In its day The River of Stars was the queen of magnetic sailing ships, its crew the envy of sailors everywhere, its passengers among the elite of solar society. But at the opening of Michael Flynn's The Wreck of The River of Stars, that day is long gone. The River has been retrofitted as a long-haul tramp with the fusion drive that made sails obsolete, crewed by cast-offs and misfits. The mast and sixty-five kilometer sail lie folded in the forward hull, forgotten by all but a few aging sailors. The Wreck of The River of Stars tells the story of how the sail is once again unfurled, and of the tragedy that follows.
"As Robert A. Heinlein did and all too few have done since," Harry Turtledove is quoted as saying on the book jacket, "Michael Flynn writes about the near future as if he'd been there and was bringing back reports of what he'd seen." Indeed, The Wreck of The River of Stars is thrilling in its rigorously imagined, meticulously textured language and traditions -- one gets the sense that Flynn has actually served on one of these ships, as Herman Melville once crisscrossed the Pacific on a brig in search of whales.
While Flynn lacks Melville's sensitivity to language, he still achieves sentences where a sense of wonder converges with sailors' daily jargon to bring a time and a place to life: "In his sailing days, Corrigan had danced out among the shrouds, splicing cables, unjamming the reefing motors, sometimes just sitting in the crow's nest high out the mast, surrounded by the fleeting colors of ionized waste gasses, alone with the universe, cupped in the patient, persistent microgravity of the forward thrust of the sail." The Wreck of The River of Stars is filled with confident passages like this one, in which the characters are exhilarated by the technology that extends their perception and power.
Heinlein and Flynn may share a particular skill in writing about the future as though they have participated in it, but the style and narrative strategy Flynn deploys in The Wreck of The River of Stars is radically different from anything that Heinlein ever attempted. Heinlein learned to be a writer during a time -- the thirties and forties -- when Ernest Hemingway was universally worshipped. Hemingway's key innovation -- shaped by journalistic discipline and childhood pulp reading -- was to conceal the inner lives of his characters, allowing their motivations to emerge through dialogue and action instead of authorial explanation. The author became a kind of reporter, creating the illusion that his stories are based more on empirical observation than god-like world building. Hemingway's characters' motivations often remain mysterious to the reader until the very close of the story, when some gesture or tossed-off line -- "Isn't it pretty to think so?" -- suddenly reveals the feelings and motivations that were there all along, driving their choices.
It is a peculiarly masculine narrative mode that was easily absorbed by the detective genre and golden-age science fiction, in which strong, silent, damaged men struggled against mysteries that fundamentally challenged their ontological framework. In Robert Heinlein's quick, self-consciously unliterary stories, men are the sum of what they know, as revealed by what they are able to do. In the post-Hemingway age, writers didn't waste time analyzing their characters, a tactic which many of them openly considered talky and effeminate.
The Wreck of The River of Stars harks back to the age before that age, when authors were not obligated to artfully conceal the extrasensory emotional worlds of their characters. The novel unfolds as a kind of schematic diagram explaining the relationships between Flynn's characters, with the function of each component carefully tagged and situated in relation to other components. While the characters and their functions are often mysterious to themselves and each other, nothing is concealed from the reader.
In one passage, for example, ship's engineer Bhatterji shows off to The River's lone passenger, the self-absorbed Bigelow Fife, who covertly watches without knowing that Bhatterji loves the attention. "He was a virtuoso of the machine shop and didn't mind a bit if everyone else knew too," writes Flynn, "Life was a goddam performance, and that meant there ought to be applause. That he might appear clownish (or worse, inefficient) to an onlooker did not occur to him, though it certainly did to Bigelow Fife, who scowled and made notes. It was a natural mistake on Fife's part. Bhatterji was not an artist, but a performer. The critical standards are different."
Taken by itself, this passage may not stand out in a contemporary context, but The Wreck of The River of Stars is composed entirely of such incidents, broken up by dialogue. It's an antiquated style that seems intended to recall Herman Melville and Henry James, one that flies in the face of 21st century American storytelling wisdom. Taken on its own terms, however, does Flynn make it work? The answer is a short-term no and a long-term yes.
It doesn't work when Flynn's demiurgic insight into his characters' every intent gives license to pompous judgement, recalling the most pedantic fiction of the 19th century (the kind of fiction against which Hemingway rebelled). In an unhurried, sometimes plodding pace, Flynn painstakingly delineates every nuance of each interaction, often opening or concluding his paragraphs with aphorisms that seek to instruct readers on the facts of life. "The line between compassion and desire is a fine one," reads one typical line, "The heart does not always note it." Again and again, we hear about Corrigan's need for order and Wong's yearning for love, Satterwaithe's will to power and Ratline's too-early loss of innocence. Every fifty pages or so the narrative grinds to a halt while Flynn tells us something that we have already figured out.
So much for the short no -- now what of the long-term yes? While Flynn's method has its limitations, it also allows him to gradually build a narrative machine whose denouement exerts a great power over the reader. As The River drifts to its doom, a cold sadness weaves its way into the story. The sadness arises not from the wreck itself -- a foregone conclusion, present in the very title -- but from the accumulation of miscues and misunderstandings between the characters, which persist until the very end. We see how and when The River and its crew could have been saved, but the people who must live in the story do not see what we see, lost as they are in their own subjectivities and desires. In the book's final chapters, their blunders resolve themselves into a tragic engine in which all the components have a purpose. Most of the characters get what they want in the end, which is exactly what dooms the ship that ties them all together.
Thus do triumph and tragedy merge into an ultimately satisfying whole. For all its flaws, The Wreck of The River of Stars emerges finally as a lovely tale. If it is not told as well as it could have been, it is at least told with integrity and intelligence.
Copyright © 2003 Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith is the interim Executive Director of the Independent Press Association in San Francisco. His reviews and criticism have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the SF Bay Guardian, Interzone, Infinity Plus, and numerous other publications. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.