Ark Royal, a military space opera by Christopher Nuttall, has shot its way up the indie Kindle book charts in fewer than five months since its publication. Its sequel, The Nelson Touch, is #1 in books (Kindle or not) for the categories of military sci-fi and space opera. Folks, David Weber and John Ringo have both released books this year, and Christopher Nuttall is shooting right past them without a publisher or publicist in his corner.
Sometimes life hands you flags that something is going on. I make it a point to stop and see what that something is whenever huge popularity surges happen, because as a storyteller the only paths I know to such success are skill or controversy. I don’t think I’m going to amend this policy since it has brought me through the Harry Potter, Twilight, and other series that are far outside my usual reading range, but were vastly worth it.
Christopher Nuttall’s Ark Royal hits a perfect sweet spot between price, product, and timing. After David Weber’s most recent disappointment, and John Ringo’s tendency to roll around in porn like a pig in slop, I have been hungry for another taste of military sci-fi, and it looks like I wasn’t alone.
Let me talk shop really quick. Christopher Nuttall’s prose is uninspired, but solid. The man has thirty-eight Kindle books published in the past three years. That is a work ethic. Critics of Nuttall give him the same criticism of many other genre fiction writers:
He settles for cliches (in other words he’s more interested in telling you the next portion of the story than astounding you with his technical abilities). The result of this in terms of prose is that the story flows through the plot with nary a pause to polish its own literary buttons.
His ideas are unoriginal (I think there are two entire original ideas in all the thousands of pages of The Wheel of Time and military sci-fi has been riffing off of Starship Troopers since Heinlein first penned it). Nuttall’s current cover is a direct homage to Robotech‘s SDF-1, his story combines great anime themes from Space Battleship Yamato, Robotech, bits of real-life drama similar to Battlestar Galactica, with just a dash of Space: Above and Beyond’s tangled attempts to deal with a totally alien military aggressor. I loved all of those shows, so Nuttall’s fiction was like a heaping helping of awesome soup cooked with bits of my fondest childhood dreams.
His technology is inconsistent. Sorry, but that’s just not true. Perhaps there are inconsistencies, but none of them stood up and slapped me in the face. They didn’t interrupt the story, and that is precisely the bar to match.
His characters didn’t have significant struggles. Wrong again. They just had human struggles. The captain is an alcoholic who has to beat his demons while all the pressure of several worlds is driving him to drink, and potential self-destruction. Unlike the BBC, Nuttall hits the nail right on the head. The true battle for addicts is to not start down the slope, not to roll around halfway down. Other personal problems include aristocratic pressures (not done to death), military ethics (do we nuke them from orbit, or do we keep our humanity at the cost of military gain?), adultery, and the press (viewed in the British light of semi-disgust instead of the American one of fawning adoration). Where there is sex, it is plot-relevant and story specific, told in exactly the right amount of detail (not wallowed in, Mr. Ringo!!!) Human-sized struggles set a marvelous tone for a bunch of humans trying the impossible, instead of demigods classing amid ships of battle steel and super-light drives.
Ark Royal is exactly what it sets out to be: pleasant, enjoyable, familiar without terrible derivation, and worth the price. Even better, there are sequels rolling out in less than a year’s time! This is precisely the formula for success. Your life will not be empty for the lack of Nuttall’s fiction, but your time won’t be wasted, either.