The first woe is past; two other woes are yet to come.
Revelation 9:12 (context)
I just finished re-reading The Wreck of the River of Stars, by Michael Flynn. It’s up there among my favorite books of all time, along with Time Traveler’s Wife, Snow Falling on Cedars, and Cryptonomicon.
As I thought about these books, particularly Time Traveler’s Wife and Wreck of the River of Stars — and, now I as I think about it, Snow Falling on Cedars to a lesser degree, as well — have a couple of interesting shared characteristics.
- A sense of inevitability. In these novels, the reader knows almost from the first page what will happen to the characters, at least in a general sense. The characters all have a destiny, and no amount of struggling against that destiny will change it. Characters are driven by their flaws to do exactly what they do, and nothing else. Satterwaithe, Ratline, and Corrigan will hoist the sails again in Wreck of the River of Stars, but it won’t save them. Time Traveler’s Wife is interesting because it explicitly explores Henry’s inability to change the past on his time travel there. He watches his mother die dozens of times, but cannot prevent the tragedy. When Henry and Claire are house-hunting, they are fated to choose the house that Henry has visited in the future. This inexorability is a hallmark of a classic tragedy, a stylistic choice that results in a deeply moving narrative in these novels.
As an interesting side note, in Wreck of the River of Stars, Michael Flynn employs — with great effectiveness — an unusual 19th Century style of writing reminiscent of Charles Dickens or Henry James in which events are subsumed beneath the exploration of the characters’ personalities.
- Deep characterization. Wreck of the River of Stars is unusual in science fiction writing in that characters, rather than plot, drive the story. One review says “Not much happens in Wreck of the River of Stars…” and to some extent that’s true. In these books, the characters’ humanity, their flaws, comprise the fabric of the story. The actual events — Ratline stealing the hobartium from Engineering; Henry time traveling to the field by Claire’s house during hunting season; Ishmael finding the record of a large ship deviating from the shipping lanes — are less important than their impact on the characters’ inner lives. External events drive characters to respond in their unique ways, and nothing will change the way they respond. The characters are all blinded by their own limitations, responding within the confines of their experiences and personalities, often (unknowingly) to their own detriment. Individual choices, like different instruments in an orchestra each playing a separate score, combine to create a something greater than the sum of its parts: a symphony.
These books showcase the best of modern-day characterization, combining it with compelling plots and vivid descriptive detail to create literature worth revisiting time and again. I cannot read these books and come away unmoved. And that, I think, is a true measure of success.