Top three sailpunk novels

In theory, I love sailpunk. The whole idea of taking the thrills of Aubrey and Maturin, Moby Dick, Two Years Before the Mast, or Mutiny on the Bounty into space has an inherent appeal. The perils of the deep, extended to infinity. What’s not to like?

But in practice, it’s a tiny genre, with the result that a lot of what is out there…isn’t that good. It’s little-known, often self-published, and sometimes the authors are so interested in telling how the ship works that they forgot to include a plot. And as for the “punk” side of it–my belief that a good sailpunk novel should be anti-establishment in some way–there’s basically nothing. The fans, it seems, mainly like to idealize the Age of Sail, not investigate the inherent injustices in it. The futures they craft have most of the bad in naval tradition stripped out, or worse, justified.

Still, if you truly enjoy the genre, there are gems to be found. I give more leeway to sailpunk books because I like the concept so much that I read with interest through the parts about the rigging and the solar wind. And I understand that sometimes the plot simply isn’t the point. What is the plot of the first Master and Commander book? Really, just a series of adventures, interspersed with puns. People read and loved it, and the same goes for its space cousins.

So, here are three sailpunk novels I consider essentials of the genre. They’re not well-known, except in the right circles, and people recommend them with caveats even so. But still, I read each to the end, and you know I don’t finish unless I’m interested.

Into the Dark

This is the first of the Alexis Carew series, by JA Sutherland. Alexis joins the Navy as a woman, which is Not Done, so most of the conflict comes from sexism. I found that a little tiresome, just because sexism is used as a plot an awful lot, but I think anybody who’s been a woman in a male-dominated field could relate.

Of all the sailpunk I’ve read, this one cleaves the closest to historical Navy tradition. The ranks aboard ship, the expectation of officers to bring their own food, the swarming over the rigging, the bullying in the midshipmen’s berth, all rings very true.

I also liked the sailing mechanic. The ships enter something called darkspace, where regular space physics no longer applies and we have something more like sea physics. There are currents in darkspace. If you fall off the rigging, you’ll be quickly lost. Oh, and electronics don’t work there, so you have to put on a spacesuit and go raise the sails by hand. It’s a clever way to bring in all we love about sailing ships without actually contradicting the science we know.

Plotwise, there’s not a whole lot going on. It moves slowly. Personally, I didn’t mind this. I wanted to hear about the sails. Alexis, of course, is equal to all the challenges she faces and impresses everyone by her ability to do all the necessary tasks while being a girl.

The political realities aren’t addressed at all in the first book. I hope in future books we’ll hear about some of the conflicts within the government, and maybe take a punk position on them. But we do of course deal with the negative side of an all-male Navy–we’re not told this society is perfect and all its traditions right.

  • Literary craft: C
  • Sailing mechanic: A
  • Navy traditions: A
  • Punk: C

Quarter Share

The next big series in the genre is The Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, by Nathan Lowell. Ishmael Wang joins the crew of a tradition ship in order to get off the planet, and he has a great time.

I class this as sailpunk because the ship has sails, and because it was recommended as an improvement on other books I hadn’t liked. I read it because of this goodreads review:

And that’s it. Really – THAT’S IT. He makes coffee, helps the chef, and studies for exams to improve his rating onboard. Hipster space zombies do not attack, the cargo container in Hold 3 does not contain a time machine and the forced intimacies of close-quarter living do not reveal greater truths about the human condition….

In the final third, Quarter Share’s mundanity reaches new levels of Magnolia
with endless discussions about the rental of trestle tables for a flea market booth but, and here’s the thing – I KEPT READING. Why? I have no idea, except the dawning realisation that, as I read Quarter Share, the novel had spun a cocoon of multi-layered bubble wrap around me that I’m mildly ashamed to say I quite, you now, LIKED – it’s just a calm, even, decent novel which puts Tab A into Slot B and cruises along until the last page.

So, I can’t bring myself to stick a cheap, tawdry, critic’s shiv into this one – there’s an essential humanity and warmth to its world view – decent people, getting along, and doing the right thing by each other. I’m amazed this has spun out into a multi-part series but hey, it takes all sorts.

Thrusting, libertarian types always like to distill human expansion, conquest and ambition back to the first stone-age-cave-woman-man-person who raised her/his eyes to the hill on the horizon and thought “I wonder what’s on the other side of that?” Well, Quarter Share is arguably a novel which raised its eyes to the same hill and instead thought “I quite like it here”.

Where literary quality is concerned, I don’t know what to say. It breaks all the rules. Just as the review says, nothing much happens. There is no plot arc. There is no romance. The main character development is our hero passing qualifying exams. It baffles me that this book is popular, but it is, within a certain circle. But I also happily listened to the whole thing (it’s available as a free podcast) so clearly there’s something to it besides the rules. I think I’m going to count it as fairly good, for the slice-of-life/cozy genre it is. This is for the Legends and Lattes fans, the people exhausted by pew-pew lasers and trauma and mortal peril, who would rather hear grandpa tell of his old ship days and the good times he had with his pals.

Sailingwise, though, it disappointed me. There are sails on the ship, that’s all we’re really told. It seems they’re not physical sails, but a magnetic field. The ship uses them to travel in-system to jump points, which handle the FTL stuff, which is plausible to me. But Ish doesn’t handle the sails. He only briefly interacts with the air scrubbers. Mainly, he makes coffee. Possibly future books get more technical, but a bit of me doubts it because that doesn’t seem to be the author’s obsession. The only really implausible bit for me was that the first time they have a hull-breach drill, months into the main character’s first voyage, he is totally unprepared and can’t get his suit on. What if they’d had a real hull breach? He’d be dead! You’re telling me there’s no orientation? I get better than that on a two-hour passenger flight!

The real inspiration for the culture is not sailing at all. The author is a Coastie and it shows. It feels a great deal like the modern military, with racks and shipsuits and qualifying exams. There are, of course, older traditions floating around, like in today’s Navy. But it’s very good at feeling like the real military of today. My male family members were almost all submariners and they describe it exactly like this.

It is, like most, not very punk. Everyone on the ship, without exception, is nice and kind and helpful–there’s nothing one could reasonably rebel against. However, there’s a company planet at the beginning where things seem less utopian, and we are told about a labor movement in the past that won ordinary people the right to profit by their labor. So perhaps we could call it post-punk? At any rate the point of view is pro-regular-people and I support this.

  • Literary quality: B
  • Sailing mechanic: D
  • Navy tradition: C
  • Punk: B

Arabella of Mars

This book is different from the others by being less science fiction and more alternate history. It’s 1812, but in this universe, there’s atmosphere between the planets of the solar system, and thus space travel was cracked early on with balloons and sails.

The sailing mechanic is thus both logical and very similar to seagoing vessels. The main difference being that instead of oars, there are pedals attached to a fan. Personally I didn’t like the pedals. Bicycles are very Victorian. I’d have preferred them hauling some kind of rope. But in general, the worldbuilding is thought-out and interesting. There are storms in particular spots that make for tricky sailing, and plenty of thought is given to how the balloons work for landing and takeoff. I liked the asteroid with a forest on it, because hey if there’s air in space, why not?

Naval tradition–again, pretty exact. It isn’t just drawing from the Age of Sail, it is the Age of Sail. So there are the ranks we might expect, the historical background, and the rules. I liked the bit where they dish up the food according to exactly the same system that was used for maximum fairness back in the day.

That said, it falls into a thing I have trouble describing, but have hated in many other historical books: it feels like a pantomime of the past rather than a living past. The language doesn’t sound like speech. The gender roles are unsubtle, of course the heroine loves wearing pants and is forbidden from doing basically anything by society. I don’t know how I would have fixed it, only that it annoyed me a lot of the time.

However, I mainly approve of the writing craft apart from this. There is constant action, which is a bonus it has over either of the other books in this post. It feels on the YA side (I gave it to my 12-year-old when I was finished) but was overall a fun ride.

On punk, honestly, it fails. Depicting colonialism and having it be just fine is a bridge too far for me. You see, Mars has Martians, and they work for the English while the English have plantations farming Mars’ native trees. And this is all just fine, because our heroine personally isn’t racist. Toward the end, we definitely see the thorniness of Martian-human relations, and Arabella believes in giving the Martians what they want, but still . . . it puzzles me that the Martians actively defend the property rights of Englishmen on Mars and follow English law with regard to humans. One wonders what the status of humans is. Do they own Mars? Is it in accordance with Martian law for humans to show up and build whole towns? It feels like Mars is standing in for India in the real world, which . . . uh, is a problem.

Apparently the third book does address the colonialism, though some reviewers weren’t happy with it. Although we have Mars fighting for independence, the actual Martians are mostly taking a back seat. Maybe the historical parallel is America now–colonial Englishmen fighting with English Englishmen, nobody really considering whose place that actually is.

  • Literary quality: B
  • Sailing mechanic: A
  • Naval traditions: A
  • Punk: F

Anyway, I may be speaking to about five people here, but if you are into that kind of thing, I recommend all three books.

But if these books aren’t good enough for your taste–not enough working spaceships, or not enough punk, or not enough rum and flogging . . . there’s always my book, Black Sails to Sunward, coming out this July!

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