Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Reviews: The January Dancer
The space opera novel The January Dancer is the first book I've read by Michael Flynn, who is better known for his Hugo-nominated novel Eifelheim. I picked it up on a whim from the new book shelves at a branch of my local library.
The dust jacket says that the novel evokes space opera classics such as E.E. Doc Smith and Cordwainer Smith. I'm not a Lensman fan, but the language that Flynn uses does remind me in a good way of Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Man, though Flynn's setting isn't quite as odd. I'm also reminded of Poul Anderson's Ensign Flandry books, though Flynn presents a purely human civilization.
The premise is straightforward enough: a tramp freighter captain stumbles across an ancient alien artifact with the power to bend minds. A motley crew of characters, none of whom are quite what they seem on the surface and each representing different interests (or rather, different interpretations of interest even when they nominally serve the same masters) each set out on separate journeys to track down that artifact. Eventually their narratives meet and are woven together.
The framing device for the novel is a harper meeting a mysterious scarred man in a bar and him telling her the story of the various events that took place as he understands them. Each chapter dealing with the main story that has happened is followed by a short interlude with the harper and the scarred man. These interludes deal very explicitly with the act of storytelling itself, bringing home to the reader the fact that they are seeing one interpretation of the events and that they are being told a story. Surprisingly, this "meta-narrative" did not ruin the sense of immersion in the setting or its characters for me. Rather, it added another story.
Though the plot at times becomes a bit convoluted, it holds together well enough. The ending of the novel feels somewhat rushed after the buildup, but I feel the story does stand on its own. On the whole I found the novel quite gripping and finished it in four days.
So what attracted me to the story?
Not precisely the setting, which while engaging is not crafted to hold up to intense scientific or logical scrutiny. There's no strong artificial intelligence here, no dramatic transhumanism, no post-scarcity nanotech based economy, though there are touches of all these technologies. You have robots and human laborers working in nearby places without any sense of why they coexist. Equally interesting is the fact that Flynn never seems concerned with explaining why you have spacefaring humans without all of these trappings. This, and the scope of the story, with its ancient artifacts and squabbling human successor states, is part of what gives The January Dancer a golden age sci-fi feel.
On the other hand, the setting holds up wonderfully to narrative and poetic scrutiny. I love the language that Flynn uses throughout the novel. His descriptions of people and places are excellent. He creates multiple dialects that all felt natural and believable to me, even when I sometimes struggled to parse them (the stranger dialects don't remain upon the scene for long, so this wasn't distracting). He sketches cultures with a deft and terse hand. And I've always liked the image of star travel as a form of riding "roads" or "currents" that connect different stars.
The characters of the Fudir, Little Hugh, Brigitte Ban, Greystroke, the scarred man, the harper, and others are interesting. No one is completely likable or unlikable.
All in all, it's a very artfully told story with a feel of fable or myth about it.