In his book Solutions for Writers, Sol Stein discusses the importance of the crucible – the situation in which characters are trapped together and which turns up the heat on them until something has to give. A well-designed crucible can create the most exciting stories. It traps characters together despite their disdain or hatred of each other, providing plenty of conflict.
It’s a technique that’s pushed to wonderful extremes in Mike Brooks’s sci-fi novels Dark Run and Dark Sky.
A Ship of Outcasts
Dark Run, the first of these books, introduces us to Captain Ichabod Drift and the crew of the Keiko. Theirs is a ship full of smugglers, hackers, and guns for hire. When a figure from Drift’s past offers them a lucrative and clearly illegal job, they take it. But Drift’s past is a dark place and that darkness is about to catch up with them.
The bickering criminal space crew isn’t a new model for a story. Since Farscape and Firefly, it’s been a model many storytellers play with. The internal conflicts of the crew keep things entertaining, their betrayals add twists and tension, and when they work together it’s all the more satisfying because of the differences they’ve overcome.
Dark Run has all that, with the darkness and tension cranked up even further. That isn’t to say that this is a grim book – far from it, it’s an exciting adventure story. But the dark side of the characters and the potential for the crew to just explode keeps you closer to the edge of the seat than ever. It’s a good addition to the cluster of stories that is the criminal spaceship crew.
A Physical and Social Crucible
Why does the criminal spaceship work so well as a crucible for a story?
The reason is that there are really two crucibles at work here – one physical and one social.
Physically, the crew are stuck together in the ship. Even when they have a chance to leave, their ability to find shelter and sustenance is so tied to their beloved rust bucket that it would be hard to get away. Close quarters lead to cabin fever and the revelation of secrets. It’s a great way to turn up the heat.
There’s also a social crucible, one hinted at by the background of Brooks’s character Apirana Wahawaha. Apirana grew up in a criminal gang. Leaving that wasn’t easy and if people from his past see him, including members of enemy gangs who might recognise his tattoos, then it could cause huge problems.
A criminal gang is a crucible in itself. The shared secrets and achievements, the promises kept and threats made bind the members together as deeply as any physical environment. One of the reasons gangs can be so destructive to the lives of their members is the difficulty of leaving.
And the crew of a criminal spaceship are a gang. They are bound together by many of the same social bonds that affect young men and women on the streets. The crew of the Keiko might not share gang tats, but in a sense Apirana has swapped one gang for another.
This is part of why criminal spaceship stories work so well. Physically and socially, they bind together people who may hate each other but can’t escape. You can drive up the conflict without them going their separate ways and the story falling apart.
Dark Sky – Let’s Have Another Crucible!
And then there’s Dark Sky, the sequel to Dark Run. Here, Brooks really piles on the pressure, as the crew of the Keiko become trapped on a mining world as it bubbles over into revolution. It’s a whole new crucible in which two competing crews are combined with both sides of a lethal political conflict. The setting may have changed but the approach is the same – trap conflicting people together in a place and an event, then crank up the tension and see what breaks.
Brooks’s smart use of story crucibles makes for some exciting and entertaining novels. And it highlights a wider point – that the best stories don’t just rely on one factor to trap characters together, but on the physical, social, and historical circumstances that bind them despite who they are.