Michael Flynn,
The Wreck of
The River of Stars

(Tor, 2003)

About the same time that Kim Stanley Robinson was making a major splash with his award-winning Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars), Michael Flynn was turning out a similarly complex, multi-viewpoint, near-future science-fiction epic. Firestar, Rogue Star, Lodestar and Falling Stars chronicled the life and obsession of Mariesa van Huyten, an American heiress with a near-paralyzing fear of an impending asteroid collision with the Earth. Over the course of four books she dedicates her life to the eradication of this threat, using her money, political influence and charisma to shape the direction of the space program.

The series is a tour de force stocked with wonderful, idiosyncratic characters. Charles Sheffield raved that Firestar was "the best book ever written on the science, people, and politics needed to move us into space -- to stay." And while the series didn't quite manage to hold its early momentum through to the close of the fourth book, it deserved wider recognition than it received.

So, what do each of these authors do for an encore?

Robinson broke away from Mars and turned his eye to Antarctica and has since gone on to produce an alternate history novel (The Years of Rice & Salt) and a pair of books centered on eco-collapse in near future America (Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below).

Flynn chose to set his next book in the same universe he'd built for the Firestar series, but moved the events forward in time. The book is set near the close of the 21st century aboard The River of Stars, a spaceship well past its prime. Once a luxury liner powered by magnetic sails, it's now outfitted with Farnsworth engines and serves as a tramp freighter barely able to stay financially afloat. Her crew is a motley assemblage of has-beens and misfits who are losing the battle to keep the old ship space-worthy.

Flynn also chose a decidedly different tone for Wreck. While maintaining a multi-viewpoint approach to the story, the narration is constructed as though it were being told from a machine intelligence perspective. And yet, clearly, the computer aboard the hybrid spaceship is not the entity relating the story.

There's a distancing quality to Flynn's writing in Wreck that manages to set the book apart stylistically but which doesn't allow the reader to feel much closeness to the characters. Consider the following scene involving the passenger, Bigelow Fife, and the ship's doctor who is upset over an accident that befell a young crewmember.

Fife was not at his best dealing with the irrational, which was unfortunate, given that Wong had so plentiful a supply of it. Emotional storms did not yield readily to his tools. There were no facts to ponder, no measurements he could make. Perhaps it would be best to allow the woman to cry herself sober; then, once she had calmed herself, he could explain the error in her reasoning and comfort her. It was a lousy idea, although the intention was good.

There's a remoteness, an almost Vulcan-rationality, to the language. It's a style that lends humor in places -- "Okoye ... chewed silently on a strip that suggested 'bacon' without the awful necessity of having once been a pig." But where Mr. Spock was always a wonderful counterpoint to the human frailties of Star Trek's other characters, here the ever-present lack of passion in the text fails to serve that function as effectively. All of the flaring emotions of a crew confronting impending doom are reported through the coldly rational lens of the anonymous narrator. As a result it takes a long while before the story grabs hold -- longer than many readers may have the patience to wait.

The Wreck of The River of Stars did slowly win me over thanks to Flynn's unusual cast of characters and the fact that his detached narrator provides Flynn with the opportunity to explore the terrible extent to which his characters misunderstand and misjudge one another. But this is certainly not as strong an outing as the books in the Firestar sequence.

It will be interesting to see where Flynn ventures with his next novel. It's likely time to give this future-history a rest and strike out into new territory. While creating entire universes is hard work, it's work the best science fiction writers take on with passion and immense creativity. Flynn looks to be a writer with the talents to forge a host of intriguing future-histories. Only time will tell.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
6 May 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.