I would not normally include a review of a science fiction story on My Particular Friend, but I started reading The Wreck of the River of Stars because someone on Amazon said it read like Jane Austen and that intrigued me.
The book by Michael Flynn wouldn’t automatically make you think of Jane Austen. It’s set aboard a former luxury liner the MS The River of Stars that plied the Earth-Mars route on solar sails. But the Farnsworth engine removed the need for sail and the once glorious ship has been turned into a hybrid tramp freighter that retained it MS designation — Magnetic Sail — only as an afterthought. The ship still carries its sails, almost forgotten and unused for years, but which may save the ship when the Farnsworth engines fail en route to Jupiter.
It’s a ship of ghosts and the most recent ghost is Captain Evan Dodge Hand, who dies at the beginning of the book but whose presence, and most keenly his absence, is felt throughout the book. Captain Hand has assembled a crew of misfits, from the acting captain Stepan Gorgas to the engineer Ramakrishnan Bhatterji to the third in command Eugenie Satterthwaite. There are so many ghosts in this book, from all the captains of The River of Stars to the previous engineer who never it made to the ship after an EVA to the ship’s artificial intelligence seemingly on the brink of self awareness.
There are few innocents on board and most of the characters are so damaged and so carefully examined by the omniscient narrator that there is no hero or heroine. I found it difficult to read and yet I read this 480 page novel in a few nights because beyond the Austen comparisons, and yes I will explain that, it evokes so many other wonderful stories. I’ve always had a fondness, you see, for the Great Eastern, the giant ship built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the engineering genius of the Victorian era. It was supposed to be so large that it could easily reward its investors by ferrying the emigrant trade to America, but a series of disasters brought it low until it ended its days as little more than a giant floating billboard, although it had one shining moment laying the trans-Atlantic cable that bridge the Old World and New. There is such a beautiful sadness in a ship made obsolete by time and technology.
And I’ve always had a fascination with sea stories that almost end in tragedy because good people fail to communicate, such as The Caine Mutiny, or where obsession leads inexorably to tragedy, like Moby Dick. In Flynn’s book, the now first officer ’Abd al-Aziz Corrigan begins the tragedy when he thinks to use some of the long stowed solar sails to buy time until the Farnsworth engines can be repaired, but then Satterthwaite and cargo master Moth Ratline complicate matters when they suggest bringing the ship safely to port under full sail. And they carry their plans out in secret, not telling acting captain Gorgas who is too lost in memories of his lost wife and his lost career and drowning his sorrows not in drink but in endlessly replaying historical battles with the ship’s artificial intelligence. And they fail to tell the engineer, who has no truck with sails, of their plans. And because they do not work openly, they work long hours in secret exhausting themselves.
Now as to Jane Austen: this book obviously isn’t a Regency England costume drama, but the characters all suffer from an excess of pride and prejudice and sense and sensibility. Jealousy and anger and resentment and compassion and love fuel the dynamics of the people on the ship just as if they were in a Regency house party. Admittedly, the price of failure in Austen generally means you spend your life as a spinster instead of being doomed to a hyperbolic orbit that sends you out of the solar system.
All the characters here make incorrect assumptions. The crew believes that if the acting captain really wants something, like the position of a asteroid, he’ll ask for it repeatedly. A young girl feels rejected by the engineer Bhatterji, unaware his taste tends more to young boys. The ship’s only passenger falls for the awkward ship’s doctor, unaware that it’s a chemical romance.
It’s tragedy and I hate tragedy and yet some of the best lines in literature come from tragedy. One of the great lines in this book, and the most Austen like, is: “She was the sort of person who, like God, creates others in her own image and, when they fail to behave as the image ought, labels them as disingenuous.” This line sums up the tragedy of the book rather neatly. Everyone has an image they think they project but it’s rarely the image that others perceive.
It almost makes you believe that any group of people can’t help but fail in any endeavour, especially when you realize the roots of the tragedy can be traced all the way back to the dead captain Hand, who brought together a crew of damaged souls but like a king who fails to plan for his succession, fails them by dying.
I would highly recommend reading "The Wreck of the River of Stars" and I highly suspect you will feel rewarded for having read it. I can only warn you that I will likely never re-read it because I hate tragedy.