Tor, 2000, 365 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86137-0
I like to think that there’s an unspoken contract between author and reader, going well beyond any financial transaction possibly taking place. While the reader is willing to give out several hours’ worth of time and concentration, the author, in return, has to ensure that our investment is well spent. The book has to be entertaining, enlightening, educative or engaging, and preferably all that at once. See it as a coldly Return-On-Investment equation influenced by our materialistic culture or not, but most of us would rather read good books than bad.
This unspoken bond becomes more important as the length of the story increases. A bad short story remains a bad short story, but at least the most you’ll spend on it is a few minutes. But a bad trilogy will set your reading back for weeks, and the complete run of the Dune series will take a few months to even the fastest readers, with ever-diminishing returns.
The first book in Michael Flynn’s as-of-yet-untitled future history, Firestar, was a lengthy bore for several reasons, running from rampant naive libertarianism to endless setups to a comatic pace to unlikeable characters. Some liked it, but others just wished it went somewhere.
The second volume, Rogue Star, was much better. A nice pure-SF curveball coupled to some long-awaited payoffs and a more involving story all contributed at a much stronger volume. Even the characters seemed to do something interesting… and it all lead to a spiffy conclusion.
The third volume of the story (which doesn’t seem to be a trilogy) is a stunningly dull return to the first volume’s flaws, except that this time we can’t very well blame it on the need to define the characters.
A lot of the book’s 350+ pages is taken with a cyber-war that is not only long and tired, but also useless as most information gleaned during this episode could easily be revealed far more efficiently. The redundancy of this scenario, and the laboriousness with which most points are made, is emblematic of Flynn’s approach to the series. Whereas a snappy writer could have compressed the first volume to a few paragraphs and trimmed at least half the second volume, Flynn is just content with writing on and on and on. Lodestar could be resumed in a chapters and few would see the difference.
But no. Flynn is writing a future history, with all the extra smothering of extra realism-through-exhaustion that implies. He did his research, it shows, and the reader suffers from it.
It’s not as if I don’t want this story to be told; I think that Flynn is on to something, that his hundred-odd cast of characters and his willingness to detail everything is admirable. But he needs not only an editor with a chainsaw, but also a keyboard that sends electric shocks at each page break. As it stands, Lodestar is a pure waste of time, a sideway trip that doesn’t really advance the overall story.
(Nowhere is this better illustrated by the cover art, which represents a foreshadowing dream sequence near the end of the book, itself a preview for the fourth (fifth?) book in the series. If, like me, you saw the cover and intuited a sizeable jump between the second and third volume, then wait for the next one to come out.)
If ever you find yourself in a bookstore with your hands on Lodestar and an irresistible urge to find out what happens next in the series, read the very good epilogue, which tells you everything you need to know about the book. Then proceed directly to the next book.
If you haven’t started the series, don’t. Not only will you waste your time, but it looks as Firestar will be obsolete before the last volume is published.
It might be that Flynn needs money. It might be that we’re in for the “Trek-Movie curse” of odd-volumes-suck, even-volumes-rock. It might be that Flynn simply doesn’t care. But it’s certainly a breach of the unspoken contract between author and reader to read 350+ pages in a series book… to find out that nothing really happens.