August Books 4) The Wreck of The River of Stars

4) The Wreck of The River of Stars, by Michael Flynn

Years and years ago I remember reading a fantastic book about a cargo ship sinking in the North Sea. There were only about half a dozen characters who all abandoned ship in the space of forty minutes; the author sketched them each memorably and effectively and it took about a hundred pages. (Has anyone else read that book? Can you remember what it was called, and who it was by?)

Michael Flynn has done much the same here, though with a dozen or so characters and a timescale of a couple of weeks rather than a few minutes. Not all the characters survive – indeed, the captain dies on the fourth page, with over 500 pages left to go – but all are depicted with great depth and compassion. Flynn picks up beautifully on those little misunderstandings where what appears to be a clear statement of fact, or even a sympathetic remark, to the speaker is picked up as an intentional slight or insult by the addressee, or by other listeners.

Each crew member has a formally assigned role, but each comes from a different part of Flynn’s vividly imagined solar system, bringing their own personal ghosts to the ship, working with, arguing with, and occasionally having sex with each other in a series of tightly controlled shifts of narrative perspective. In what is essentially a rather grim stopry, there are occasional shafts of humour as well: at one difficult moment, the ship’s cook decides to eschew the usual synthetic food, “thinking that a feast upon real mutton would relax the crew and ease the pressure – a sort of pascal lamb” – I had to read that a couple of times before I got the joke.

At first I was so interested in the people that the setting of the spaceship in trouble felt like a mere backdrop for the character interactions. But then the ship itself emerged as an interesting player in its own right: both technically, in terms of the challenge faced by the crew in reviving its solar sails to add crucial extra momentum after its ion thrusters are disabled in an accident, and in character terms, as its AI system starts to behave more and more as a character in itself. None of the lazy spaceship = Napoleonic warship stuff that so annoyed me with Honor Harrington: the engineering issues here do involve a certain amount of handwaving (what, I wonder, is “hobartium” when it’s at home) but it all hangs together as an independent construction.

Anyway, very good stuff, and I’m surprised I hadn’t heard much about this book before. Looking at Flynn’s bibliography I see he wrote the very silly Fallen Angels with Niven and Pournelle, but also “The Clapping Hands of God”, my favourite of last year’s Hugo nominees in the novelette category (it came second, beaten by “The Faery Handbag”). I’ll look out for his other stuff now.

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