I must admit that while there are many tropes within the science-fiction genre that irritate me, or which I find stale and uninteresting, there are a few that will attract my attention each and every time that I come across them in a novel. First and foremost of those is something I call ‘The Other Captain’; I’m sure that TVTropes has a more accurate title for it, but that’s what it’s always been to me at least. By ‘The Other Captain’ I mean the ones who aren’t Picard, or Janeway, or Sisko or Archer. They’re commanding officers of a starship, but it’s not the flagship, or a vessel exploring the very fringes of known space. They’re the characters in the background of a space opera, or the ones you don’t even see at all; the ones who do the hard work of keeping a space-faring organisation together, without ever being seen or their hard, utterly vital work ever being appreciated. To take a recent example, the new animated Star Trek series Lower Decks has used the trope to superb effect, showing us the captain and crew of the U.S.S. Cerritos, a ‘Second Contact’ starship that works in the background of the Star Trek universe, doing the dull, boring and only occasionally exciting things that nonetheless have to be done in order for the Kirks and Picards to be able to function effectively. As a mid-level bureaucrat in a large governmental organisation, where praise is rare and supporting work rarely acknowledged, the trope as a whole speaks to me in a way that many others simply can’t. Shakedowners, the new science-fiction novel from Justin Wooley, is a story that takes up that trope and runs with it – and does some very interesting things in the process.
Iridius B. Franklin is one of the youngest Captains in the ranks of the Federation Space Command (FSC) and has command of an entire starship; unfortunately for the ambitious young officer, it isn’t a sleek, futuristic vessel with the latest weapons and technology, forging its way into the unknown, like the FSC El Nino and its heroic and famous Captain, the highly-decorated Roc Mayhem. Despite his natural talents, a taste for socialising and alcohol rather than studying, along with a distinctly laid-back and argumentative nature, meant that Franklin graduated at the very bottom of his class in Space Command Academy. As such, he was given command of the bulk freighter Diesel Coast, named after an environmental disaster back on Earth, and tasked with nothing more interesting that delivering cargo between various planets in the Galactic Federation. It’s an unrewarding and undemanding task, one that Franklin dutifully undertakes alongside his small cadre of loyal but eccentric crewmembers, and he desperately hopes that the FSC will one day recognise his natural talents and reward him with a far more interesting posting on a far more powerful starship.
In the meantime, Franklin at least has the consolation prize of being hand-picked to conduct the shakedown cruises for new FSC starships. Unfortunately that duty is less because of his natural talents, and more because Franklin has a habit of breaking the vessels during the journeys, to the point where a ‘Franklinism’ has become a widely-used phrase across the Galactic Federation for something breaking on-board a starship. During one of these shakedown cruises, testing out the new Galactic Federation flagship the FCS Gallaway, the unfortunate Captain returns to Earth to find out that it’s been attacked by an unknown alien force. Billions are dead, the planet is quite literally on fire, and Franklin soon becomes aware that this is only the first in a series of planned attacks, with the goal being the extinction of all life in the galaxy. Completely unprepared for any such scenario, and with his only command an untested starship and a senior staff that doesn’t trust him, Franklin finds himself the only person in the Galactic Federation with the opportunity to stop galactic genocide – if he can stop breaking anything he touches.
Shakedowners took a little while to get going for me for the first few chapters of the book, but once I was about a quarter of the way into it, the narrative and the characters had combined to grab my attention completely, and I found myself reading the book within a single day, even sneaking pages in during work hours in my attempt to finish it as soon as possible. Wooley has a very engaging way of writing, with slick prose and a compelling atmosphere that really pulls you into the world he’s built for the novel; while it might have taken a short while for the plot to really get going, that certainly wasn’t the fault of the atmosphere or the world-building, both of which rapidly prove that Wooley absolutely knows the subject he’s writing about. It’s a humorously self-aware novel in which numerous tropes, both in the general science-fiction genre, and those specific to Star Trek, are identified and deftly inverted or used as targets for Wooley to gently poke fun at through his characters and the odd moment of fourth-wall breaking. But even more importantly, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s a ‘comedic’ science-fiction novel that is actually funny. I’ve read through enough novels labelled as space comedies that are about as funny as watching paint dry, and I’m happy to report that I was regularly smirking or chuckling as the pages went by. It deploys various sci-fi tropes and gently mocks or deconstructs them, but is never limited by them or locked into a specific type of narrative as a result. From commentary about the ‘aggressively streamlined’ nature of some FSC starships, to a laugh-out-loud moment at the end of the novel that parodies a certain dramatic moment in Star Trek: First Contact, Shakedowners readily demonstrates Wooley’s innate understanding of the genre as a whole, and his passion for shows like Star Trek and Red Dwarf amongst others.
That engaging narrative and atmosphere, and excellent writing, is combined with some exceptional characterisation from the small but potent cast in the novel. Franklin is a fantastic protagonist, one who starts out defined by tropes but slowly but surely outgrows them with some real character development that genuinely surprised me by the end of the novel. Because in amidst the jokes and humour and action, Wooley actually provides a surprisingly in-depth and philosophical look at the decisions that have to be taken when in command, and the sobering costs that come about as a result. It’s an emotional layer to the story that actually gives it far more depth and character than other novels in the sub-genre, and means that it actually stands out as a book to be re-read and appreciated, rather than read once and discarded. The supporting cast of characters in the novel are just as well-developed, again with each one starting out based around a single trope – the arrogant, hot-shot pilot, the ‘quirky’ engineer, the token alien – but rapidly developing into fully fleshed out and three-dimensional characters. Wooley does a brilliant job of developing them and the relationships between Franklin and his crew, to the extent that he demonstrates their loyalty to their Captain, rather than simply writing that they are loyal and expecting the reader to go along with it.
Action-packed, imaginative and often laugh-out-loud hilarious, and demonstrating far more depth of character and thought than its many other competitors in the Comedic Science-Fiction genre, Shakedowners is a superb achievement by Justin Wooley. A comical love-letter to both the science-fiction genre as a whole, and Star Trek in particular, it’s a must-read novel for sci-fi fans, as Wooley deftly draws you into the complex and intriguing universe that he’s skilfully developed. I thoroughly enjoyed Shakedowners and look forward to joining Captain Franklin and his crew of loyal eccentrics and weirdos as they embark on an even more perilous and dangerous mission into the unknown in the next novel in the series, which I hope won’t be too long in the future.