Tag Archives: Michael Flynn

Eifelheim, Michael Flynn

Tor, 2006, 320 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-765-30096-6

Michael Flynn is a very, very smart man. Perhaps too smart for us, in fact.

One of his early success in the Science-fiction genre was a novella called “Eifelheim”, a 1986 story about two modern scientists deducing an alien visit in Black Plague-era Germany from historical evidence. “Eifelhem” earned a few bravos from Analog readers and went on to be nominated for a Hugo Award. Now, twenty years later, Flynn has turned the novella into a much longer novel.

A much, much longer novel.

On one hand, it not possible to just dismiss Eifelheim-the-expanded-story. Flynn has obviously done his research, and the novel’s most distinctive trait is how it really manages to describe life in Dark-Ages rural Germany. Even before the alien’s arrival, Flynn painstakingly describes the true state of society and technology at the time and how the characters relate to each other. This in itself isn’t what you’d expect: Flynn overturns a number of commonly-held beliefs in what the Middle Ages were like, and the result is a rich strain of historical fiction describing a way of life that is far more alien than anything we can imagine on other planets.

When the aliens land (for them, a sad case of being broken down somewhere in the galactic boondocks), the culture clash is profound, though maybe not as much as you would expect: Flynn’s protagonist, a scholar named Dietrich, is instrumental in smoothing out the problems between the stranded aliens and the superstitious villagers. As the alien work to repair their spaceship, Dietrich maintains the peace even as other powerful human entities start paying attention to what’s happening in the small village… and that’s without counting on the ever-popular black plague.

Meanwhile, in a “Now” section more or less reprinted from the original novella, a couple of scientists uncover traces of the alien presence through historical records, allowing one of them to make a fundamental breakthrough in theoretical physics.

I have said that this is a novel from a smart man, but it bears repeating. Looking at the mass of research that has been crammed into Eifelheim, one can’t help but feel overwhelmed. An entirely different alien race, plus historical fiction, plus modern fiction about the inner working of science? Gee, Flynn must be not just be smart, but a bit of a masochist. The details, the details…

So I do feel like a chump for thinking that the entire novel is a bit unnecessary. Even though the “Now” segments are saddled with an annoying voice-of-God narration that reminded of Flynn’s insufferable The Wreck of the River of Stars, I found them more interesting than the medieval bulk of the book. A sufficiently determined reader could chapter-skip the historical chapters and still get a satisfying story. At times, if you’re not overly fascinated by medieval history, Eifelheim feels like show-off fiction, like an accumulation of trivia designed to make you go “wow!” in amazement.

It makes up for a curiously fragmented reading experience. I might had had a different reaction had I encountered Eifelheim in the wild, but this has become, almost against everyone’s expectations, a Hugo-nominated novel against much-lauded competition. Comparisons between it and the other nominees are inevitable, and not necessarily flattering: Of the five novels in the running, Eifelheim feels like the slowest, the least accessible and the least fun.

But I suspect that this is as much a reflection of my own reading tastes (not necessarily partial to historical fiction) than any serious problem with the novel itself. Looking belatedly at the other reviews around the web, I see that many reviewers liked the medieval plot and dismissed the modern subplot. Oh well. I’ve always considered Flynn an uneven writer, capable of the best and the dullest. Eifelheim is no exception.

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.

In the Country of the Blind, Michael Flynn

Tor, 2001, 549 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34498-X

In the history of the Science Fiction genre, few notions have captured readers’ imagination as much as psychohistory – the idea that given a sufficient number of people to study, sociology becomes as deterministic as classical physics. In Isaac Asimov’s famous Foundation series, political movements can be described using mathematical equations, and a savvy psychohistorian can predict the future of the empire by running a few statistical models. It’s a seductive idea in part given SF readers’ fondness for hard science and cold equations, but also because it gives validity to SF’s pretencions of predicting the future. Why, yes, a sufficiently clever writer, well-versed in history and sciences, can say what’s likely to happen: Victory for Hugo Gernsback’s spiritual inheritors.

So it shouldn’t be surprising to see other writers jumping on the bandwagon from time to time. Michael Flynn (best known for the Hard-SF Stars series) did so in 1990 with In the Country of the Blind, a book now revised and republished with a nonfiction appendix. In this novel, ex-reporter, real-estate developer and all-around competent woman Sarah Beaumont gradually discovers the existence of a secret society, dating back more than a hundred years, that has figured out the elementary rules of “cliology”. Using calculating machines derived from Charles Babbage’s Analytical engine, this “Babbage Society” has spent decades subtly manipulating history to its own purposes. But now that Beaumont knows too much, well, she’ll have to be silenced…

I really, really wanted to love this novel and for the first hundred pages I truly did. Despite some too-hasty plotting and early characterization problems, In the Country of the Blind efficiently sets up a secret history in which history is silly putty in the hands of a few master manipulators. The means of The Babbage Society’s developments are convincingly portrayed (Chapter 1-IV features a wonderful discovery of an attic filled with analytical engines) and the story steadily moves forward.

It’s such a shame, then, that the book ends at this point. Oh, sure, there are twists and turns, revelations and betrayals, chases and gunfights for the rest of the book’s duration. But as a science-fiction novel, In the Country of the Blind essentially ends as Beaumont is welcomed into the society she discovered. The two or three refinements (that there are more than one such society, and that cliology just doesn’t work as well as one would think) are obvious from the get-go, and they’re not handled nearly as efficiently as they should have been. No, after page 101, In the Country of the Blind devolves into a standard-issue thriller in which the various parties could be just about anything. Replace “cliologists” by “industrial spies”, or “Nazi revivalists” and this novel wouldn’t change much.

