The Wreck of the River of Stars, by Michael Flynn
Short Form: Excellent book. Go read it now.
It took me a long time to read this book – about three weeks, which might usually lead one to think it wasn’t gripping or was a chore. Not true, for two reasons related to the reader, not the book. I have a flaw as a consumer of entertainment – I get too emotionally attached, sometimes, to characters, and find it hard to just keep reading when it’s pretty clear there’s an unpleasant doom coming – and, in a story about a shipwreck in space, that’s going to happen. (Heck, I never actually finished East of Eden, even though I love Steinbeck – the sense of doom was just too much. Yea, I’m a wimp.) So, I needed to put down the book more than once. This is a tribute, rather, to Flynn’s ability to create characters a reader can love.
Second, during those weeks, a dear young man, a friend and friend of the family, died suddenly and unexpectedly. So a story that puts a bunch of young adults in mortal danger was just too much, from time to time. Anyway, on to the book!
Flynn builds a world of interplanetary commerce in the late 21st century. There are settlements and outposts in earth orbit, on the moon and Mars, on the moons or in orbit of Jupiter and Saturn. It’s a time like the last half of the 19th century, of bustling exploration and commerce, when steam engines were added to wooden sailing ships, creating short-lived hybrids, destined to be obsoleted by iron and diesel. The River of Stars, the greatest solar sail ever built, is such a hybrid, only in 21st century space.
In Flynn’s future world, the ocean deep of space was first breached by solar sailing ships, huge vessels with even huger superconducting sails many kilometers across, that took great skill to fly. The early astronauts (Planetnauts? Solarsystemnauts?) developed a culture much like the one among the sailors of the 19th century – great honor is given to the masters of the craft, the captains and sailing masters, with crews of mates under them. On board, your social position is largely determined by your rank and berth. Core people – the sailmaster, the navigator – have more prestige than more peripheral crew – the doctor, the cook. Civilians, on the other hand, are a sort of separate species. This is a dynamic known to all highly specialized teams with concrete goals to achieve.
Vast crews are required to sail these ships. As in the great sails of the 19th century, a ship needed to have on board everything it might take to keep her afloat for months without putting into port. So, in addition to food and water and air, you have machine shops and raw materials for building replacement parts. Like the ships carpenter of olden times, the crew of a solar sail must be able to effect repairs in isolation.
The steam engine equivalent is the Farnsworth cage drive: a fusion drive that generates more power than the sails and requires a much smaller crew. The River of Stars, once the greatest and most prestigious ship of all, on which flew the mighty and famous, has been reduced to a tramp hauler by the introduction of Farnsworth cages. Retrofitted with 4 cages, and stripped of most of its luxury fittings, the ship is classified as a hybrid – the sails remain, but have not been unfurled in 20 years. However, the laws require that the ship maintain a nominal sailing master and crew, more for form’s sake than anything real.
This is the background. The story revolves around the current crew of 14 misfits, put together by Captain Evan Dodge Hand, and one last passenger, for a trip out to Jupiter. Disaster strikes – and the passenger and crew need to pull together if they are to survive.
The first 1/3 of the book seemed a little slow, but that may have been just me, for the reasons described above. Flynn has to introduce us to a large cast of characters, and lay the groundwork for their interactions and, ultimately, their fates. “Ship”, the AI designed to manage all the routine reads and adjustments during flight, becomes yet another character.
All the characters are loveable in some way, even those who seem harsh or cruel. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and many hold grudges or other hurts. These are revealed over time and become factors in the ultimate fate of the ship and its crew. Moments of great beauty and heroism, of the least likely coming through big, of tragic loss – it’s a modern Greek tragedy.
The deftness and poetry with which Flynn unfolds the tragedy is beautiful, and reminded me of Steinbeck in many places. When reviewing Eifelheim, I referred to Flynn’s characters as ‘warty’ – that’s about right. Nobody is a goody-goody, and nobody turns out to have a heart of gold in a sappy way. But some do find unexpected goodness in themselves, and rise to occasions in both surprising yet fitting ways.
BTW: if I ever get cats, Ratline and Satterwaithe are in play as names.
Flynn has mentioned a couple times on his blog that this book was more a critical than a financial success. I can kind of see that. It was not an entirely easy read, but required a bit of reader investment. I suppose he can take comfort in how Melville was eventually vindicated for Moby Dick (talk about requiring reader investment). Well, I guess that Herman having been dead for a while when that happened could be seen as a downside…
All in all, the book is a masterpiece. It’s a sad masterpiece, a Greek tragedy, but ultimately beautiful and moving. That Flynn achieves all this in a hard science fiction setting is remarkable. Yard Sale of the Mind says: check it out.