Friday, October 18, 2013

Retroview: The Wreck of "The River of Stars" -- Part Dieux

LAST WEEK, YOU MAY RECALL, TOF began his rumination on the recursively-titled The Wreck of The River of Stars.  Recusive, because there is a title (the ship's name) within the title (the book's name), throwing down the gauntlet for typographers everywhere.  How much and which portions are to be italicized?  Great minds must ponder this. 

Meanwhile, we shall occupy ourselves otherwise.  

Previously, we discussed the title, which derived its ancestry from such as "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and the desire to write a story of a tragic shipwreck.  Since TOF writes in the genre SF, the ship wrecked would be ipso facto a space ship.   

We also discussed Where do you get your ideas, and saw the idea for The Wreck came from a confluence of several things:
  • The aforesaid desire to write of a tragic shipwreck.
  • The desire to use Mayer-Briggs personality classifications to define sixteen distinct characters, just to see if I could pull it off.  
  • The notion in William Trevor's The Boarding House of a landlord who deliberately sought out misfits to rent rooms to. 


THE NOVEL KICKS OFF with a character literally kicking off; viz., Evan Dodge Hand, captain of the River of Stars.  This parallels (deliberately) the opening of Trevor's book, in which the landlord, William Wagner Bird dies while tenant Nurse Clock pays no attention.  A useful writing exercise is to copy a passage of a book you like until you swerve off in a different direction.  Then you go back and rewrite the original passage to fit.  Anyone seeing some sort of homage in things like Bird→Hand is perfectly justified.  

The passage in question can be found at the link in the previous paragraph.  Because there are sixteen main characters, they are introduced one at a time.  Here, Hand, who in certain ways is the central character of the drama, appears -- only to die within the first few pages.  The second character is First Officer Stepan Gorgas, who sits by idly amusing himself with computer games -- a simulation of the Battle of Austerlitz.  Three others are alluded to: Corrigan (who he thinks irritably should have notified him of the engine shut-off), Bhaterjee (who shut the engines off), and Dr. Wong (who he notifies of the death).  Two others (Satterwaithe and Ratline) are mentioned as having had longer tenure aboard.  

We flit from the mind of the dying Hand to the mind of Gorgas because the narrative voice is omniscient. This was a deliberate choice made in light of a con panel discussion in which Maureen McHugh commented on the lack of omniscient voice in SF.  Or indeed in most genre fiction.  It is more common in mainstream fiction.  Well, "rarely done" is a red flag to The OFloinn, who comes from Bizarro World, where everything is backward.  "Rarely done" is for steaks, not fiction, sez he.  


As the captain is dying, he feels lighter.  This is because the engines are shut down, but Hand concludes that dying makes one less massive
The pain now seemed a sometime and faraway thing, something not quite real, as if it were happening to someone else.  His body was but a husk, a thing of no matter.   
"A thing of no matter" is the first of several puns littering the landscape of the book.  "No matter" in the sense of "no mass/weight" but also in the sense of "no consequence."   We also get a sense of his flightiness: his request to post to the log, his futile enumeration of the ventilator squares, his astonishment that his arm will not move.  He jumps from one thing to another.  This may be the consequence of his illness; but it may tell us something about the normal Hand, too.  

Stepan forth

Gorgas the Chessplayer

About Gorgas we learn that he is essentially solitary and lives inside his own head.  He isn't going out to learn why the engines have been shut down.  He is going to wait until someone comes and tells him.   He doesn't log the observation as Hand has asked him to, but continues playing Austerlitz.  He regards Hand's death as an irritation and a burden on himHis notification to the Ship's doctor is curt and perfunctory. 
Gorgas saved his screen with the French in mid-move and unbuckled from the seat so that he floated across the cabin.  ... Bhatterji had shut the engines down and Gorgas floated like an angel and hovered over the captain’s bunk. 
I have risen above the captain, he thought.  So often true metaphorically and intellectually, the statement was now true literally.   
We learn that Gorgas has detested Hand for most of their long service together -- only Satterwaithe and Ratline have served longer -- and that Gorgas believes he is smarter than the captain.  His actual rising above the captain in zero-gee and his metaphorical rising above the captain in his skills strikes him with grave satisfaction.  Notice that when the Omniscient POV dips inside a head, everything we see is mediated by that character's attitudes. 

Devotees of the Myers-Briggs scales, may now determine which type they think Gorgas is and post their conclusion in the comments below.  Granted, this is only a first glimpse of him, perhaps not enough of a glimpse, but let's play the game.  The answer will be posted in a few days, if there is sufficient interest. 

The Door Dilated

Stop and smell me

The Problem of the White Room refers to narratives where one takes the car or walks the dog or watches TV or stops to smell the flowers.  Such bland description is sometimes called for -- for example, if the narrator is himself inattentive -- but more often feels incompletely realized, vague, or inchoateBut if one takes the Jag or walks the Shi-tzu or watches reruns of Perry Mason or stops to smell the titan arum we not only get something more visual, we may also get some characterization of an actor.  A character who by choice drives a Jag is a different sort than one who drives a Prius.  It is possible to get too carried away with such things, but a certain amount lends verisimilitude.  

