The Wreck of The River of Stars
by Michael Flynn
Tor, 2003, ISBN 0-765-30099-0
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
The River of Stars used to be one of the grand ships of the space lanes, a luxury magnetic sail passenger liner. Then she got older, and got demoted to carrying colonists to Mars. Then the fusion drive was developed, and The River lost a race, and started losing money, and a fusion drive was installed, and she became, of ficially, a hybrid ship. In reality, the sails and rigging were never used again. Eventually, a consortium bought her to keep her from being scrapped, and she became a tramp freighter.
Then her latest captain, Evan Dodge Hand, died while en route from Mars to Jupiter. And then her luck turned bad.
When two of her four Farnsworth engines are wrecked by a freak encounter with an asteroid (even in the asteroid belt, space is mostly empty), the crew, minus Evan Hand, has to get her fixed quickly or they'll miss turnover and not reach Jupiter orbit when Jupiter's there. Unfortunately, the crew minus Evan Hand is a disaster waiting to happen. Some of them are survivors of the old sailing days, and regard engines as an abomination. Some of them are of the generat ion that grew up regarding sails as old-fashioned and obviously inferior, while the cargo wranglers and the engineer's mate, Miko, are too young to regard sails as anything but stories out of a romantic past. Stepan Gorgas, the new acting captain, is obsessed with detail and contingency, and very slow to make decisions. He tends to assume that everyone has worked out the contingencies as thoroughly as he has, and that therefore when he gives order, it will be followed immediately without need for further explanation or follow-up. Most of the crew has come to assume that if Gorgas really wants something, he'll ask again. The engineer, Ram Bhatterji, is a firm believer in spontaneity and inspiration, not careful and detailed planning. 'Abd al-Aziz Corrigan, the second officer, is rigidly by-the-rules, hates the unexpected, and finds Gorgas and Bhatterji about equally incomprehensible. The third officer, Eugenie Satterwaithe, is also the sailing master (required by the ship's hybrid designation), and was briefly the captain of The River in the last of her sailing days and when she was converted to fusion drive. This explains why the cargo master, Moth Ratline, the longest-serving member of the crew (he came aboard as a cabin boy in the luxury liner days), tends to address her as "captain", to the ever-lovin' delight of Gorgas and Corrigan.
From there on down the characters start to get strange.
It's important to note that this mismatch of characters apparently worked, under Evan Hand. He chose his crew based on the potential he saw in them, put the effort forth to make sure he got that potential out of him while he was in command, and didn't properly think through what would happen if he weren't there.
None of the crew is incompetent. Not one of them intends to be irresponsible. They're all trying to do their best to save the ship--but in the right way, their way. And Bhatterji and Satterwaithe, in particular, aren't really trying to save the same ship.
The old sailors of the crew--Corrigan, Satterwaithe, Ratline (and Hand until he died)--meet for dinner every Thursday night, and are joined from time to time by other officers or senior crew and, on this trip, the passenger, Bigelow Fife. When Bhatterji's repairs start to look like taking too long and not being especially carefully planned, this little group starts to think about the sails, and decide to check them out and do whatever repair work is necessary so that, when the time comes, they can present Gorgas with another option, sailing The River into port one last time. And so begins a great struggle for resources, on the mundane level, and, on another level, the soul of the ship.
It's no spoiler to say what the title says: this is a tragedy. What's important is that it's a well-done tragedy; no one here does anything stupid just because the plot requires it. These characters, with their mix of virtues and flaws and virtues that are flaws would make just these kinds of mistakes. You might want to whack them on the head with the book, but you won't want to whack Flynn on the head with it.
This is a good read, well worth a few hours' time.