In Ark Royal (Christopher Nuttall; self-published) the ship of the same name is an obsolete heavy-armored fleet carrier in a future British space navy. The old girl and her alcoholic captain have been parked in a forgotten orbit for decades, a dumping ground for screwups who are not quite irredeemable enough to be cashiered out. Then, hostile aliens invade human space – and promptly trash the modern unarmored carriers set against them. It seems the Ark Royal’s designers wrought better than they knew. Earth’s best hope is to re-fit and re-staff her in a tearing hurry, then send her against the invasion to buy time while sister ships can be built. Adventure ensues.
This was very nearly a bad book. As it is, it persuades me that we need a term for the opposite of “hack writer”. A hack writer plays the keys of a certain emotional register so skillfully that the reader is drawn in despite the writer’s actually caring little for the genre and themes he works in, too little to try adding any breadth or depth to them. The opposite of a hack writer is a sort of naive enthusiast – clumsy and relatively unskilled, but so earnest and fascinated by the kind of story he is trying to tell that the result is lit up by an energy and an ingenuous charm that no hack can quite duplicate.
A lot of the self-published nu-space-opera I’ve been reviewing recently (Unexpected Alliances, A Sword Into Darkness, the Human Reach novels, etc.) has the mark of naive enthusiasm on it. The skill level of the enthusiast varies from the utterly execrable (Unexpected Alliances) to the pretty-good-for-pulp-space-opera (A Sword Into Darkness).
Ark Royal is yet another book of this kind, in the middle of the implied skill range. Christopher Nuttall clearly owes much to the tradition of Napoleonic-era naval-adventure fiction a la Forester, Pope, and O’Brien. But unlike David Weber, who is the very model of a skilled hack writer working this vein, Nuttall clearly cares a great deal about that tradition in itself, identifies with it, and wants to extend it.
The result is a book whose technical defects are redeemed by the author’s infectious determination to write a good yarn in a fine old style. The prose is a bit primitive; the technology and space-combat tactics could use a stiff dose of Atomic Rockets to up the SFnal plausibilty. But the plotting is good, the character interactions vivid, and the story carries the day.