Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 14, 2022

The Good Captain (2022), by Sean Rabin

The Good Captain is author Sean Rabin’s second novel, after Wood Green which was shortlisted for The 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and 2016 The Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, and was longlisted for the ALS Gold Medal.  While my memory of the plot is now a little hazy, what I remember vividly from Wood Green is the misty landscape of the Tasmanian bush.  Rabin has used that skill in depicting setting to great effect in his new novel which is set entirely at sea.  But it’s not a sea that any of us might recognise, not yet anyway.

Set some time in the future (one of the characters is born in 2044), The Good Captain is a dystopia involving a rogue ship that destroys fishing trawlers and commits other acts of civil disobedience.  But whether this is a valiant attempt to save the last remnants of marine life, or merely an act of revenge against those responsible for overfishing, marine plastic pollution and overconsumption, is something for book groups to discuss.

Likewise up for discussion is the book’s title: what is a good captain?  The novel contests the prevailing orthodoxy that organisations do best when they have shared goals, a cohesive team and an empathetic leader.  The crew of Mama is far from cohesive, there are too many competing ambitions and griefs for that.  As for Rena, the captain, she has multiple names representing multiple identities that formed after she was rescued from the fishing boat from which her parents vanished.  These multiple identities representing a girlhood of loss, abuse and exploitation, resurface throughout the book as she repudiates relationships of any kind.  Her thoughts reveal that she sometimes forgets that her crew cares as much as she does.  But when military aircraft have tracked them down and fire missiles at them, Bill thinks she is a monster:

Bill froze with fear.  Her mouth hung open,  She wanted to cry.  She wanted to scream.  Her eyelids refused to blink.  She watched Rena climb into the captain’s char and was shocked by her apparent calm.  She seemed like a monster — more cold and deadly than Bill could ever have thought possible. (p.267)

When Rena is exhilarated by changes in the ocean and her connection with it, she exults in the danger and pays no mind at all to the risks for the others onboard.  (One of whom is the kidnapped former Prime Minister of Australia.)  Torrents of words depict what happens when a cyclone occurs in a warming sea:

… Sook had reported that the tropical cyclone already occupied eight degrees of latitude, and as Rena climbed she suspected it might eventually grow to fill as much as ten or eleven.  Once upon a time the fiercer the cyclone the smaller the area it covered — an intense onslaught that was over in a matter of hours.  No longer.  No longer.  Old measurements and meteorological truths had been left behind.  There were now new variations that moved with greater velocity and took alternate pathways.  ‘Eccentric’ might describe their behaviour, but ‘random’ was closer — ‘unknowable’ was even better.  The sea had become too warm; too easy to evaporate; too abundant with energy that could be converted into mechanical power — strong, high-pressure winds that gyrated rapidly around a low-pressure centre to create a spiral arrangement of thunderstorms bright with lightning and heaving with slashing rain.  In the past, a cyclone’s passage across the ocean would mix cold waters from below that kept its size in check.  But now the warm water went so deep that in open seas — where no land could impede its progress — a cyclone had the potential to grow as wide as a large island and climb as high as fifty thousand feet. (p.272)

Rena finds it exciting to have to roam the ocean without GPS, compass or existing knowledge of the sea, unable to follow the stars, listen to the wind, read the complexities of the infinite sine waves that randomly combine within the ocean’s surface. But for her crew, not ready or willing to die for the cause, the wind’s exchange with the ocean is terrifying.

The exigencies of being at sea with deranged, opulent, limitless, remorseless and unchallenged natural forces are not the only problems depicted in the novel.  The ship has been at sea so long now that it needs urgent maintenance on land.  Quite apart from Rena having a visceral bodily reaction to being on land, the sophisticated satellite surveillance systems searching for them make it next to impossible to find a safe harbour.  The crew are exhausted, grief-stricken after the loss of one of their number, and not all of them are entirely rational.  (There’s a heavy dependence on tailor-made drugs). And since they are not a cohesive crew, they are lonely too.

The Good Captain is a novel written with passion, projecting a future that seems impossible to endure while also depicting an obdurate political refusal to act in time to prevent total disaster.  At the same time, it asks the question: how far should activists go in their efforts to save the planet?

The Good Captain is in stock at Readings. 

Author: Sean Rabin
Title: The Good Captain
Cover design: Peter Lo
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2022
ISBN: 9781925760934, pbk., 358 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge



  1. Overfishing is an atrocity,but one that will no doubt be complete rather sooner than anyone born in 2044 will be able to influence. This sounds like a book I should read (though I might tag my review with Science Fiction).


    • You’d enjoy it, I think. There’s lots of technobabble which passed me by because I was more interested in the characters. (My tag is the catch-all “Speculative/ SF/ Fantasy”).


  2. Definitely intrigued by this!


    • I liked it because it was something different. Most of the dystopias I’ve read feature barren, toxic wastelands with a small green remnant somewhere, and some kind of techno-purified bubble for the elites to live in.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] “The Good Captain is a novel written with passion, projecting a future that seems impossible to endure while also depicting an obdurate political refusal to act in time to prevent total disaster.” – ANZLitLovers […]


    • Well, this is a first, I don’t think anyone has linked to my blog from BookTok before.


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