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Trader Tales From the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2014 issue.

Trader Tales (Quarter Share, Half Share, Full Share, Double Share, Captain’s Share, Owner’s Share). Nathan Lowell.
Original Publication: 2007-2013
Current Availability: Free audiobooks (iTunes or PodioBook.com) or (non-free) paperback or eBook (Amazon or PodioBook).

About the Story

His name is Ishmael. Ishmael Horatio Wang (pronounced “Wong”). He tells you about it in the first couple of pages—more entertainingly than Melville, and even Forester gets a decent challenge.

Nathan Lowell’s Trader Tales center on the life and activities of Ish Wang, from his hiring as a lowly kitchen helper on a space freighter without a clue what a career as a deep space merchant involves to his (much) later activities as a ship owner.

This is not wild and wooly space-based action, so if that’s what you like you may want to pass. To quote Lowell himself: “For once, the hero isn’t the Captain of the ship. He’s not even an officer. He’s a broke, uneducated, orphan from a backwater planet at the edge of no-where. He’s not a ‘hidden prince’ and he wasn’t adopted. He’s just an average Joe trying to make it in the universe when his mother is killed in a mindless accident and he’s suddenly left to his own devices.”

The story begins on the company planet of Neris, where his mother, a college professor of literature, has just been killed in a tragic accident. At 18, with no job prospects and as a legal adult, he is given 90 days to remove himself at his own expense to another planet. A friendly and sympathetic merchant’s union rep gives him a chance and he is hired as a quarter-share cook’s helper on the Lois McKendrick, a massive freighter that is working its way through the quadrant on its regular run.

The “shares” of the title are how much bonus each crew member earns if a leg of the trading circuit is profitable. Quarter-share berths don’t pay much and have a very low mass allotment (20 kilos). Ish is starting at the bottom, indeed.

He soon learns how to get along, and how to advance. He also learns how to make some extra money—all orbitals (read high ports) have flea markets that allow earth-siders and starfarers to trade items they’ve brought from elsewhere or made or otherwise wish to parlay into cash money.

Each book concentrates on another aspect of life in the “Deep Dark”, and shows us another aspect of Ish’s “growing up” into a fine crewman, then officer, captain, and finally owner.

Genre and Style

If you are a big fan of slam-bam action, or deep political intrigue, or heavy-on-the-space-opera stylings this probably is not the series for you.

It’s not really hard sf, but it’s not space opera either. There are some “adventurous” happenings, but a lot of it is the drama of “just life”, though transplanted from 20th century Earth to 23nd Century space. I personally found it inspiring my desire to tell deeper stories through the games I run with Traveller. Whether I can do that or not, we shall see.

These are good stories, told in a capable and entertaining way.

There are a few quirks of the author’s style, but I won’t prejudice you against them. They will become apparent, but honestly, as critical as I am of the stuff I read, you can easily live with them.

For the sheer simplicity of how a person has to live in a starfaring, trading environment, with very little space opera, and making Ecclesiastes clear (“There is nothing new under the sun”) and showing life then probably won’t be all that different in how you choose to live—I recommend it. Plus, it’s chock full of ideas to enhance your game.

Applicability to Traveller

To be honest and upfront, space travel tech in the Solar Clipper series is not Traveller at all. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just that you’d have to change some assumptions if you wanted to use some of the ship and trading material in your Traveller campaign. Or if you are brave and have the knowledge, you could probably work up the solar sails and the Burleson drive without a great deal of trouble. Personally I’m considering it—it really would take you to the whole “age of sail” paradigm that Traveller has claimed for 35 years, albeit without “sailors on the hull lashing down the wheel and furling the sails” (these are energy sails, not sailcloth).

Beyond that obvious and major difference, everything else just screams “Traveller!”, at least to me. Maybe not quite the same way Firefly did, since that is an independent trader rather than part of a trading company. But it’s a difference that merely enhances both approaches, at least for me.

For the merchant marine nut, here is a well-described commercial system of ranks and ratings. This is the kind of thing you see in military SF, but not very much in trader stories. I think our trader tales tend to be the small tramp freighter types, and we give fairly short shrift to larger starfaring mercantile styles. Mind you, Solar Clipper companies are not spit and polish, flying the Queen Mary, rigid pseudo-military establishments—though they could be, depending on the owners and the captains. But trying this kind of star trader might be an eye opener to many, with a bit more structure than we are used to having. That’s not a bad thing, as the tales of Ish Wang will demonstrate.

There’s a lot of description of systems and how things work and how they fit into daily life. Definitely check out the Solar Clipper website which gives you a lot of insight into how Mr. Lowell is thinking and where he is coming from. But even more, even if not working up solar sail systems or an instantaneous point to point jump drive, there are innumerable adventure seeds, ideas for shipboard and orbital and starport life, and much more.

And if you like coffee, which I do, you will learn things you never knew!


I recommend the series. I recommend letting the ideas play around in your head, and seeing if you can extract some power-ups for your Traveller game. If worse comes to worst, you will at least have read an enjoyable set of books.

At least give it a try.