Volume 23, Number 1, Spring 2003

The Wreck of The River of Stars

By Michael Flynn

Tor, 2003
Reviewed by William H. Standard

Michael Flynn is a regular Prometheus Award nominee, and indeed a winner for his first published novel, In the Country of the Blind. Happily, his latest book is his best written, not merely an intelligent speculation and a good story but deeply moving. It lacks only one thing to make it a leading contender for next year's award: It's not libertarian. That's not to say it's antilibertarian, not at all; it's simply not about a Political theme.

What Flynn is doing in this book occurs on several levels at once. In the first place, it's the hardest of hard science fiction, with an ingeniously extrapolated future technology of interplanetary travel and a plausible society based on it. In the second place, it's a classic disaster story, with most of the hard science fictional content being a detailed examination of the causes of the disaster. In the third place, like nearly all disaster stories, it's also a soap opera, exploring the psyches and personal relationships of its characters as they struggle against their own set of cold equations. And, finally it has the inevitability of a classic Greek tragedy, and possibly some of the grandeur. I came to the end of the novel saddened but not able to regret its outcome, which is exactly the ideal mood for the audience at a tragedy.

The one thing that I found somewhat unsatisfying in The Wreck of The River of Stars was its excessive focus on the psychology of its characters. This may seem an odd criticism; the twentieth century accustomed readers to looking or psychological depth in fictional characterization. But Flynn tends to present interpretations rather than the evidence of speech and action that would enable readers to discover those interpretations for themselves, and in doing so he diminishes the sense of awe and mystery that his characters might have and in their best moments do have. Flynn's narrative technique, which relies on an Omniscient point of view able to see into the minds of all the characters— to know them better than they know themselves—has the same effect on the narrative; it has largely fallen into disuse perhaps partly for that reason, and Flynn's reliance gives his story a slightly old-fashioned quality. This may otherwise he a good thing in a novel that evokes nineteenth century history.

Flynn has in fact done some interesting worldbuilding here. We don't directly see any of the human settlements on Mars or on various satellites and asteroids; but the various characters' backgrounds and memories evoke those settings vividly. One striking detail is the youth of many of the characters; the First Wrangler, Nkieruke Okoye, is eighteen years old, and four other characters are young; but already working for a living and treated as responsible adults—with responsibilities that the novel's crisis increases.

The Wreck of The River of Stars turns out to be in the same universe as the tetralogy that began with Firestar; and those novels, in turn, had appearances by the central characters from In the Country of the Blind. So all these novels form a common history, from an alternate past to a possible future. Here Flynn uses that history as the basis for a compelling story, one that needs no ideological content to make it worth reading.

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