They called her The River of Stars and she spread her superconducting sails to the solar wind in 2051. She must have made a glorious sight then: her fuselage new and gleaming, her sails shimmering in a rainbow aurora, her white-gloved crew sharply creased in black-and-silver uniforms, her passengers rich and deliciously decadent. There were morphy stars and jeweled matriarchs, sports heroes and prostitutes,
gangsters and geeks and soi-disant royalty. Those were the glamour years, when magsails ruled the skies, and The River of Stars was the grandest and most glorious of that beautiful fleet.
But the glory years faded fast. Coltraine was still her captain when the luxury trade dried up and the throngs of the rich and famous slowed from a torrent to a trickle, and even those who still craved the experience could see that it was no longer the fashionable
thing to do. But as he told Toledo when he handed her the command, the luxury trade had been doomed from the start. Sex and vice and decadence were more safely found earthside. There were yet more honorable -- if more quotidian -- pursuits for a ship with such wings to her.
Flynn is aided, to be sure, by the fact that we have such powerful images and associations with the images of ships and sailing; even though he's talking about spaceships sailing on the solar wind instead of ocean ships sailing on earthly breezes, the power of that imagery still holds. But even without the strength of those images, Flynn's prose is lovely to read.
The novel begins in the late 21st century. The River's sails have long since been folded into stowage, and the ship is now a tramp freighter, hauling cargo in the outer solar system, powered by new engines and manned by a skeleton crew.
Given the book's title, there's not much risk of spoiling the plot: The River is struck by a rock and loses power to two engines, and her crew makes valiant efforts to repair the ship in time to make their scheduled arrival at Jupiter. Time is of the essence in a way that it wouldn't be for an Earthly ship; London, after all, will still be there no matter how late the ship is, but Jupiter is going to keep on moving, and missing a scheduled rendezvous is literally a matter of life and death.
Flynn tells that story in great detail; his explanations of what's happening make the science perfectly clear without ever feeling condescending or pedantic. But what's even more remarkable is the attention he pays to his characters, who are beautifully full creations, each a distinctive and utterly convincing individual. It's a large cast of characters: There are thirteen crew members and a passenger; a captain who dies in the first chapter, but whose memory lingers so strongly that he is almost a character in his own right; and a ship whose malfunctions may be causing her to develop unwanted personality traits of her own.
Flynn gives his characters such complete personalities that every action they take feels right; even as we understand why what they do is wrong, and how it will lead to disaster, we understand exactly why it's the only thing that character can do at that moment. Even more impressive, the interactions among his characters feel accurate; each pair or set of characters play off one another in precisely the right way.
It's a long book -- the paperback is 534 pages -- and it's not one that can be rushed through; Flynn's prose, while never difficult, is dense and richly packed with precise observations of event and character. It's a sad and elegiac book; we know from the beginning that the River will not survive this disaster, and that the efforts of her crew will be wasted. We can only watch as the crew members slowly come to this realization themselves, and still refuse to stop searching for some sort of miracle.
The Wreck of The River of Stars is a gorgeous piece of work. The characters and their tragic fate will stay with me for a long time, and the prose is impeccably crafted. Strongly recommended.