Michael Flynn’s 1996 novel Firestar, first in a series, is the story of Elon Musk with some of the names and dates changed. Only kidding a little.(1) Musk is played by billionaire heiress Mariesa Van Huyten (and, boy, does spell check not like that name), who, despite family and social expectations, throws herself wholeheartedly into running the family business. She’s good at it, too.
But augmenting the family billions is just a step toward her real goals. Only a small group of very close friends know what she is about – reigniting space exploration, and finding some way to allay her deepest fears.
Flynn leaves few stones unturned in imagining how this would work out in real life. Politics local, national and family; business both internal and external; activists pure and malevolent with plenty of clueless thrown in; and, perhaps most surprisingly, schooling. This approach introduces a cast of dozens, but I didn’t have too much trouble following who was who, because of Flynn’s deft touch at characterization. You feel like you know somebody like that. Well, except maybe the super-rich – I know some people kind of like that.
The story weaves and bobs around the main threads: Mariesa’s obsession with space, her team of Prometheans, her infighting with her mother, her slowly growing relationship with a schoolteacher far below her station, and the engineers and pilots building and testing and eventually flying her spaceships. Another major thread is the work of Mentor Academies – the privately-run schools that Mariesa has taken over in order to solve one giant problem with her dreams of space: the overall lack of practical dreamers. Flynn is addressing here one aspect of the US space program that is often missed: after the moon landing, only geeks gave a damn about it. Everybody (well, everybody older than maybe 50) knows who John Glenn and Neil Armstrong are. But how many people can name 3 other astronauts, or describe what it is that the ISS is for? Even the spectacular pictures taken by the Hubble (which are the wallpaper for every computer I use at home or work) don’t seem to inspire more than a moment’s wonder in most people.
We follow the stories of a number of desultory students at a newly-acquired Mentor school who showed promise, and became ‘Mariesa’a Kids’. Their progress is nudged along and opportunities for them to expand their worlds given. They are even invited out for parties at the Van Huyten mansion. Plot complications and surprises abound.
The managers, engineers, pilots, teachers and students each have their crises to overcome, as Mariesa nudges and pushes the project forward. The financial, engineering, family and political challenges must be dealt with. Flynn jumps from thread to thread and crisis to crisis with great dexterity – the forward motion of the book is pretty constant.
One of the things I appreciated about this book is that business people were presented in 3 dimensions, like real people with warts and virtues. After reading stuff like William Gibson, in which money is nothing but a gradient of grey miasma that encompasses criminals and businessmen without distinction, it’s refreshing to see something more based in reality. Business people are just people, after all.
One caution: if you’re expecting escapist nonsense (and I love good escapist nonsense) this is not your book. There’s more political intrigue and interpersonal drama than gee-whiz sci-fi moments. The science is diamond-hard and the setting right now. No invading aliens or warp drive.
Firestar is more myth than blueprint. The story is meant to inspire our imagination, yes, but also the virtues and honor it will take to make dreams a reality. It tells us of our proper place in the world, a place we have not reached but can reach and are honor bound to try to reach. That is the realm of mythology.
As technology becomes more like magic, we fall more into magical thinking about it. Like the weather, technology just happens. Rather than striving for mastery, we deign to be entertained by our gadgets. The engineer who designed our toys was a manly-man back in the 50’s and early 60s, making rockets and reshaping the world – now, he’s just a geek, what he does is of no interest as long as the computer games don’t crash.
1. I googled “Firestar Elon Musk” because the idea that Musk had read this book, gotten inspired and decided to do it just will not go away. Unfortunately, if so, the interwebs are not aware of it.