Monday, March 15, 2010

The Wreck of the River of Stars by Michael Flynn

The Wreck of the River of StarsUnless you are a serious devotee of science fiction you've probably never heard of Michael Flynn;  I hadn't until a couple of years ago, and I take my science fiction very seriously.  He tends to fly beneath the radar, eschewing melodramatic space opera, in favor of highly detailed, very plausible multi-threaded stories, spread out on a very large scale.  Unlike many authors of the genre, he publishes only once every several years, and the level of skill, commitment and imagination that goes into each novel makes the wait worthwhile. 

I lucked onto Flynn with a novel called In The Kingdom Of The Blind, a fabulist present-day thriller about a plot (actually several plots) to control world events via the science of Cliology, or the mathematical analysis of recurrent historical trends (Clio is the traditional Greek Muse of history).  I then went backwards, into Flynn's Firestar quartet;  four sequential novels illustrating how one woman with a great deal of money (and a severe phobia of asteroid impacts), can seed an entire generation of high school students with the inspiration to reach for the stars, as well as the education to get there. 

The saga follows several of these students (and some of their adult mentors) from the present to the near future, as they build a private fleet of commercial spacecraft and eventually develop the technology to open the solar system to paying customers.  What makes the Firestar books unique is the hyper-realistic depiction of the enormous economic, political, social and especially personal costs of such an extraordinary effort.  Lives are lost, reputations ruined, businesses destroyed and the world forever altered by the struggle to colonize space - but the benefits are equal to the price.

Flynn followed this series with The Wreck Of The River Of Stars, set decades after the Firestar protagonists have established the interplanetary trade.  The title is the name of a legendary spaceliner, using magnetic sails to ply the interplanetary spacelanes between the inner planets and Jupiter's moons, carrying high-priced freight and glamourous passengers. 

But the book begins long after the decline of the great sailing ships, inevitably replaced by faster, fusion-powered vessels.  Once glorious, The River of Stars is now a lowly tramp freighter, her sails stowed, her passenger decks largely mothballed, and her sleek beauty marred by a quartet of retrofitted fusion motors.  Worse still, her ranks of spiffy officers and cabin stewards have given way to a scruffy, mismatched skeleton crew of misfits and losers, held together solely by the grace of their remarkable captain, Evan Dodge Hand.

We never see Hand in action; the book opens with his untimely death.  Simultaneously, a rogue pebble impacts the ship's fusion system, shutting down two of the engines.  Depending largely on gravitational largesse to make its rendezvous with Jupiter, the ship needs at least three working engines to avoid missing port, and flying out into the eternal darkness.  As the members of the crew try to work together to address the problem, they uniformly fail to see the more important issue:  without the Captain to mediate between them, their individual failings, idiosyncrasies, and emotional baggage doom the effort from the start.

With a necessarily limited cast of characters, confined to a single locale, Flynn creates an unforgettable group of damaged personalities, each with a full complement of prejudices, recriminations and tarnished hopes and dreams.  A ship's doctor sublimates her romantic and sexual needs with a drug addiction.  The First Officer (now Acting Captain) with a horrible episode of indecision in his past, spends his time replaying old military battles on the ship's computer, abandoning any pretense of leadership. 

Meanwhile, the ship's engineer trusts his own inflated ego (inflamed by the sexual rejection of his young and fatally inexperienced assistant) to repair the damaged engines before the deadline.  And two other crewmembers, associated with the ship's halcyon sailing days, plot to outfox the engineer by hatching a daring plan to unpack the rigging, and fly into the Jupiter roads triumphantly, under full sail.

There are other crew, and other equally fascinating stories, aboard The River of Stars, and each has a vital part to play in the making of an avoidable disaster.  In Flynn's world, character is destiny - each individual's flaws create an inescapable trap, all interweaving together in a blind inexorable march toward doom.  This is epic tragedy, rendered on an intimate, almost tender scale.  And the emotionally wracking "if only" moments of missed opportunities, failed communications, and personal hubris resonantly emulate such nonfictional catastrophes as the Titanic and the Hindenberg.
This is a dense, subtle, nuanced, and above all, human story - brimming with fallibility, questioning the possibility of redemption, examining the latent darkness of the human soul.  I've had to read three times to see into its depths, and I do not plan to review the two unrelated books that Flynn has since written, Eifelheim and The January Dancer, until I have reread them thoroughly.  On first acquaintance, though, both show themselves to be just as thoughtful, as imaginative, as realistic, and as moving, as The Wreck Of The River Of Stars.

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