RogerBW's Blog

Ark Royal, Christopher Nuttall 06 March 2014

Some time in the future, most major countries have space fleets and interstellar colonies. Ark Royal is an outmoded carrier left in a parking orbit, not broken up only because of her famous past, and her captain's a drunken embarrassment. Then the aliens arrive, and blow straight through the more modern fleet…

Ark Royal is military SF, reminiscent of some of Steve White's books connected with the Starfire game. But mostly in a good way. For a start, we've got real nations, most obviously the British, rather than some generic "Terran Republic"; Nuttall's clearly read up a bit on Royal Navy conventions and traditions, and it's pleasing to see them rather than the US Navy transplanted into the distant future (at one point the Captain is comforted by proper tea rather than the dried stuff used in the Mess). All the same, the reinvented Battlestar Galactica casts a long shadow over this book.

The technology doesn't really seem to have been thought out very far. For a start, we have space fighters. Why? Well, it's never really explained; it's a navy setup, so you have fighters, right? Most of the SF community worked out a while ago that fighters only make sense at sea because they're moving in a different medium from the carriers they launch off, so they can go much faster. There's no attempt made to justify them here.

The same applies to the spaceship technology. The normal-space drive allows in-system travel pretty much without limit, so it's clearly either reactionless or some highly efficient rocket, but fuel is never a concern to the characters: they just push the button and it goes. The FTL drive is similar to the Alderson Drive or the one in Starfire (1.4.11 in the Landis taxonomy): you go to one of a small number of fixed points, turn on the drive, and end up in a corresponding fixed point in the star system at the other end of the "tramline". (The obvious corollary, that those fixed points are where you station your defending ships, doesn't yet seem to have occurred to the naval powers of this universe.)

The international situation isn't clearly described. Britain is clearly a first-rate power in space, and the others that get mentioned most are China and Russia; France and the USA get a bit of a look-in.

All right, I'll admit it, I was biased against the book when an early page described a space station as "hanging in geostationary orbit over Britain". If you don't know what a geostationary orbit is, and if you can write that with a straight face you don't, then you have no business using the words! There are other linguistic errors (like bodies "ululating slightly as if they couldn't stay completely still") which suggest that Nuttall doesn't have the love of language which I associate with good authors. At one point someone even asks "can I avoid this from happening again".

These ships have Jefferies Tubes just like the ones in Star Trek, but fortunately that's the only major influence that show seems to have had. They're protected with point defence and armour, not force fields; they fight with missiles and mass drivers, not lasers. (Though the aliens have "plasma" weapons. Yeah, that hasn't been plausible for a while, if it ever was.)

As for characters, we have four viewpoints: Commodore Sir Theodore Smith, who much like Ark Royal did something impressive in his youth but has now taken to drinking away his days on a dead-end post; Captain James Fitzwilliam, a young officer with family connections who'd hoped to command Ark Royal but ends up as her executive officer (oddly never called "Number One"); Kurt Schneider, a retired fighter pilot called up out of the reserves; and Major Charles Parnell of the Royal Marines. Smith and Schneider get the majority of the attention, as Ark Royal single-handedly takes on the alien forces and, thanks to some lucky coincidences of design evolution, does rather better than anyone could have expected.

(I suspect that both Smith and Fitzwilliam are too highly ranked for their jobs, but I don't know enough to say for certain.)

The characters aren't particularly subtly drawn, but the battle scenes are reasonably gripping, and the tactics make a certain amount of sense given the setup. The obligatory sex is not too obviously pasted onto the side of the plot. The aliens are oddly un-alien, at least in their approaches to ship design and combat, though their motives and strategic goals remain a mystery.

The book covers the initial moves in Ark Royal's war, one mission to head off a possible attack on Earth and a second to investigate what happened to one of the colonies that got hit. At the end, the war's not over, and Nuttall asks readers to comment if they want to see a sequel.

It's a surprisingly hard one to call. By most of the criteria by which I usually judge books (worldbuilding, plot, characterisation), it's a failure. And yet, it has a sense of fun and enthusiasm which carries it over the worst of the problems.

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Series: Ark Royal | Next in series: The Nelson Touch

  1. Posted by John Dallman at 10:25pm on 07 March 2014

    Smith and Fitzwilliam do seem over-ranked.

    There have been periods when the commander of a large ship could be a Commodore, but his rank was Captain, and Commodore was an appointment he held while he commanded a squadron centred on his ship. Nowadays, Commodore is a real rank, and is always a flotilla commander or a very senior staff officer.

    Having a full Captain as XO of a large ship is something the USN does, but not, I think, the RN.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:27pm on 07 March 2014

    Thanks. I suspect there may be more casual Americanisms that I didn't notice.

  3. Posted by Chris at 03:34pm on 28 August 2014


    Thank you very much for the review.

    A handful of points.

    -This universe's fleets are largely divided between large carriers with very long legs and tiny starships with very short legs (frigates). Starfighters give the carriers striking power they can deploy without having to go into close-range combat.

    -The tramlines are lines, not points -- there's no point in setting up a defence at one point along the tramline because you have no way of predicting just where your enemy is going to appear. (Basically, if you pop into a tramline one million KM from the local star, you'll pop out at your destination one million KM from the local star or thereabouts.) You have to get very lucky to ambush someone coming through the tramline.

    -Ted was promoted to Captain when he was assigned to Ark Royal (thus sparing the RN having to explain why they were sacking someone who had been knighted for genuine heroism.) He was promoted to Commodore after spending a decade in grade -- no one really cared about this because the Old Lady was a dumping ground for crew the RN didn't want to sack, but didn't want somewhere sensitive either. Fitzwilliam was one of two people to actually request a transfer to the Ark and he only did it because he assumed he'd be CO. The Admiralty let him keep his rank even though he was serving as XO (because he might have to relieve Ted in action and thus would need the rank.)

    Yes, they're over-ranked. But no one cared enough to do anything before it was too late and Ark had to go back into active service. The problem was solved in Book II when Ted was promoted to Admiral.


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