The Wreck of the River of Stars, by Michael Flynn

The Wreck of the River of Stars
The Wreck of the River of Stars, by Michael Flynn (Tom Doherty Associates, 2003) 

This sci-fi work has been said to have “tour de force character development” and “masterful writing”. I was looking forward to devouring all 480 pages of an interesting proposition – a space ship powered by both Farnsworth nuclear fission engines and sails made of superconducting hoops.

Technologies referred to in the novel

It’s worth noting that neither of the two technologies is new (see notes below on superconductivity and the Farnsworth engine.) How Flynn applies and expands on these concepts as a narrative device, is quite original though. He juxtaposes the energy source of levitation at the level of space flight (with sails tens of kilometers in length and masts made of aerogel), which has echoes of ancient sea-faring vessels and seamanship, against the modern (in outer space flight terms) Farnsworth engines that replaced the “old-school” form of sailing though the galaxies. This is the core theme and tension of the novel – progression versus recollection; the old crew vs the new; even the ship’s current AI being disconnected from the old systems and the locked, deserted, once-glamorous parts of itself.

Plot structure and dramatic tension

The drama amongst the crew is played out when the ship hits some space debris – rocks, basically – which rips out the external parts of its engine. The chief engineer, who is hell-bent on solving the problem, no matter how many crew members’ lives it takes, battles on to regain power while the ship drifts dangerously close to an asteroid field and sure destruction.

The old captain dies in the first few pages of the story, and his reluctant replacement is more interested in playing battle simulations in his cabin than on being captain. Some members of his crew, who have memories of how the sails used to work, find, borrow and steal materials to get the sails up and running as an alternative power source, leading to mutiny. They have visions of the ship sailing gloriously into her destined harbour, with everyone that sees her gob-smacked with amazement.

In the end, the adversarial relationships and plotting (including the ship’s AI sabotaging itself) cause the journey to end in death and disaster. “He stared mournfully at the viewscreen where The River of Stars receded from him into the Void and he wiped away a tear, for he did love beautiful things, and wept to lose them.” The reason for the unraveling of the systems and everything going awry turns out to be the dead captain who had picked up refugees, odd-balls, fleeing suspects and loners and made them into a crew. For a brief moment it worked, and then it did not.

Characters

The characterization in the novel is – as people have said – masterful, and Flynn creates intriguing beings, from long-limbed, spidery types who were born into low-gravity worlds, to clones and an African in an ongoing conversation with her forefather spirits. He invents words to match his creations, or reinvents them for his own purposes, for instance “sysop”, the term for the operator who senses the universe outside the ship though her own neural net – a derivation of the actual meaning of the term which is an administrator of a multi-user computer system. His description of outer space in the 2080s, the ship, and the sails are probably the most fascinating, and plausible, parts of the book.

Writing style – Sci-Fi sea tale

However, it is Flynn’s lauded writing style which is a problem, or perhaps it is the editing of the work. Granted, 400+ pages is long, however, recurring stylistic devices do become noticeable and irritating. Flynn’s plot is that of a classic “sea-story” or sea story – no surprises there. A sea-story features the enclosed setting of life on board a ship, in which a social world is portrayed in miniature, with characters cut off from the outside world and forced to interact in cramped and stressful conditions. In this instance, Flynn used the typical sea story themes such as differences between seamen and officers, bullying behavior, mutiny, exotic locales on shore/planet, naval activity and battles, struggles against treacherous weather, shipwrecks and explorations of inhospitable areas where no-one has gone before, etc. etc. Even sea shanties! Think of it as “Master and Commander”, sci-fi style. He therefore uses the basic plot components of classic story-telling, particularly repetitive language and indications to the reader of the time-line:

  • P. 154 – “There is a story told about Corrigan the boy. This is the story.”
  • P. 211 – “Fife thought it the most lonely death imaginable, although he was to learn otherwise later.”
  • P. 15 – “And so it was that in 2084 of the Common Era…”
  • Pp. 15, 300, 306, 346, 413, 414, etc.  – beginning a sentence with “Now, …”

Too much of a good thing gets tiresome, but even more so is the self-indulgent phrases he comes up with.  It would have been the job of an editor to prune them out. Notable ones are: “Corrigan enjoyed the play of numbers…They gamboled. There could be no other word for it. [His words, not mine!] Sometimes, in the gyre, he forgot that they were to align themselves for some purpose…” (p.387). This is a nod to Lewis Carroll’s 1872 “Jabberwocky”, which begins, “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe”, and a pun on a ship’s maneuver of a doing a gybe or a jibe. On p. 291 he has another Moment of Indulgence: “She was peering at the bends in the corridor, but Miko had vanished tangentially, not circumferentially, and was now watching her from the peepery.”  And on p. 299: “But by then damsel, drink, and danish had vanished alike.”  Alliteration overkill in all instances.

