Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Retroview: The Wreck of "The River of Stars"

Apologia pro blogpost sua: An earlier, incomplete draft of this may have posted temporarily before the gods of BlogSpot obliterated it by freezing up the Insert Picture tool.  This is a re-draft from scratch. 

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Ain't TOF cute?
Taking a break from the heavy Ptolemaic lifting, TOF has decided to ruminate on his "critically-praised" but commercially orphaned novel, The Wreck of "The River of Stars," the title of which is the despair of orthographers everywhere.  To do so, he will abandon his cute affectation of referring to himself in the third person.  This does not mean he will cease being cute, however.  

The Wreck, if we may call it by its nicktitle, was called by one reviewer "the best hard-SF tragic novel of character yet written," adding "though this is an uncrowded niche."  Uncrowded, indeed.  Run out and buy a copy.  I'll wait.  


A critic friend (though that may sound oxymoronic) said that he found the title intriguing.  In form, it was very regular and metric:  The Wreck of "The River of Stars has a good beat, as Dick Clark was wont to say.  An iamb followed by two anapests.  On the other hand, the content of the title is very irregular: Wreck and River.  (Wrecks are chaotic, rivers meander.)  He found this contrast between form and matter piquant, though I don't know if he considered the Aristotelian aspect of it; but he is well-known as one who reads texts closely and critically.  For such a one, the best novel is one that can be read multiple times with the same enjoyment, despite knowing "how it all comes out." 

AS NEAR AS I CAN RECALL, the title came before the book, but also independently of the book.  I have always been intrigued by stories of doom, of life under the volcano.  There is not only the Wreck of the White Ship that changed the course of English history, there are also: the movie The Wreck of the Mary Deare, and the poems "The Wreck of the Hesperus," "The Wreck of the Deutschland," and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," as well as other tales of doomed ships, like Titanic or the Flying Dutchman. 

The Wreck of the River of Stars
Luv it when author name
is larger than title!!
Since I write science fiction, I needed a name for a doomed spaceship.  A passenger liner like the Hesperus?  A freighter like the Edmund Fitzgerald?  Perhaps both: a freighter that had once been a liner?  But what sort of name?  It had to be one that bespoke space travel, so The Wreck of the Joe Blow was right out.  It also had to hold some romance to it, so The Wreck of the Jupiter Express was also contraindicated.  It might have been The Wreck of the Swan of Ares, or The Wreck of the Aphrodite, evoking Mars or Venus.  But space is empty and full of stars.  The Wreck of the Jewels of Night might be a possibility.  But there is the Milky Way flowing through the sky like a great river of light.   The Wreck of the Milky Way is too prosaic and sounds like a candy bar, but The Wreck of the River of Stars seemed just right.

Now, I can't say that I went through this process consciously, or even that those were alternative titles I considered, but night sky→stars→Milky Way→River of Stars was pretty much the train of thought.

At that point I had a title.  I often do, well before I have a story.  It would be the story of a doomed ship and her crew.  But what was the doom and who were the crew, I did not know.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

It's raining soup out there.  Don't use a colander.  The story idea was a confluence of several influences.

One was a colleague in the consulting business named Mariesa, who introduced me to Myers-Briggs personality classifications. There are, as you may know, sixteen of these Jungian archetypes, though reality forms probability distributions around them.  (Nobody is all one thing.)  However, the notion struck me of trying to realize sixteen distinct characters in a single story.  What story, I did not know.  Would it even be possible to sketch and distinguish that many characters?  

The Boarding-HouseA second influence was the mainstream novel by William Trevor, The Boarding House.  This involved a boarding house owner who had deliberately set about securing a series of oddball tenants, apparently with the design of messing with them.  He deliberately wills the house on his death jointly to the two tenants who hate each other the most.  So what if I replace the boarding house with a space ship, whose captain collects the wounded birds of the spaceways, though more benevolently than William Bird, and then makes the mistake of dying, like Bird, leaving his misfits not to fit together.  More on this in a later post. 

The Devil's GameA third influence was Poul Anderson's novel, The Devil's Game, in which seven contestants are lured to a Caribbean Island to compete for a one million dollar prize.  What is relevant to the Wreck is that he alternated omniscient narration with stream-of-consciousness, with each of the characters taking a turn in the barrel.  Fourthly, and related to this was a remark made by Maureen McHugh on an SF con panel that SF seemed to avoid the omniscient POV that was more or less standard in literary and mainstream fiction.  Indeed, I remember being confused at first reading Gore Vidal's Lincoln, because the POV seemed to jump around all over the place, sometimes within the same paragraph.

All these things came together into the Idea: a crew of misfits must bring the ship safely to port after their captain dies unexpectedly.  Each crewman (and the passenger) would be a different Myers-Briggs archetype.  The story would be a tragedy -- and the reader will know this immediately from the title.  Like Titanic, the River would strike an "iceberg" -- but the extent of the damage will not be apparent for some time afterward.  

In the Beginning

Original cover art orientation.
Which brings us to this week's Wreckage post, namely, the opening passage.  Anderson's The Devil's Game opens (after a prologue) with an omniscient chapter describing the geography and history of the island.  So I decided to open with a description and history of the ship, which would be the "island" on which the characters would be trapped.

      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. 
The intention was to give a sense of "looking back" on a more wonderful past.  "She must have made" a glorious sight means, who can tell by looking at her today?  "Those were the glamour years" means that these are not.  Details are picked out to limn things: three or four features of the then-ship and crew, and a diverse roster of passenger types.  