Now and then, the mainstream writer must refer to a particular unfamiliar to the reader.   Stopping to smell the roses adds detail without adding confusion, but stopping to smell the titan arum is another matter, unless you find a way to mention that it smells like a rotting corpse.  

The SFer must create an imaginary world that is more or less by definition an unfamiliar one.  The author has often the delightful choice between bafflegab and infodump.  The sweet way to do this is just have everyone talk the way they would normally talk in the context, but to sprinkle the strangeness lightly.  The engines of the River of Stars are introduced here:

The Farnsworths boosted at just over four milligees, barely enough acceleration to give the room a vague notion of up and down, but Bhatterji had shut the engines down...
And that is all the reader needs to know at this point.  The context makes it clear that "the Farnsworths" are the engines for the ship, but we do not stop the narrative to explain how they work.  The thoughts we are following -- Gorgas' -- would not pause to ruminate on themIf the info becomes necessary later, it can be delivered later.  

Next Time 

We will take a look at how other characters are introduced in the first chapter.  


  1. Gorgas is, like me, an INTJ I believe.

  2. If I recall he is unable to make decisions, always needing more information first. So INTP.

  3. I’m going to break this down in my typical INTP fashion.

    First, it’s obvious that Gorgas was an I and a T, since he lived in the world of his thoughts and didn’t even care that the captain was dead. So we know that he was at least an I?T?.

    Working from here, I would argue that Gorgas was an N, since he didn’t go look to see why the engine wasn’t working but was content to trust someone else’s word. An S would not do this because they prefer to gain knowledge through the senses, which they trust more than their intuition. He also saw himself being above the captain as symbolic and took it as a sort of truth, which is what an N would tend to do. So that moves us to him being an INT?.

    The last letter is the hardest for me to decide. I’m leaning towards a J though, since they like to have a very structured lifestyle and he didn’t want to be interrupted from his game, whereas a P would tend to be more open to interruption (unless they were thinking about something they thought was important). J’s also tend to be better leaders, which might be a reason for the O’Floinn to make the INTJ personality type the captain.

    So I’m thinking Gorgas is an INTJ.

    (Btw- I’ve never read the book, so I’m just working off the excerpt in the post)

    1. Btw- I’ve never read the book, so I’m just working off the excerpt in the post

      There is something you could do to remedy that; but modesty prevents me from expanding on that.

    2. As the OFloinn is impeded by modesty, based on my reading of Eifelheim and Firestar, which were both brilliant, I recommend his books to any lovers of well-written fictions.

      (Be aware though that most of his writings are Sci-fi, which is a genre I am not personally very fond of. If I were more of a Sci-fi fan, I think I would probably consider them to be classics/masterpieces)

  4. INTJ, of the subspecies titan arum and initiative-deficient.

    Have you SEEN the short descriptions of each type at the official M-B site?! Being in a small space with all of them would be so good for our self esteem and the bestest vacation ever and you get to take home a puppy. They should certainly expand their brief bits to encompass more extended profiles.

    The husk of Evan Hand made me think of a minor French story, which then slithered out of my mind because it isn't considered sci-fi. Not sure on what principle they make genre distinctions in France.

  5. Evan Dodge Hand, Captain
    Died without a chaplain.
    New we must each suss
    his crew of human detritus.

    1. I like it. Next, a quatrain for each character.

    2. I'd be most happy to flatter thee
      By such a poetical strategy
      But it won't do
      For all the crew
      'Cause nothing much rhymes with Bhatterji.

  6. INTJ, for sure.

    I'm curious, TOF, which of your books has been the most popular? And which would you consider as most critically acclaimed?

    Myself, I liked Eifelheim the best. I enjoyed "The Wreck of 'The River Of Stars'" more than I was expecting, because I did not anticipate enjoying a character-focused tragedy. It seemed sort of Greek to me, in the inexorableness of it.

  7. Pretty sure Eifelheim has been most popular. Most critically acclaimed, I'm not sure: Eifelheim, Wreck, or Dancer.

    1. So far, of yours, I've read (actually listened to, via Audible) Eifelheim and The January Dancer, plus reading a couple of short pieces I was able to access online. I LOVED Eifelheim right up until the end, where I deeply wanted a different payoff for the "B" story. Best SF set in the Middle Ages ever - and that's including Connie Willis's _Doomsday Book_.

      I very much enjoyed Dancer, but I think I'm going to have to actually _read_ the rest of the Spiral Arm books due to the audiobooks' changing narrators. That drives me nuts unless there is very strict pronunciation control.

      But, she says, however much I am enjoying this retroview, I have a very hard time reading tragedy. I can appreciate it from the outside, like we're doing here, but I'm unlikely to actually read "Wreck".
      *in a small voice* Is that OK? Can I still play?

    2. That you are unlikely to read "Wreck" is itself a tragedy! But de gustibus non disputandum. Of course you can still play! TOF is very broad-minded about such things.

  8. Thanks for the tips on infodump avoidance, POV, and characterization. I found them quite helpful.

  9. Though I may be getting ahead of you here...does the ship's AI, sometimes addressed as "Riv", count as a character?

    1. There is a point in the narrative in which a character thinks that "now the AI was channelling Corrigan." At another point a character believes the AI is acting like Gorgas. u.s.w.


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