Review: Ark Royal

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.

22 thoughts on “Review: Ark Royal

  1. Hang on. You said David Weber fits your definition of a hack writer in this genre??! Explain yourself, sirrah.

  2. I posted a comment on Amazon about the same book about 30 minutes ago and came to a similar conclusion. The plot definitely carries the book, but the author has pretty much made all the standard novice writer mistakes (which I too made in my first attempt at a novel!)

    The advantage a writer like this has over a hack is that he/she can learn the technical aspects of writing, but you can’t fake a real enthusiasm for the subject matter or originality of thought.

  3. >Hang on. You said David Weber fits your definition of a hack writer in this genre??! Explain yourself, sirrah.

    Weber is very good at what he does, but his Honorverse books evolved from a species of naive enthusiasm in #1 to hackwork after about #7. He’s been mostly repeating himself since; what’s fresh in the setting comes from other writers, notably Eric Flint.

  4. @esr: “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.”

    That unfairly maligns the hack writer. Robert Moore Williams was the epitome of the SF hack writer back when. His response to those who called him a hack was “Who pays *your* bills? I make my *living* writing. I write what the editor *pays* me to write. What the editors *pay* for is what you call hackwork, but my stuff *sells*, and I have the royalty statements to prove it. I *can* write the sort of stuff you like, and will happily do so if an editor will pay me to do it. It takes talent to stink ‘em up just right.” He had a point.

    A lot of writers learned their craft and paid their dues doing hack writing, and progressed to better things. Robert Silverberg turned out work like yard goods in the old days, on his own and with collaborators like Randall Garrett. He was trying to make a living in the days when 3 cents a word was in the middle of the payment scale.

    Dean Koontz once wrote porn. His wife would write the first draft during the week, he’d do the submission draft over a weekend, they’d get $650 a book, and that helped pay the bills while he worked on serious stuff. (I once annoyed Dean by asking him to autograph a couple of his pornos. “You want me to autograph *this* when I’ve been doing much more serious stuff?” “Dean, you were willing to put your real name on the cover. You should be willing to sign it on the fltyleaf.” He did. His wife Gerda wanted to know how I deduced a couple of their pseudonyms. “It wasn’t hard. When one of your pseudonymous works had some characteristic phrasing and mentioned a Hannes Bok painting hanging on the wall in the fist chapter, and was dedicated to another of your pseudonyms, well…”

    In SF back when, the hack wasn’t the guy who didn’t care. He often did. He was the guy the editor could rely on to produce X amount of words of a particular kind of story by a particular (and usually short) deadline, and have something publishable. His limitations were external, in the amount of time he had to write the work, the amount of space he had to fit it in, and the editor’s notions of what he wanted to publish. He was a pro.

  5. >He was a pro.

    I think you are actually arguing for a terminological distinction between ‘hack writer’ and ‘pro’ here; the categories overlap but don’t coincide. As you note, professionals sometimes produce hackwork to pay bills; I say a hack writer is someone who either never got beyond the level of hackwork or once did but has lost the spark.

    If you don’t like my use of the term ‘hack writer’, what label would you use? I am not really invested in the label, but we need some way to point at the phenomenon I’m describing.

  6. I find the first five Honor Harrington novels eminently re-readable. Book six is where they start deploying the 2000 year old wunder-technology of staged “missiles” and around book eight is where I read them out of an obligation to be able to discuss them.

    I actually find all of Weber’s Starfire novels get pulled off of the shelf and re-read more than the Honorverse books for me.

    One of the truisms of writing fiction is that if you aren’t excited, or emotionally invested in the characters, while writing it, the reader isn’t going to be excited or care much reading it. There’s a reason why writers as diverse as Steven Barnes and George R.R. Martin say that writing fiction is all about digging deep into your emotional wounds – the subjects that hurt you and letting that catharsis out on the page, and that’s because brash enthusiasm for the subject matter tends to dry up once you realize you’re writing to the form of a story…but touching on a wellspring of hurt, and pain, is always reliable.

    It is by this realization that I realized that I’m an excellent worldbuilder, but can’t uncork it as a novelist or fiction writer. I do not like picking off my emotional scabs to fill the inkwells of my fiction.

