Falling Stars, Michael J. Flynn

Tor, 2001, 492 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56184-8

It took four volumes, more than two thousand pages and five years of waiting, but Flynn’s Firestar saga is finally complete. A long, often boring but ultimately satisfying saga, Flynn’s series now forms the unified whole it’s supposed to be. It was about time he completed it too, given the slide of the first volume’s 1999-2000 segment in alternate history.

I wasn’t personally too fond of Flynn’s series of book. I thought the first volume, Firestar (1996), was a long, depressing and ultimately meaningless near-future piece. I was much kinder on the second book, 1998’s Rogue Star, which finally started using all the pieces set up in the first volume to build something interesting. The fact that the story started diverging from its hard-SF all-cards-on-table origins to something affected by an unpredictable curveball was also quite intriguing (though in retrospect it makes perfect sense.) Things were back to full disappointment with Lodestar (2000), a slimmer volume that nevertheless felt interminable given its irrelevant nature. Much time and reader goodwill was wasted by the useless side-trip of the third volume, which eventually proves to be useless as the fourth volume concludes.

A large part of Falling Stars‘s appeal is that this is sold as the final volume of the series. At last, the complex relationships between the hundred-odd characters of the series come to fruition, with heroic sacrifices, long-awaited reunions and the passing of the torch to a new generation. Several of the unpleasant characters introduced in previous volumes finally turn out to be not so bad after all, earning a redemption of sort. After sitting though endless hundred pages of setups, we finally get the pay-offs.

I may be slightly more sarcastic than I deserve to be; the Firestar series’ tone is firmly realistic, with a careful attention given to the nuts and bolts of complex space endeavors. Describing the intricate details and weaving the character’s evolving relationships takes time, but the overall impression is vastly more believable than the usual SF tale. It’s sad, then, to find out that some shortcuts used by Flynn in the first volume (such as having a good bunch of his important characters attend the same high school) come back to haunt and dog his realism. Why spend pages describing financial back-room dealings if the oh-so-diversely-exceptional protagonists can just kick back and chat about high-school while saving the world?

Even then, I think that the Firestar series represents a significant step forward for Michael Flynn as a writer. He’s no literary superstar, and indeed the stop-and-go-and-stop pacing of his series proves that he has a lot to learn about structure, but it’s a fair assessment that thanks to this saga, his stature as a hard-SF writer has grown enormously. Now that he’s gotten this didactic 2000+ pages story out there, maybe he’ll feel more comfortable in attempting something snappier as his next effort. (Naturally, the dangling ends left at the end of the fourth volume -yes, there are more than a few-, imply that Flynn might discreetly slip in a fifth volume while we’re not looking.)

Alas, we now come to the essential question any reviewer has to answer at the end of a series; is it worth reading? Clearly, I’m happy to be done with the series myself. I’d still hesitate, however, to recommend the four books to a neophyte reader. There’s simply too much dead time in the first and third volume to be fully worth it. The series does work as sort of a multi-decade “family” saga, so if you like that particular genre, you might get more enjoyment out of the series than I did. If you’re pressed for time, you might start reading the second book, the epilogue of the third, the last and still get most of what you need to know. Maybe, one day, a competent editor will cut whatever needs to be cut and produce a satisfying duology. Until then, you’ll have to be a Flynn aficionado, a near-future hard-SF nut or an unusually indulgent reader to plunge head-first in this series.

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