Dancing the Space Opera Two-step

januarydancerMy second taste of Michael Flynn’s work is his 2008 interstellar thriller The January Dancer, a fairly decent adventure tale that doesn’t fail to entertain, but does fail to rise above a typical novel of its type. Tor’s marketing campaign called the book “a triumph of the New Space Opera,” which — typical of marketing campaigns — is something of an exaggeration. Don’t misunderstand me, I liked the book well enough for what it is, and it does have a few things going for it. It’s just that in the overall scheme of things I think it falls much closer to being “average” than to being “a triumph.”

The basic elements will be familiar to anyone who has read any kind of space opera before. Interstellar intrigue. Space battles. The heroes traveling from planet to planet. A future humanity spread out on many worlds. Ancient and powerful alien technology. You know the kinds of things I’m talking about. Flynn does it well, but not really well enough to counteract that “been there, done that” feeling the reader will inevitably have.

A few more specifics might be in order. When the tramp freighter New Angeles finds itself orbiting a remote planet while making emergency repairs, its crew finds a a stash of artifacts made by the Pre-humans — an alien species gone from the galactic scene by the time humanity arrives. The freighter’s captain, Amos January, carries away the only removable artifact, a small block of stone that constantly changes shape: the Twisting Stone, otherwise known as the Dancer. This artifact changes hands multiple times throughout the story, and becomes highly sought after as the characters discover its incredible effects, which could alter the balance of power in the galaxy. As we follow the fate of the Dancer, much space-operatic adventure ensues — hardly a surprise, right?

Flynn can write very well, but for some reason that skill shows itself in this novel more on the small scale than in the grand scheme of the overall story. A piercing insight into life or human nature here, a keenly clever bit of dialogue there, lots of incisive little details, that sort of thing. The story is engaging on a page-by-page basis and keeps the reader interested at a local level. But once the book is finished and you consider it as a whole, it feels a bit unsatisfying, like a meal that doesn’t quite fill you up.

The world-building is somewhat uneven; in some cases the settings and background history are tantalizingly believable, but in other cases are unconvincing. Flynn has his interstellar travel accomplished via the “Electric Avenue,” a network of natural hyperspace-like pathways between stars. I see no good reason for this ad-hoc invention; it’s basically taking FTL out of a ship’s engine and putting it into nature instead, and I don’t see how it benefited the story at all. Also unconvincing is the status of science in this future society, which sees Newton and Einstein as mythical Gods. Engineering is respected, but science has fallen by the wayside, with no progress in centuries. I find that just a little hard to believe.

From the experience I have of FLynn so far, it seems like he’s very knowledgeable about languages and this adds a level of linguistic richness to his writing. However, I can’t say those effects are entirely to my liking this time around. The heavy use of Irish brogue quickly gets annoying, but what might you expect when the standard human dialect is called Gaelactic? That wouldn’t have been so bad, I suppose, if Flynn hadn’t carried the Irish fascination entirely too far with the planet New Eireann; a general cultural resemblance (whether inherited or designed) I can buy, but not the idea that there is an inherently tragic Irish nature that persists over time and recreates that people’s conflicts on a distant planet hundreds or thousands of years in the future.

One thing I really like is the frame story around the main story. The frame takes place in a seedy spaceport bar, with a scarred storyteller relating the events of the Dancer’s discovery to a traveling harper who comes seeking the tale. The interactions between these two, and the storyteller’s penetrating commentary, made these chapters my favorite parts of the book.

There are plenty of items on both the “pro” and the “con” side here. Don’t look for anything amazingly fresh or groundbreaking in The January Dancer, but if a bit of enjoyable space adventure is on your agenda, you could certainly do worse.

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One response to “Dancing the Space Opera Two-step

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