The Wreck of the River of Stars
a book by Michael Flynn
©2006 Trevor Mander
Stories of struggles and breaking through adversity are ones in which even failures can be powerfully moving. Heroes and their legacy are the stories that inspire and encourage us the most. The Wreck of the River of Stars is not one of those inspiring stories. The back cover slogan of “Tragedy in Space” would certainly apply if we sent the book there.
The reviews found on the internet relating to this book are strangely divided between those strongly affirming of the book and those strongly disparaging. This review was written before any of those other ones were read but would be an example of the latter. The book is really a train wreck. It is, in a word, awful. Michael Flynn may be a winner of the Heinlein award for some other writing but all this proves is that the books to buy are actually the ones by the original sci-fi legends like Heinlein, Asimov, Dickson, Pournelle, Niven, and Clark. There are few redeeming qualities in the book and my review is thus forced to simply list the problems. Some of these could be spoilers.
There is a ridiculous overuse of technical language. The only use can be as useless filler. Every page is lost in this meaningless verbosity. The more filler, the less story. It masquerades as depth but in actuality is a cheap alternative to writing something interesting. An example from page 241 will suffice to summarise the entire story:
“The motor for the -”A pause while Okoye no doubt consulted Ratline, for the words she spoke were then carefully pronounced. “- for the northeast mailsail delongator has been reconnected, and the messenger line has been fed through the intake winch. Mr Ratline is preparing to carry it forward to the, uh, way-grommet on the topmast.”
Another example of painful writing technique as seen on page 258 where a common idiom “bring me up to speed” is exchanged for “bring me up to matching velocity.” The point about idiom is that it doesn’t try to use technically correct language. You don’t change “the beautiful sunset” to “the beautiful Earth rotation.” It doesn’t work, it just sounds lame.
Sci-fi Plot Holes
Space is big and so is the list of inconsistencies found in the story. First, it is just not believable that the radio broadcasting ability is not working for a month because of the absence of a made-up superconducting element. Radios are not some magical complicated future device. There is no excuse for not being able to fix it and even if they couldn’t, the lack of radio contact would have spurred others to mount a rescue mission given the technology described.
Second, a repeated problem is not knowing exactly where the ship is. This is as silly as saying you know the location of the moon but don’t know where the Earth that you’re standing on is. Determining exact location is not a problem with so many planets visible that bearings can be taken from.
Third, the space radar is said to only work for things “in close range” but in space there is nothing like air or mountains to hinder the “range” of radar signals. They keep going until they bounce off something. In a related issue, the space radar apparently drains so much energy that the fusion motors, superconducting coils, and entire ship’s power systems are drained by simply sending a single “long range” ping. The combination of surprisingly plentiful space junk and dodgy radar seems too much of a plot contrivance than realistic science.
The story is essentially a sexual one rather than a sci-fi one. The author has placed a sexual motive and focus onto the characters and every private thought. This starts with a planned and then attempted homosexual drugged rape of a teenager. That particular incident ends with the young person unveiled as a female. She then runs around naked and slightly drugged yelling “F me” being entirely miffed that the old man hadn’t done the deed. She then goes on to spy on all the other liaisons happening on the space ship. Again, this topic is on every page in the book. It is a sexual story as opposed to a love story because it follows the changing desires of every one of the 16 characters. There is no bond the reader gets with any of the crew, just a feeling that the story is about a weird escapist hedonism. We are even told in the first few pages that the ship used to be basically a huge brothel. That this continues to be the whole point of the ship (and the story) is stated by the ship’s doctor on page 271.
A 15 year old becomes pregnant to a 16 year old. Some discussion is made about why she is not going to have an abortion. The author explains to us that “termination” is ethically just a cultural phenomenon and not founded on any recognition of the intrinsic value of human life, ie. the author wishes to convey a pro-abortion perspective. In addition, the young people were apparently only having sex because they were bored and the author reminds us several times about how fun it is. This is pretty blunt preaching from Flynn and his church of self. The young couple are then married. The girl is constantly described as being a mature woman while the 16 year old boy is constantly derided as being a young naive boy. The only reason there must be for this is to try and legitimise the age of the girl involved.
Action, or Not
After the first 200 pages (out of the book’s total 534) the Wreck begins in full swing. This leaves less time for sex so it is relegated to only every second or third page. But we still find out that the ships original engineers liked spying on everyone doing the deed (p215) and that the escape shuttle pilot seats are great places to think about doing it too (p227). But just when you think a real story might break out along with the fight you realise that 1) the fight is over a girl and 2) as the officer is being fixed up by the doctor he almost has sex with her too (p271). All the suicides towards the end of the story are a particularly bad slant on a story that never attempts to show the best of human character. Self-sacrifice is instead the result of either purely selfish desires or accident.
Alcohol and powerful mind altering drugs are mentioned and used throughout the story. The ships doctor is especially keen on the latter and uses her own special mix to raise addiction in a passenger so she can have better and more sex with him. That this leads to depression and a bad end is not surprising. Once again, however, the author takes the lowest road possible and blames the situation simply on past relationships.
Stories of heroes give a reader a positive example to aspire to. It seems that on this space ship there are none and being left only with the author’s nihilism is, indeed, a tragedy.