In space opera, “space as the sea” is a familiar trope. Many of the large empires we’re familiar with from our favorite space faring adventures often resemble the maritime empires of old. But Hugh Howey, the bestselling self-published author most famous for his book Wool, has a pretty unique take on that trope. His most recent Kindle series, Beacon 23, is about a man stationed on a way point beacon that warns passing ships of nearby asteroids, much like a lighthouse on Earth.
The story is written in five episodes. Each one is its own short story, but they all build to a larger series, much like a TV show. The first episode has our protagonist, whose name we never learn but whose Army nickname was Digger, trying to deal with wreckers who have disrupted his beacon in order to salvage ships that will then crash into the nearby asteroid field.
The first installment, “Little Noises”, reads as a standalone, but as the series continues we learn much more about our narrator. We learn that he is a veteran of the ongoing struggle between Humans and an alien race called the Ryph, that in fact he was considered a hero of the war. But his actions weren’t exactly heroic, at least not in the way that the higher-ups would consider if they knew the truth about what he had done, and the conflict has left him ravaged by PTSD. For these reasons he has become a beacon operator, a job that comes in two year stints of isolation on a small space station. Still, he finds himself in a unique position to actually do something about the war.
I really enjoyed this series in everything from format, to setting, to the characters involved. It is told in first person, and Howey’s narrator has a very strong and unique voice, one that is both humorous and entertaining but also touching. Having the story told from this perspective also gave a great deal of insight into the mental trauma the character is suffering, some of which involves hallucinations.
In terms of format, as I reader I found it convenient to have the story broken up into defined segments. Of course in a traditional novel you can do this by chapters, but it’s not quite the same. Knowing that you will see a complete story arc across 20-40 pages and committing the time to read that is different than sitting down to read a chapter, which might end on a cliffhanger. To go back to the TV comparison, it’s like committing time to watch a single episode of a show. You know what the time involved is (at least roughly), and you can feel satisfied with consuming that single segment. Honestly, much of the reason I wanted to read this series was because I’m planning to write some of my own stories in a similar fashion, and Howey’s work here proved to me that the idea is a sound one.
The only part of the story that I wasn’t the biggest fan of was the epilogue at the end of the fifth episode. Howey even writes a note before it essentially explaining that it isn’t necessary. I will say that it was not quite so useless as the Harry Potter series epilogue where everything you saw was basically what you expected. The first ending of the episode is rather vague, and so the epilogue does explain the outcome of the characters’ actions in no uncertain terms. But personally I like the vagueness of the first ending, and I think Howey could have left it at that.
If you liked Howey’s other work or enjoy space opera, I definitely recommend checking out this series. It’s very well done and was fun reading. Once again I think Howey shows us what good self-published sci-fi can look like.
You can pick up the complete Beacon 23: The Complete Novel featuring all five collected episodes in the Kindle Store today.