancient British Royal Navy, and there's a bunch from early spaceflight operations and some even from Old Terran trucking. Navies are the most conservative linguists anywhere — we preserve even the meaningless terms for hundreds of years."

The background culture is a little hazy – it has to be the one that came out of Earth's ecological collapse, and a determination not to repeat those errors, and at the same time it must allow for Bad People, and it has to be obviously inspired by the Venetian merchant empire of the middle ages. Nbaro has a complicated history with that culture, and I'm sure there'll be more about it in future books; as it is that strand of the story seems to cut off quite sharply once the voyage has begun.

Some of the numbers strike me as iffy: for example, a landing speed of six metres per second, into the electromagnetic grapple, is considered dangerously fast, even though the same ships are launched down that same electromagnet at six gravities for several kilometres. I think most writers would just leave the numbers out, these days, and the book wouldn't be worse for it.

There's definitely a military flavour, and you could even call this space-navy SF, but this isn't a military force even though it carries some similar characteristics. That alone would have made it worth exploring; what's more, there's a pleasing middle path between the military found-family being perfect in every way and just more abusers for Nbaro to deal with. Some of them are pleasant, some of them are not, but all of them have to do their jobs and there really isn't time for much else.

This is book one of a projected series, and it ends on something of a cliffhanger, though there has been at least a basic explanation of what's going on.

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See also:
Poor Man's Fight, Elliott Kay

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