    (By the by: I cannot recommend Steve Barnes’ Lifewriting course highly enough: Life Writing by Steven Barnes. )

  7. Symptoms of Authorial Disengagement:

    Do the characters sort of move through the plot like fingerpuppets?
    Do your characters seem to breeze through the conflicts as though nothing can touch them?
    Do your characters feel any emotions other than Stern Resolve Under Crushing Duty And Honor as needed to get through the plot?
    Do your characters ever make choices that they later regret?
    Do your characters always make the “right” choices to move the plot forward, without ever really exploring the wrong ones?
    When presented with a horrible atrocity to their emotionally bonded group, do they immediately become Cold Emotionless Killing Machines….and never have their emotional release later?

    By the by, I read an excellent dissection of George R.R. Martin:

    “Anne McCaffrey was a romance novelist who figured out how to write romance novels on Pern. EVERY SINGLE Pern novel is, functionally, the story of the trials and trevails of how character X meets character Y, feels an emotional connection, is pulled away, and then spends the rest of the book working for that reunion with Character Y. She did it well, others did it well, and she managed to get more guys reading romance novels than any romance writer ever did, because they never realized they were reading them. Anne Rice and Laurel Hamilton do the same thing, which is why their stuff is called “paranormal romance” rather than “horror.”

    “Where I’m leading with this? George R.R. Martin writes horror. Everything he’s ever written, from Dying of the Light to Game of Thrones is, functionally, horror. You have the protagonists struggling against things far too big and immutable for them to change, you have the repeated murder-porn of killing off the characters he’s made you care about, and they get pretty bleak over all. If you realize you’re reading a series of malingering horror novels with Game of Thrones, it’s easier to take.”

  8. > Weber is very good at what he does, but his Honorverse books evolved from a species of naive enthusiasm in #1 to hackwork after about #7.

    I was wondering why I stopped reading Honorverse about book #10… (via Baen Free CDs).

  9. Sounds like a synopsis of Battlestar Galactica, actually. s/Aliens/Cylons/g and you have it almost exactly.

  10. ESR. . .

    When it comes to Hack Writing, there is but one Undisputed Master: Mercedes Lackey.

    She’s been recycling the same 7 plots for a hundred-plus books. . .

    It got to the point that her track at DragonCon, officially “Queen’s Own”, became known as “Misty’s Lackeys” (evil grin). I seem to recall that she hasn’t had a track at DC for a number of years, there was apparently some unpleasantness, some years back (don’t know the entire story there)

  11. I don’t care for the connotations of the term hack writer if we’re going to use it to describe David Weber. I don’t think that he stopped caring about what he was writing, I think that the type of story he likes to tell completely runs out of conflict at a certain point. He like writing about intelligent, compentent people. This means that pretty much invariably, our heroes are smarter than their foes. This is often true literally, but more importantly, he likes writing about war fighting technology and the evolution of warfighting technology. In every novel, the heroes, for a variety of reasons, have better technology than their opponents. This is ok – you can maintain tension in a story by balancing intelligence against capital, so the heroes start out grossly outnumbered. However, if you let your characters live in your universe for a bit, they’re going to try to overcome their disadvantage in capital and because they’re smarter than everyone else, they’re pretty much bound to succeed at this. That completely destroys any possibility of conflict in the story, after which it’s much harder to be invested in the story.

    He’s done this in the Honorverse, where in book 9, the manties acheive total technological dominance and destroy their enemies without effort, *and then the story continued*. He had to “surprise” reinflate the opposition or cripple our heroes twice, and they’re still winning every single battle. He’s also done this in the Safehold novels where by book 7, I can’t even pretend to wonder if the heroes will fail, their vaguely 60 year tech advantage is so clear.

