“The Ragged Astronauts” shows how plot, characterization, world building and foreshadowing can all be conveyed in the very first page of a genre novel. Now we move forward to the first actual interactions between the characters.
We learned on that first page that the POV character, Toller Maraquine, see fools all around him, and he does not suffer them gladly. He is frustrated with the airship captain, its crew, and those on the ground who appear to be doing nothing.
Shaw, meanwhile continues to pepper the scene with references that pique our interest:
The only people visible among the rectangular pans and fuel bins were semi-naked stokers and rakers.
What are stokers and rakes? Why are they semi-naked? Shaw fortunately does not pause to explain: the tension of the moment is paramount and you can only assume that this will become clear later.
Pressing a hand to his sword to hold it steady, he ran towards the supervisors’ building.
Another surprise, slipped in effortlessly: our main character wears a sword! Is it ceremonial? If not, is this a world in which sword fighting is still a form of battle? Our interest in this strange place is further heightened.
Then we have the first one-on-one interaction between Toller and another character. A junior officer named Comdac Gurra emerges with a device called a sunwriter. Gurra offers it to Toller, who waves him off:
“You do it,” he said impatiently, covering up the fact that he would have been too slow at stringing the words of a message together.
In that single sentence we learn a) the sunwriter is a communications device, probably to send a message to the airship, and b) our main character is the sort of person who feigns impatience to mask a personal failing. He is, we realize, quite vain.
Shaw is adept at doling out small morsels of world building amid the action. As the message flashes, Toller realizes the ship is “a royal messenger”, which he finds perplexing:
What possible reason could the King have for communicating with one of the Lord Philosopher’s most remote experimental stations?
Thus we learn that the other planet has a King, this world has a Lord Philosopher, and that Toller is currently situated in a remote location of unclear purpose. All that, in one sentence.
Next, more interaction — and some actual person-to-person conflict. Vorndall Sisstt, chief of the station, emerges to learn what is amiss, and he immediately clashes with Toller.
“Exactly when did you become empowered to make executive decisions here? In what I believe to be my station? Has Lord Glo elevated you without informing me?”
“Nobody needs elevation where you’re concerned,” Toller said, reacting badly to the chief’s sarcasm, his gaze fixed on the airship which was now dipping towards the shore.
Sisstt’s jaw sagged and his eyes narrowed as he tried to decide whether the comment had referred to his physical stature or abilities. “That was insolence,” he accused. “Insolence and insubordination, and I’m going to see that certain people get to hear about it.”
“Don’t bleat,” Toller said, turning away.
Good writing places characterization above plot. Plot carries the reader along, but ultimately it is the depth of characterization that will keep a reader interested. Here, in the first chapter of “The Ragged Astronaut,” we see a case in point. A lesser writer would focus primarily on the peril facing the airship. For Bob Shaw, that plot device is merely the canvas on which he is painting the portrait of his main character, Toller Maraquine, a sword-wearing noble, impatient and condescending, unfazed by superiors, vain yet dismissive of those around him.
It is this complex lead character, not the failing airship, that will keep us reading.
Next: a clash with the captain.