"But the glory years faded fast."   Then we get a taste of the long history of the ship.  "as he told Toledo when he handed her the command" followed by names of various captains: Johnson, Fu-hsi, Terranova, then an anonymous period harvesting hydrogen from Jupiter's atmosphere when no one bothers naming the captains.  A few famous incidents are picked out, like the the Luna-Ganymede race or the murder of the first engineer.  
“Some of them struck it rich,” the old song had it,
“And some of them Mars struck dead

And some showed up in the hiring hall,

Begging their old berths back.” 
 The key word here is "old."  The narrator is looking back from sometime in the future of these events, and that phrase hints at an entire culture, with its songs, legendary stories, and scandalous news items.  It helps ensure that the reader knows there is a world beyond the boundaries of the story text itself.  Things happened before the action begins; things are happening elsewhere than on the ship.

The final touch comes with 
     And so it was that in 2084 of the Common Era, MSS The River of Stars cast loose as a tramp freighter, hustling after cargoes across the Middle System. 
     After that, her luck turned bad. 
Coming as it does after a litany of steadily declining fortunes from luxury liner to immigrant ship to the hydrogen harvest to the Farnsworth conversion to the murder of the engineer, after that, her luck turned bad.  

As I recollect, the entire passage was written in a gulp, free-styling it as it were, letting the moment churn up the legendary past as I typed.  IOW, I did not lay out an outline of the putative past and then narrate through it; rather, I simply narrated and later organized and fine-tuned it to the published version.  Very nearly every incident in the introduction will have some importance to the main body of the story.  The luxury years.  The Martian emigration.  The Luna-Ganymede Race.  The murder.  The romance of the Old Days.   The resentment between magsail and Farnsworth people is the backbone of the tragedy. 

In Times to Come

My thought is to pull excerpts, especially those limning each of the characters, and passages illustrating some of the narrative choices.  None of them should be SPOILERS in the classical sense, but you may choose to exercise caution.  While I hope the book might be read profitably regardless, there is a certain amount of craft that goes into the order and arrangement of various revelations.  



  1. I think I read this after I read Eifelheim and January, and I was delightfully surprised by it. Really interesting book, all the way down.

    One (of many) thoughts I had was of Michael Crichton--the crisis turns on a hidden character trait, the chaos emerges from the combination of these disparate personalities and circumstances that would have been fine each on their own.


  2. I read it a few months ago and loved it. Keep up the great work.
    -- C. W. Johnson

  3. I bought it a few days ago. As the chapters go by, and we learn more of each character's thoughts, motivations, and personality, the book really picks up pace.

    I'm about a 1/4 of the way in, and so far I recommend it, even to those non-SF types.

    (However, so far I still prefer Eifelheim.)

  4. This was the first of your books I read, relatively recently, and I read it again about a year ago. I haven't read any of the novels you name here, but knew the Myers-Briggs well and spotted it quick. I wonder why more authors don't use this? (Try applying M-B to "The Iliad" the next time you're on a long drive, listening to it on CD!) I confess to having picked it up because of the tragic title & totally agree there's too little tragedy in SF. What I liked about the opening history of decline from greatness is the creeping sense of claustrophobia, the distance between the uniformed crew and glitterati being replaced by increased seediness until there's far less social and visual difference between the ship, crew and passengers/freight. Setting up that claustrophobia at the beginning seems wise--despite the size of the ship, claustrophobia lingers a yr, later, and that's a great effect.

    1. Thank you. Each of the characters lived in a very small world.

  5. I found the pace slow, until I relaxed into it. The characterization was excellent, and every single one of them I cared about. Yes, I own a copy. I'm sorry it hasn't been more popular.

  6. Loved it. The description of the space weather/'terrain' was fantastic, and I wish I had a map of it. Made me want to build a model...

  7. The first time I was bold enough to speak to you was at a convention where you were hawking this book; I remember seeing the glorious cover art. It is a fine book, well crafted, well plotted, as intricate as a Celtic knot.

    1. Wait. What? You dared to speak to me? Do you not know the code of silence imposed upon all secret albino assassin monks? Fortunately, this has only been mentioned on the internet, so no one will ever know about it.

      It was at a Philcon, wasn't it?

  8. Are you taking questions from the peanut gallery?

    Assuming a moment you are...how much do you read your prose aloud? And at what point in the writing process? I'm looking at the sentence on 14 starting the second full paragraph, "For a while..." which trots out three alliterations. That works to the eye (so to speak), to the reader's interior voice, and it works well aloud. It transitions to the next line pretty well, where the grammar slows it right down, appropriate to the content. Always good to see grammar made to serve & take orders.

    But the previous halfline works to the eye a lot better than to the ear. I tried it in my native drawl (which is urban & educated, but still a drawl), and I tried it in Midwestern Boring, and "loves losses above surrender" turned to mush unless I said it waaaay slower than my normal reading speed, or else Shatnerize. After the hard "I" in pride, there's nothing to differentiate all those soft sounds, nor slow the line as needed for its full effect.

    My cursory impression (meaning I'm more than prepared to eat my words) is that how you read aloud in your process changed between "The Wreck" and "In the Lion's Mouth," in part because the use of alliteration seems a lot more deliberate.

    ("Peanut gallery" sounds better than nosey-as-hell opinionated reader, no?)

    1. Sometimes I read aloud, sometimes not; and I'm not aware of any change in process. Wreck and Mouth have different voices, though.

      "Pride loves loss above surrender" is a spondee followed by three trochees. When I read it aloud, the first three strong syllables are boom-boom-boom.

    2. Holy kend-heiti, Batman! He's handed you his feet; clearly you're tripping when you ought to traipse.

    3. Thank you. Good thing I keep the Sriracha sauce handy for such occasions.

  9. Now I'm reading it for the third time, not pretending to go slow for the reread. It sure can be reread with greater pleasure! I haven't listened for meter in a long time--I professionally listen for very different features--so picking favored passages to practice is a pleasure, too.


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