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The Wreck of the River of Stars
Michael Flynn
Tor Books, 480 pages


Stephan Martiniere
The Wreck of the River of Stars
Michael Flynn
Michael Flynn lives in Easton, Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Nanotech Chronicles, In the Country of the Blind and Firestar.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Rogue Star

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Peter D. Tillman

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The MSS "River of Stars", the grandest of the great magsail liners, was launched in 2051. But the new Farnsworth fusion thrusters rang the death-knell for the magsails, and the now-obsolete liner was converted to fusion power in 2084. Two decades later, she has become a tramp freighter, bound for Dinwoody Poke, Jupiter space, on what will be her final voyage....

The Middle System -- Mars, the Belt, Jupiter space -- has not developed tidily, and the crew is made up of casualties of the great 21st-century space boom. The Wreck of the River of Stars is their story.

The Wreck of the River of Stars is a tour de force of character developement. We watch, riveted, as these motley misfits squabble, beef and try to cope, in the hermetic isolation of a ship becalmed in space -- two of her four Farnsworth engines have been ruined in a freak accident. The ship has 19 days to rebuild the engines, or she will pass the balk line, the point of no return, and drift endlessly away from settled space.

The repairs go slowly, but the ship's Engineer is a master of improvisation, and no one doubts he will fix the engines in time. No one, that is, but the oldest magsailors, who remember that the River of Stars still has her original sails, unused for decades. They decide to fix them up, just in case. No one likes, or trusts, the acting captain, so they don't tell him (or the Engineer) their plan -- which has a large share of nostalgia for the lost Age of Sail. And there isn't enough superconducting hobartium on board to repair both engines and sails....

The Wreck of the River of Stars is a classical tragedy. Hubris, small mistakes, misunderstandings, mishaps and personal conflicts collide, echo and feed back in a downward spiral that will ultimately wreck the great ship. It wouldn't be fair to reveal the ending, but it's not a happy one. There are no real villains here, just flawed people trying to cope, at times heroically. But the Fates are not on their side.

Michael Flynn tells his story in the third-person omniscient, with dry asides as he develops his characters. The omniscient narrator is the Greek chorus to the inevitable tragedy, which develops with an awful majesty. Flynn's writing is masterful. His pacing is grave, controlled, ironic. His characters will break your heart as they work, love, fight, grow, grieve and die. This is a wonderful book, easily Flynn's best. The Wreck of the River of Stars is set in the future of Flynn's popular near-future "Star" tetrology (also recommended), but is a stand-alone novel. This is the best hard-SF tragic novel of character yet written (though this is an uncrowded niche). And the cover art, by Stephan Martiniere, is just flat gorgeous. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2003 Peter D. Tillman

Pete Tillman has been reading SF for better than 40 years now. He reviews SF -- and other books -- for Usenet, "Under the Covers", Infinity-Plus, Dark Planet, and SF Site. He's a mineral exploration geologist based in Arizona. More of his reviews are posted at www.silcom.com/~manatee/reviewer.html#tillman .


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