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April 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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The Wreck of the River of Stars by Michael Flynn
Tor HCVR: ISBN: 0765300990 PubDate: April 2003
Review by EJ McClure

480 pages List price $27.95
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Michael Flynn takes us forward to a time when men were men and starships were made of gossamer filaments as the Crew of The River of Stars makes one last voyage the old fashioned way, by magsail. Flynn moves to a higher orbit with this one.  - ed

Those of us who go down to the sea in ships know that life underway is very different from the life of landlubbers. Once you sail over the horizon, you have to rely on your ship, your wits and your comrades to get you safely to your destination. Life at sea is monotonous, a grind of unbelievably hard work, insufficient sleep, and bland food. The boredom is punctuated by moments of intense wonder and sheer terror, shared and understood only by your shipmates.

The crew manifest of River of Stars has 16 names on it. And in the course her final voyage to Jupiter, you will come to know them all intimately, including Captain Evan Dodge Hand, who dies within the first ten pages.

Hand’s death left Stepan Gorgas, the cautious First Officer, nominally in charge (pending a vote by the shareholders). There was some awkwardness over that transition because the berth of sailing master was filled by Third Officer Eugenie Satterwaithe, who had herself once worn the four rings of the captaincy on her uniform, and aboard the River of Stars, no less, back in the days before the luxury sailing liner was converted to a tramp freighter powered by the new Farnsworth fusion drive. But by and large the crew accepted the de facto change of command, if only because they were preoccupied by more immediate problems than the death of the captain.

Such as the fact that two of the four Farnsworth drives had been put out of commission by a fluke accident.

Bhatterji, the chief engineer, had only nineteen days to fix them, and fire them to slow the ship before it crossed the balk line. And only one half-trained engineering mate to help him. Supremely confident in his skill and ingenuity, Bhatterji approached the challenge with an artist’s deliberate relish. The old magsail hands had a lot less confidence in the engineer’s methodical approach, for they understood that failure to fire the engines and begin deceleration before the balk line would mean that the ship would never slow down in time to enter the Jupiter orbit.

So a back-up plan was hatched, a really magnificent and daring idea. Led by Satterwaithe, the sailors decided to deploy the old rigging, and bring the River of Stars to her berth in fine style. The image of the Great Sail coruscating in the Jovian winds won over even crotchety old Corrigan, and he joined into the conspiracy to do a feasibility study in secret, to avoid raising expectations they might not be able to fulfill. And continued on in secrecy to tackle the repairs and pre-deployment checks out of fear that the narrow-minded Gorgas or the obsessive Bhatterji might forbid them their grand finale.

But on a ship as old and poorly stocked as the River of Stars, and a crew so small, the day inevitably came when someone had to “rob Peter to pay Paul.” Crew members exhausted from working night shifts on the sails and day shifts at their normal duties began to make mistakes. Just little ones. Material critical to both efforts ran short. Little adjustments had to be made to the ship’s logs to cover up the sail team’s activities--which The Lotus Jewel, the sysop, could have told them was no small matter when your ship is managed by an AI edging toward sentience. And so one thing lead to another with the inevitability of the Titanic gliding toward the iceberg.

The plot pacing is . . . majestic. Reading The Wreck of the River of Stars is rather like watching a tall ship gliding toward her berth. You have plenty of time to reflect on Twenty-four deCant’s search for her clone donor/“mother”, Nkieruke Okoye’s uncanny magic, Dr. Wong’s strange addictions, and the oddity of the Martian passenger Bigelow Fife, “the mushroom man with the clockwork mind.” The intricate maze of character, consequence and coincidence is sure to intrigue even the technologically-minded reader just along for the adventure.

Flynn’s writing style has matured over the years, and The Wreck of River of Stars has a fluidity that sets it apart from his earlier works. In River of Stars he effortlessly shifts points of view throughout the narrative, building an unusual rapport between the reader and each of his 16 characters. I cheered their triumphs and mourned their defeats even as I came to see how both were the inescapable consequences of their own choices.

If there ever was a character-driven “Hard” SF adventure story, this is it.

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