  12. Nuttall’s books are all quite entertaining, and he’s absurdly prolific – he’s publishing a new book every few months in different series in rotation, it feels like. Definitely on my “I’ll buy whatever he writes list”. It doesn’t hurt that he self-publishes a lot of his books but actually has them proofread first :)

  13. Weber mostly bugs me because he’s a crap writer. I love his worldbuilding, and I like his plots, but he basically only has two characters(Mary Sue with a temper and the puppy-kicker), and you could take any discussion between two good guys from any one of his books, and swap it with any other, and you wouldn’t notice. I read him, but he’s sliding from “guilty pleasure” down to “I’m only doing this because I want to see how it ends, even though I pretty much already know”. The only books of his I’m actually looking forward to are the next sequels in the Hell’s Gate and Prince Roger series – the former because there isn’t so much a protagonist side, so I don’t know who’s going to win everything in advance, and the latter because Roger is the one character he has who actually develops in more than naval rank(thank you, John Ringo).

  14. Prince Roger is basically outline by Weber, writing by Ringo (who has his own problems). Eric Flint did the Honorverse no favors by forcing the plot the way he (allegedly) did either. Cauldron of Ghosts was the most anticlimactic piece of filler I’ve read in some time, and yet it took me until just now to realize how much of a chore reading it was. And I generally like Eric Flint’s work.

    Odd that you happened to mention the Hell’s Gate series. I forced myself through the first book, and literally could not bring myself to open the second. Instead, I ended up re-reading Killashandra by Anne McCaffery; unlikable main character and trite plot and all, I still enjoyed it better than Hell’s Gate.

  15. I don’t have my library at hand so this is from memory: I recall Robert Silverberg once saying that early in his career he reached the point of being able to write stuff that would sell reliably, and at that point he thought he was on top of the world. But another writer (Sturgeon, maybe?) pointed out that he had just mastered the art of hack writing, and was capable of much more. RS took the advice to heart and worked even harder. The difference between the author of _Aliens From Space_ and the author of _Dying Inside_ is astonishing.

  16. Weber is very good at what he does, but his Honorverse books evolved from a species of naive enthusiasm in #1 to hackwork after about #7.

    We have a winner!

    (And I still hate Hamish.)

  17. Ken Burnside:
    “I find the first five Honor Harrington novels eminently re-readable. Book six is where they start deploying the 2000 year old wunder-technology of staged “missiles” and around book eight is where I read them out of an obligation to be able to discuss them.”

    Ah, so I’m not the only one who started to get bored at about that point. I admit did like #8; having to break out of a prison colony was significantly different from the problems she had to solve in the earlier books. But the first 5 are the one I find myself re-reading.

  18. @esr: “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.”

    Hmm. I’ve long thought that (stepping outside of SF for a minute) that Clive Cussler is the epitome of the hack writer. His books sell very well, are guaranteed an audience, and are extremely formulaic. I admit I enjoy them, but it’s sort of a guilty pleasure; you know that you aren’t going to be emotionally or intellectually challenged, and that you are just going to watch him put the same pieces together in marginally different ways.

    Somewhere along the way I think he stopped writing the books himself and had his co-authors do most of the work, but that’s just speculation on my part. (But when was the last book he wrote without a co-author?)

  19. “The advantage a writer like this has over a hack is that he/she can learn the technical aspects of writing, but you can’t fake a real enthusiasm for the subject matter or originality of thought.”

    Well said. My reaction to this review is that Chris Nuttall is probably already ahead of the point that some of the great SF writers were when first published. With time, luck, and hard work, we may see him develop into a solid SF writer.

  20. >Well said. My reaction to this review is that Chris Nuttall is probably already ahead of the point that some of the great SF writers were when first published. With time, luck, and hard work, we may see him develop into a solid SF writer.

    I concur with this assessment.

  21. Coming at this as a young person, it seems that the self-publishing of novels is where many up and coming authors now have to go to make their bones. I theorize that in the past, somebody like Nuttall would be turning out stuff for pulps on a word rate.

  22. >If you don’t like my use of the term ‘hack writer’, what label would you use? I am not really invested in the label, but we need some way to point at the phenomenon I’m describing.

    I’ve been thinking about this a while. Because your own dividing line seems to be whether or not a writer cares enough to expand the boundaries of the genre….

    Story teller. As opposed to artist.

    IMO there is a place for people who tell entertaining stories, as opposed to the more artistically ambitious. One of my favorite authors describes himself as a craftsman who attempts to tell entertaining stories (flavored by his own observations of human nature).

    ‘Hack’ has too many negative connotations. Save it for people who deserve it.

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