The Wreck of the River of Stars, Michael Flynn

Tor, 2003, 534 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34033-X

This is a review about a book, but like most reviews about a book it suggests more players than simply a review and a book. It suggests a reader and an author. It also suggests a reviewer as an actor in the melodrama that is a review. It suggests that every word of the review shines as much on the critic than the readers of the review who may (but not always) be also readers of the book. This is all very simple, or as simple as human affairs can ever aspire to be.

The book may be called The Wreck of the River of Stars and its author may be Michael Flynn, but wouldn’t it be too quick to simply reduce this review to a mere work and a mere man? Isn’t it true that this book is the product of an entire genre called Science Fiction, of generations of writers all building upon the foundations left by previous writers? This review itself is the product of decades of reading, of writing, of confronting the reviewer with the harsh realities of the outside world as it exists outside the critic’s mind. This review, already quite simple, will turn out to contain multitudes.

While the reviewer would want to discuss the novel, it would be more exact to say that, as with the vast majority of reviews in the history of humankind’s literary progress, it confronts an existing set of prejudices to a new work to be absorbed in the reviewer’s mind. That The Wreck of the River of Stars is a psychological drama masquerading as hard Science Fiction is less important than the critic’s preexisting prejudices about psychology, drama, masquerades, hardness, science and fiction. Deeper analysis is left to the readers, who will undoubtedly see the intricacies under the surface.

Nothing, for instance, would be so simple as to say that the novel is about a crew’s efforts to save their spaceship from peril. Doing so would be doing a disservice to the intricately-defined interactions between characters and their environment. Historical antecedents for this type of novel may include an unworthy strain of “pulp SF”, which would negate this novel’s ambition as a fine exploration of complex psychological group dynamics.

And yet there is another player in the drama of this review, this book, this appreciation. Is it possible to discuss the book intelligently without talking about the Voice of Reason narration so overwhelmingly used by the author? Is it possible to read The Wreck of the River of Stars without being spellbound by a narrative voice more knowledgeable than God himself? Is it even possible to criticize the author as the Voice itself seems to preclude any discussion? A Voice that knows the characters in all their folly, and yet describes even their silliest thoughts with a patience borne out of an infinite compassion?

Hush, says The Voice with mellifluous kindness as frustration arises about the book’s length and patronizing narration. Don’t you know that humble SF fans such as yourself scarcely deserve the kind of psychological insight I proffer with this glorious work of literature? Haven’t you seen that the whole structure of the novel rests on a savvy use of the Briggs-Meyer schema? Don’t you-

At this point, a number of entities in our joyous motley crew of parties dealt with in this essay, perhaps readers, would mumble vaguely about other concepts such as entertainment and pleasure of reading without spending an entire frickin’ weekend slogging through a hundred-page description of two guys eating space pudding while they’re thinking nasty thoughts about the rest of the doomed crew.

But-, would say The Voice.

Shut up, would reply the critic, you’ve had your five hundred pages. Let’s face it: The Wreck of the River of Stars is not just the most pretentious title of the year, it’s also one of the most overwrought excuse for an engineering-SF story that goes wrong and kills off more than half its characters through stupid stuff and the desire to show that you’re not just “another hard-SF writer.” To heck with that, and to heck with the Voice of God crap and to heck with taking a perfectly good thriller and messing it up with three hundred pages of material that could be handled in three lines and a half. Cripes.

Surely you can’t be so angry, would say the Voice, breaking into the author’s voice.

At eleven bucks, five hundred pages, a swarthier-than-thou narration and a downer of an ending, I can be as pissed as I want.

Exit Author, Voice, Novel, Genre, and Critical theory.

Exit Reader, Reviewer, Prejudices, Audience and Review.

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