And that’s a real shame given how, from time to time, we get a glimpse into cliology’s interest in a Science Fiction setting. The idea that the future is predictable and that we can influence it if we know where to act gives a realistic framework to exploit two of SF’s traditional obsessions: Given solid predictions and “inflexion points”, isn’t acting on these opportunities a form of preemptive time-travel? Isn’t this also a way to exploit the concept of alternate realities without actually alternating realities? Readers of this novel will be allowed a moment or two of intellectual vertigo as past, present and future, real or alternate, all merge into a solid whole of speculation.

What’s even more interesting is that since Foundation‘s publication in 1943, we are finding out that cliology may not be completely fanciful. Flynn gives out tons of examples in the non-fiction appendix that follows the book (a case of the appendix being more interesting that the previous novel), but you don’t have to look far elsewhere to find out how social sciences are becoming predictable. Jared Diamond did a lot to quantify history in his best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel. Political scientists are starting to understand how government falls or evolve given their social contexts. Wall Street is leading the way in building models to predict the evolution of markets, trends and economic activity. Even governments and corporations are getting in to the act with “strategic analysis” units.

If Flynn wants to use cliology as an excuse for a standard chases-and-gunfire thriller, fine. But as a Science Fiction novel, In the Country of the Blind wastes its considerable potential. It doesn’t make it a bad novel… just a very disappointing, very ordinary one.

Lodestar, Michael Flynn

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.

Rogue Star, Michael Flynn

Tor, 1998, 667 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-54299-1

With 1997’s Firestar, Michael Flynn officially Arrived in SF. Formerly known as an author of a few rather good short stories and co-author of the fannish homage Fallen Angels (With Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle), Flynn flew under the radar of most SF fans until he published his monstrous 800+ pages tome. Firestar was the opening volume of an ambitious near-future saga in which Flynn looked as if he’d be showing all other authors how near-future Hard-SF is done. With its huge cast of characters, deep character development and often exasperating attention to details, Firestar gathered a lot of interest and got some critical attention.

At the time, your reviewer begged to differ. Firestar‘s very ambitiousness dragged down what might otherwise have been a fine hard-SF tale. The huge cast of characters seemed too diffuse for its own good. Flynn’s character development seemed to specialize in making life hard for everyone. There was no happy ending. Not a lot happened, and whatever happened wasn’t worth 800+ pages. Many Messages were passed. Add to that the decidedly libertarian convictions of Flynn’s future (in which governments were evil and only corporations could save the world, yada-yada-yada) and you had an overpadded, somewhat unpleasant book.

Why read Rogue Star, then? For the sheer masochist pleasure of it, maybe. But a strange thing happened on the way to the ending: While still overly long, Rogue Star started to be engrossing, interesting and even -yep- enjoyable.

Rogue Star is where the investment made in the first volume starts to pay off. All these useless, unpleasant characters of the first volume start interacting in a conflicting fashion, and for some reason, this seems rather more interesting than in the first volume. Marissa’s financial empire is in jeopardy; a mission to an asteroid finds more than it bargained for; a blue-collar construction worker confronts sex and violence on an unfinished space station. Fascinating stuff, and more accessibly-written too. Not a whole lot of plot for 600+ pages, though. Someone at Tor better grab some scissors for the next volume.

Still, the result is worth the long read. The space-rigger subplot itself rivals Allen Steele’s similar Orbital Decay in sheer fascination. (Plus, it takes the rather reasonable position that being stoned in a high-risk environment is not a very smart thing to do…) The political and financial shenanigans do seem less naive than Firestar‘s simplistic libertarian positions. The series moves in a more outlandish science-fiction, after the quasi techno-thriller atmosphere of the first volume.

Plus, Flynn sends a neat little curveball in mid-book to all the readers who by now had been softly settling in a very rational hard-SF environment. Suddenly, things get far more interesting. But that’ll have to wait until the next volume, right?

In fact, Rogue Star is a bit worrisome, because it shows that Flynn isn’t nearly finished with the series, which is looking more and more like a future history than a simple trilogy. How many more volumes to go? And how will both the “surprise” and the “expected” (come on; all that foreshadowing about planet-killing asteroids for nothing?) will play? As we might think they will ,or differently? (This is not a glib remark: If we end up with a 2000+ pages series in which the climax is what one can expect after reading Rogue Star, then all the good will established by the book will disappear in a puff of angry smoke. It’s hard to say more without spoiling the book.)

Without being a must-read, Rogue Star is decent hard-SF. Worth a look, especially for those who wondered why they read the first volume of the series.

The Forest of Time and Other Stories, Michael Flynn

Tor, 1997, 381 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85526-5

In recent years, Michael Flynn has become one of Analog Magazine’s brightest writers, with tales of Hard Science-Fiction exemplifying what the genre is capable of doing nowadays. After a collaboration with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Fallen Angels, an infamous homage to fandom incidentally never mentioned anywhere in this anthology), a story mosaic (The Nanotech Chronicles) and two novels of his own (In the Country of the Blind and the critically acclaimed Firestar), Michael Flynn offers us this collection of ten tales, all published in Analog between 1982 and 1994.

Most of the ten tales are Hard-SF, even if there are a few borderline cases. There is an interesting variation of styles, from the tall tale (“On the High Frontier”) to the social satire (“Grave Reservation”) to alternate histories (“The Forest of Time”) to ambiguous SF/fantasy (“The Feeders”). A few stylistic tricks don’t overly complicate the usually straightforward style. The whole book is readable pretty quickly. A few stories are predictable.

There is an introduction, and story notes for each tale. Readers will be pleased or annoyed by their elitist tone, (especially when Flynn talks about Hard-SF) but Flynn’s explanations are sometimes revealing.

It’s an interesting book, and an adequate anthology. Flynn fans and Hard-SF enthusiasts should throw themselves on the paperback.