Does this genre have a name?
Sabercat, by T L Knighton, throws the reader into the cockpit of a tramp space freighter as its captain and crew try to carve enough credits out of an uncaring universe to stay one jump ahead of insolvency. It’s the same plot used to such good effect in Karl Gallagher’s Torchship series. Travelleresque might work, but we’re getting a little bit ahead of ourselves.
The idea of a ship’s crew actually not so much a plot as it is a framing device that can be used to support a wide range of tales using a single cast and single ship. When it comes to episodic fiction, this framework allows for travel from location to location, and that opens up limitless possibilities for an exploration of different genres, all wrapped up in a familiar package. That’s a really important benefit, because it is an efficient way to tell stories. Once the characters and setting are established, more time and verbiage can be spent delving into the specific plot of the day.
The downside is that this style of storytelling requires a heavier than usual up-front investment. Trying to introduce all of the hooks and connections and drama of every member of even a small crew leads to initial installments of serial tales feeling cramped and forced. The need to introduce too much information too soon can result in numerous inorganic, “As you know,” moments that pull the viewer out of the story. On the flip side, waiting too long to reveal pertinent information can weaken dramatic moments as, without the solid grounding in the setting and characters, the viewer is left with no investment in the story. It’s a delicate balancing act, and one that all creators struggle to perform.
Knighton threads that needle in Sabercat by focusing his efforts on Captain Tommy Reilly. The wealthy son of a noble family, Tommy turns his back on the family’s plan for him, and sets out to make his own way in the universe. That’s a nice hook, because it allows for a likeable Captain, but one with significant baggage. Tommy doesn’t just have to resist the temptation to pick up the phone and call for help from his powerful family when the going gets rough, he also has to confront the demons of his own selfish past. And this narrative emphasis makes Sabercat work, despite a few of the usual rough edges that trouble first installments of serial fiction.
One such rough patch deserves a specific callout – the black lesbian ace pilot could work but for the need to emphasize her ability and need to constantly turn straight white women gay in every port of call. It’s a clumsy and pointless “tell, don’t show” scene that draws the reader out of the tale. Get passed that little hiccup and things run smoother from there on out. The loyal bodyguard turned first officer, fitness enthusiast mechanic, and pretty young ship’s computer specialist, seem designed to cover as many Current Year checkboxes as possible. These are warning signs that the author has expended effort on dodging the morality police that could have been better spent on crafting a solid story, and readers can be forgiven for bailing out early when they see such signs. Intrepid book reviewers, steel themselves for the trials ahead, and in this case it paid off. The head-nods to postmodern thought play no role in the story that follows, and Sabercat contents itself with a fun adventure competently told rather than a broadsided cultural missive written to hashtag resist the Patriarchy…Okay, Dad!?
The Sabercat adventure pits Captain Tommy against a ruthless businessman-slash-planetary-governor with plans to elevate his standing in the galaxy at the expense of an entire planet and, much more importantly, at the expense of Tommy and his crew. After the initial introductions, the crew functions as a desperate mish-mash of experts who never quite manage to exceed the sum of their parts. Not much of a problem with all of the parts are so good, and a nice obstacle for the crew to deal with as they run about engaging in typical tramp freighter hijinks. As such, Sabercat serves its purpose well. It is a short, fun, and light read that wobbles a bit right out of the gate, but which recovers well and makes for a fine afternoon read. The book is filled with heists and daring escapes and plenty of ship to ship combat – the book delivers on the promise of the cover, which is another mark in its favor.
Which brings us back around to Traveller. This is exactly the sort of book the original Traveller game was built to emulate, and it serves as a perfect example of how to build a planet with a functioning threat that is both overwhelming and plausibly countered by five people on a rocket ship. Give a GM two more books as solidly entertaining and in the same genre as Sabercat, and if he can’t build a full campaign from scratch, then he wasn’t cut out for that side of the GM screen anyway. Everything from the political setting of an as yet vaguely referenced powerful core-world run by aristocrats and the world’s on the fringe trying to carve out a little more room for humanity allows for the breathing space needed for adventure, and the powerful forces arrayed against a rag-tag bunch of heroes – powerful forces as likely to ignore the small fry as to swallow them up. It’s a great setting, and one Knighton takes full advantage of in this solidly entertaining example of…whatever you call this genre.