Stardrifter: Motherload

Book review

settings scifi

I'm reading the Stardrifter series by David Collins-Rivera, and reviewing each book as I finish it. The first book in the series is the novella Motherload, and it introduces not only the main character of the Stardrifter series but also the sci fi universe that serves as the setting. This review contains no spoilers.

Here's the unnecessary but obligatory disclaimer! I only publish positive reviews on this blog. When I don't like something, I don't waste time writing about it. The fact that I know David Collins-Rivera personally (he and I wrote the RPG supplements d100 OSR Traps and d100 Cursed Items together) doesn't influence what I write about his books. I'm only writing about his books because I enjoy them.


David describes Stardrifter as "stories about an ordinary guy doing ordinary things" and the first part of Motherload threatens to make good on that unspectacular promise. I picked up Stardrifter because I needed less "science fantasy" on my reading list and more hard sci fi. Well, the first third of Motherload is pure procedural science fiction. A ship's flux capacitor (or dilithium crystal, or something) is out of alignment. Sensor readouts are analysed, power generators are repaired, conduits are connected through tubes and over wires. I mean, it's serious technobabble, and it's convincing enough that it awoke memories of my time in computer labs, troubleshooting motherboards and reading serial output from ROM chips. I know this isn't real, and yet it appeals to that part of my brain that loves nothing more than sitting by the fire and reading technical manuals.

It was an incredibly tense couple of shifts. Sally and I did a hasty EVA to rip off the housing around the feed lines to the plasma exhaust. We used hydraulic grippers and vibrosaws that the others said had made a heck of a racket inside. The job, once done, was really messy. It would be a costly repair for the consortium that owned DAME MINNIE, but I figured we weren't going to be hired again anyway...

But wait, it's not all pretend technical jargon. It's actually a clever vehicle for introducing you to the crew of the ship, a random assortment of blue collar workers who happened to get hired to man the vessel (or the "boat", as they call it, which I love) . They don't all necessarily like each other, or even know that much about one another, and not all of them are very likable in general.

Ejoq is the main character of the series. He's a little overweight, maybe shorter that he'd like, and functionally he's a space handiman. Actually he's a gunnery specialist, which I'd forgoten since my first read of this book, but really he comes across as a jack of all trades. He knows a little bit about a lot, he can usually fake what he doesn't know, and for crying out loud all he wants is a steady pay check. In other words, he's my perfect idea of a hero for a book series.

Sally is the actual handiman. She's the engineer, and I don't much care for her. She's got an attitude problem, and her attitude discourages contribution when there's a problem. I wouldn't have hired her.

I forget what Genness does, but he's basically Spock or Data, probably. Cool, calm, collected, moderately useful in a pinch.

Captain Bayern is the manager of that fast food joint you worked at during your teen years. He's just there to make sure the timesheets are filled out and turned in to the head office. He's useless, even in a pinch.

That's the crew of the Dame Minnie. And that's the setup. Doesn't feel like enough for a sci fi adventure, does it?

Things progress pretty quickly. Systems get shut down for repair, Ejoq and Sally work three shifts back-to-back in an attempt to get things back in order, Captain Bayern is growing restless, and then the mystery ship appears.


The mystery ship is flying in nominal stealth mode. It's not broadcasting its ident to anyone, and it's got a bunch of extra gear strapped to it. There have been recent reports of suspicious activity in the system, and after several scans of the vessel, Ejoq realises that they've come face to face with actual space pirates.

Well, wait a minute.

Ejoq thinks they're space pirates. To be fair, the Dame Minnie isn't broadcasting idents or power signatures either, because literally all systems are down for the repairs to the power core. It could be that the strange ship is in trouble, or has reasons all its own to be silent. It's a big galaxy. Anything's possibe.

The pirates haven't tried to communicate with the Dame Minnie, and doesn't even seem to realise it's there. So the two ships are just there. In space. Awkwardly ignoring each other.

Ejoq is convinced, though, and figures it's safer to act first than to wait to be boarded or destroyed. His crazy idea? Pull up alongside the mystery ship, spacewalk some explosives over to its hull, and then force their way onto the vessel to subdue the threat. It's a crazy idea, but it's literally all they have available to them. The Dame Minnie is powered down, with no guns for fighting and no engines to run (and even if they did run, they'd be stranded again once the power core fails again).

Tension and subterfuge

It's difficult to convey through a review, but the writing in Motherload is so good it's downright manipulative. For every complaint you might have during the first chapter, by the end of the book you realise you were meant to feel that way. Everything in this story happens for a reason. It's flawless, tight storytelling and a great introduction to the Stardrifter setting. Sure, there are cables and tubes and power-coil fittings in Stardrifter, but more importantly there are human beings with motivations and feelings and thoughts and lives of their own. For every description of one sci fi gadget, there's a character with more complexity than the entire galaxy going on inside their head. Sometimes you get to hear those thoughts, other times they reveal themselves by a selfless act and other times by a foolish and destructive act. That's Stardrifter. Ordinary people doing ordinary things.

Motherload is a great little book. It's just five chapters, so it's a quick read, but it never goes in the direction you expect. If you like science fiction, this is great sci fi. Go read it!

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

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