NESFA Members' Reviews

The Wreck of the River of Stars

by Michael Flynn

Review by Jim Mann

Years ago, it was a truism that most hard SF was devoid of real characters. The real emphasis was the story and background, and the characters were typically two dimensional and there to help the story along. Modern hard SF has improved on this: the characters that inhabit its universes are more often fully developed. They are hard SF novels with real characters; what happens in the story is still often driven by the plot, by the background, by the science, but it's tempered by having real people responding to the situations. Michael Flynn, in The Wreck of the River of Stars, has written something even rarer: a novel of character—one in which most of what happens is driven by the characters, and the characters remain the center of everything—but told entirely in a hard SF context.

The River of Stars is an anachronism. It started life as a luxury liner: a ship powered by solar sales, catering to the rich. But the world changed: the fusion drive was invented, and the River became a tramp powered by fusion drives, but with a strange hybrid status: her sails, unused, remain stored away, as it’s owners never really wanted to give up the prestige of the solar sail she once was. And aboard here, a few of the crew are also anachronisms, looking fondly back at the days of sail.

The story starts with two events: the death of her captain and the failure of two of her four fusion drives due to a freak accident that destroys a coolant pump. Without those drives, the ship won't have enough breaking power to make port in the Jupiter system (referred to using the nautical term "Jupiter Roads"). The novel is, on one level, the story of the race against time to fix the engines, led by engineer Ram Batterji.

The problem is that several of the old-timers in the crew get the idea that the solar sail could help solve the problem. If they could deploy the sail, they could cruise into Jupiter Roads in style. So they set up a secret project to make sure the sails will work; they plan to only tell the acting captain once they are sure of their success. But in the process, they are so obsessed with getting this done that they take resources away from the vital engine repair effort.

Most of what happens in the book is not a direct result of the initial accident. Rather, it's driven by the characters and their interaction, both by the results of the solar sail project mentioned above and by the other ways a group of people in close proximity for years would interact. The characters are all real, and all flawed to some degree: these aren’t ideal Heinlein characters. Heinlein’s version of this novel would have been much shorter. The engineers would have solved the problem, period. If it were later Heinlein, problem solving would alternate with chapters of the characters having sex (though in ways that no personal problems result from it). Flynn has gone a different path. His characters, despite their flaws, are competent enough at their jobs that they could solve their problems. But the real reactions that humans have in such situations complicate matters.

Flynn also does a nice job of portraying what it must have felt like when the sail was replaced by steam to power ships, but translated to the future. He uses a style that evokes 19th century prose, which adds to the affect.

I’ve enjoyed Flynn in the past, though never enough to go out an buy his books in hardcover. I really wish that I had bought this one in hardcover, since it would have been on my Hugo nominations ballot.

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