And sometimes his word choice is just plain obscure, sending the reader to a thesaurus. P. 448 – “stannic light” (containing tin?) and “something chthonic” (earthy); p. 441 – “asymptotic path” (direct line), etc.

Conclusion

Normally I don’t mind reading Sci-Fi if, like with Iain Banks or William Gibson, I know the words have no semblance to real-life concepts and I’m happy to drift in a fog of incomprehension and supposition. However, it irritates me when I know the word exists but I don’t understand the context and have to look it up. That is like Julian Barnes’ writing – just a tad too superior for the common reader to comprehend. Despite the language issues, the book is engrossing and entertaining. As Sci-Fi, it has moments of sheer genius. It takes skill to stretch a reader’s suspension of disbelief to such lengths, literally and figuratively.  I’ll probably read more of his writing. I just hope his publisher sorts out the style issues and the typos.


Superconductivity and the Farnsworth Engine

Superconductivity has been researched for decades. At very low temperatures, the electric and magnetic properties of some materials such as lead, mercury and some oxides radically change. These materials become superconductors: they stop showing any electric resistance and expel the magnetic fields. This phenomenon, which was discovered a hundred years ago, is quite an impressive illustration of quantum physics on a human scale: the many free electrons of the material merge into a quantum wave which spreads across very large distances. […] Today, superconductivity is an extremely active field of research which includes solving the original mechanism, creating new superconductors, and finding yet new applications. Superconductivity also enables spectacular feats of levitation. Thus, the large hadron collider (LHC) of the CERN in Geneva uses several thousands superconducting magnets spread on the 27-km circumference, producing a magnetic field four times higher than classical electromagnets, with an electric intake ten times smaller (considering the power consumed by the cryogenic cooling device).” (Source: supraconductivite.fr)

The nuclear-powered “Farnsworth Engine” referred to in the book, is based on the “fusor” concept. “A fusor uses electric fields to do work on ions, heating them to fusion conditions. It is a form of Inertial electrostatic confinement fusion. The machine has a voltage between two metal cages inside a vacuum. Positive ions fall down this voltage drop, building up speed. If they collide in the center, they can fuse.

US3530497_-_Hirsch-Meek_fusor
U.S. Patent 3,530,497 US3530497 — Hirsch–Meeks fusor

A Farnsworth–Hirsch fusor, is the most common type of Fusor. This design came from the combination of work by researchers Philo T. Farnsworth in (1964) and Robert L. Hirsch in (1967).Previously, a variant of fusor had been purposed by researchers William Elmore, James L. Tuck, and Ken Watson at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1959 though they never built the machine. This design aimed to make a virtual cathode by trapping electrons in a positive cage in the center. Ideally, the electrons act like the negative wire cage in the Farnsworth–Hirsch design.

In the early 1980s, disappointed by the slow progress on “big machines”, a number of physicists took a fresh look at alternative designs. George H. Miley at the University of Illinois picked up on the fusor and re-introduced it into the field. A low but steady interest in the fusor has persisted since. An important development was the successful commercial introduction of a fusor-based neutron generator. From 2006 until his death in 2007, Robert W. Bussard gave talks on a reactor similar in design to the Fusor, now called Polywell, that he stated would be capable of useful power generation. Most recently, the fusor has gained popularity among amateurs, who choose them as home projects due to their relatively low space, money, and power requirements. An online community of ‘fusioneers’, The Open Source Fusor Research Consortium, or Fusor.net, dedicated to reporting developments in the world of fusors and aiding other amateurs in their projects. The site includes forums, articles and papers done on the fusor, including Farnsworth’s original patent, as well as Hirsch’s patent of his version of the invention.”


Author profile

Michael F. Flynn
Michael F. Flynn

Michael Francis Flynn (born 1947) is an American statistician and science fiction author. Nearly all of Flynn’s work falls under the category of hard science fiction, although his treatment of it can be unusual since he has applied the rigor of hard science fiction to “softer” sciences such as sociology in works such as In the Country of the Blind. Much of his short fiction has appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Read more in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia.