Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Torchship - The Best of the 80s

Reading Torchship* brought me back to those halcyon days of the 1980s hen network television spent a full decade taking advantage of the reduced costs of special effects to churn out a steady stream of episodic ensemble genre shows that were as creative in their central conceit as they were clumsy in their execution. Much to my chagrin, the advances in special effects and willingness to spend money on genre fiction was not matched by a willingness to spend money on quality writing, and most of these shows died a quick death.

Torchship might have been one of those shows that fed and dashed my hopes. It has all of the elements. It has an interstellar cargo ship bouncing around a large setting. It has a generally stable crew of six, each with their own secrets and fully-fleshed out personalities. It has adventure, action, mystery, romance, and politics, all in equal measure. If only it was poorly written, it would have hit every note of those 1980 shows. Alas, Karl Gallagher drops the ball by writing in a clear and unobtrusive style that lets the characters and action speak for themselves.

Karl Gallagher’s novel about a tramp steamer in space – the science is decidedly on the “hard” end of the spectrum – actually encompasses a number of shorter stories tied together by the slow reveal of the pilot, Michigan “Mitchie” Smith’s, narrative thread. Her background and actions are a sort of sub-plot to the novel, but given the lack of a single over-riding plot it isn’t fair to call it a sub-plot. It’s really more of a narrative hook to tie the novel together and keep the reader’s interest. In that regard, it works. It’s done so deftly and skillfully that until the first interlude between stories, you don’t realize there’s more to the pilot than it seems.

Later, you realize that most of what you know about the pilot comes straight from her mouth, and that she hasn’t been telling the entire truth through most of the book. That’s a neat spin on the “unreliable narrator” concept which serves to hold the reader’s interest as well.

You should detect a pattern here. Karl Gallagher’s writes with a deceptively clear and transparent ease that belies the inner workings of Torchship. This book is like the proverbial duck placidly swimming across a pond, and with all sorts of furious activity churning the water beneath the surface. The surface workings are entertaining enough. Stories of a blue-collar shipping crew rescuing an heiress passenger from potential kidnappers, trapped on a deserted planet trying to hunt a professional hunter, hunting buried treasure, and ferrying a small horde of refugees to safety, all have a charm all their own. And every one would have been right at home on 1980s genre television.

As I mentioned, the book contains a number of short stories, but as they are presented in chronological order and the results of one adventure flow naturally into the next, it doesn’t feel like a collection of short stories so much as it feels like a travelogue through a fully realized sci-fi setting, and it’s a setting well worth exploring. The key incident in this future’s history is the end of humanity’s golden age when the AIs that made such golden times possible betrayed humanity and launched a pogrom that nearly wiped humans from existence. That underlying event gives the setting both a bit of a dark-age feel, and a post-apocalyptic feel, and the omnipresent feel of a massive extinction level event that could strike at any time. It’s a big sandbox, and Gallagher manages to explore enough to feel satisfying, but not so much that it starts to feel small.

All that aside, Gallagher really won me over with a minor scene midway through the novel. Any book that includes a scene where a man tells a woman to, “Go make me a sandwich,” and her response is a cheerful, “Okay!” earns bonus points on my scorecard. As an added bonus, the open endedness of the setting presented should provide a solid RPG background for anyone looking for a Travelleresque setting complete with big threats, easily understandable history, and enough room in the sandbox for any sort of adventure your players want.

You might not have been explicitly looking for a hard sci-fi blue collar ensemble novel that explores a fully realized future setting, but if that’s something that tickles your fancy, you can’t do any better than Torchship.

* I actually sprung for the audiobook add-on.  It was two bucks, and read by Laura Gallagher who did a fine job.  My only complaint is that her pronunciation of the word tourist, which gets used a lot, sounded more like "turrist", and I had visions of Charles Barkley's mother reading the story every time.  That's on me - don't let my foibles scare you off.  It's eminently listenable.


  1. Thanks for the kind words. I'll admit growing up in the 80s was an influence, even if I wasn't aiming for those shows.

    I think of Mitchie's reveal as the "metaplot" tying together the plots of the individual adventures.

  2. That's exactly how I took it, but the slow reveal that she had a "metaplot" at all was one of my favorite parts of the book. When I figured out that she had a metaplot the book jumped up a notch in my estimation, and I started paying a lot more attention to what was going on.

  3. I'm just to the part where Mitchie has witnessed the trial on Demeter. Really enjoying it so far.