Monday, June 01, 2009

Michael Flynn: January Dancer

Michael Flynn's The January Dancer is a finalist for this year's Prometheus Award because of Flynn's focus on the corrupting influence of the prospect of absolute power, and some of the characters' attempts to avoid it. Along the way we get a fascinating interstellar romp through a new way of navigating wormholes and get to visit a couple of worlds with some interesting variations on ways of organizing anarchic societies.

The story advances in two parallel streams, which eventually converge. The framework comes from an itinerant storyteller (a seanachy) gathering information about a story she has heard from an old worn-out man who is familiar with a lot of the details. These intercalary chapters alternate with the real action. It starts out with Captain Amos January and his small, but varied crew getting stranded on a small, unpopulated planet off the main trade routes. They know how to forage for the fuel they need without help, but find a treasure room with an inscrutably flowing artifact before they escape the planet.

Their dangerous flight from the planet leaves the ship damaged enough that Captain January must pledge the artifact as collateral to pay for repairs when they reach a civilized port. While they make a cargo run so they can afford to redeem the artifact, rumors start to circulate that the artifact has mysterious powers corresponding to an old legend about an alien mechanism that gives the holder powers of persuasion.

The January Dancer takes us on a tour that includes rebellion, piracy, imperial ambition, quiet guard duty, superhuman secret agents feared and obeyed by everyone, a quiet ungoverned unconquerable planet, and a hero willing to fore-go absolute power because of his concern for what would happen after his custodianship eventually ends: He can see that the artifact will spend more time in the hands of ambitious immoral men than in the care of those with a conscious.

The pacing is good, the characters are strong, and the scenery is varied without being too rushed. We get to spend the most time on New Eireann, a hard-scrabble planet that had hired a commercial firm to

manage their government contract. [The firm] sent in an honest administrator. By all accounts he ran a clean and honest administration though at first the Eireannaughta didn't realize that because they didn't know what one looked like. When they did, they revolted, because an administration that won't take bribes generally won't hand out favors, either.

That firm is replaced with the Interstellar Cargo Company (ICC), which is more amenable to skirting the edges, but seems to do a good job of managing commerce, keeping goods flowing efficiently among all the reachable stars.

The groups Flynn keeps an eye on include January's crew, the government and rebels on New Eireann, and the Hounds' Watch (the previously mentioned small corps of near-supermen responsible for ferreting out momentous plots and keeping the peace). Each has its internal conflicts and clues to add to the developing plot.

<SPOILER>I found it interesting that the ICC is depicted as being accepted by everyone for having cleaned up and regularized commerce while making a reasonable profit. Everyone seems content with this, until someone learns that they've discovered a way of circumventing the wormholes everyone uses, giving them a near instantaneous communications path. For some reason people consider this an unfair advantage, rather than a normal commercial development that benefits all of their customers. In most fiction, the opprobrium would have started with the fact that they were making money without doing anything more than ensuring that goods moved smoothly between planets. The fact that the disapproval didn't start until people found out that they had a secret technology was a little surprising.</SPOILER>

Most of the book is taken up with the adventuring, exploring, and intrigue. We don't find out until fairly late in the story what the artifact is good for, and only one of the characters thinks about any consequences beyond either ensuring the bads guys don't have it or trying to obtain it for themselves. The fact that his concern is expressed after the fact and not telegraphed to the readers or any other characters reduces its impact as a choice. It's a fait accompli by the time we hear about the issue, so there's no time to consider the issue. I thougth this reduced the dramatic impact considerably of what was apparently the core conflict in the story.

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