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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Firestar, by Michael Flynn

Yesterday's post was on Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn. I enjoyed the book a lot, so decided to read another by Flynn. The only other book he has written, available through our local library, is Firestar (Tor Books, 1996). So I checked it out, and started to read.

The book lacks some of the most appealing features of Eifelheim. There are no aliens, it's set in the present, and there didn't seem to be any major theological issues.

Reading on, I found theological issues, all right, but not cosmic questions -- more important ones. Some of the characters struggled with ambition, and its consequences. As Matthew 16:26 puts it: For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (ESV)

The book is about a program to put humans on asteroids. The guiding force behind this program is Mariesa van Huyten, a young heiress who is also intelligent, and, usually, wise. She does not use government funding, but does work with various other corporations to accomplish her goal, usually without letting their CEOs know what the ultimate goal really is. During the course of the book, she gradually sells her soul -- her idealism, her concern for others -- for a corporate and technological goal. And she knows that she has done so:

A sense that among the gains there had been losses. Hidden losses. Things she had sacrificed precisely to make those gains. Had that been what Keith had meant when he had warned her -- very nearly his last words -- that "the best things are lost in victory"? (p. 403)

It took every bit of strength in her to remind herself that Styx did not matter in the long-term scheme of things. That even she herself did not matter. Only the Goal. Always the Goal. Asteroid. Comet. It was only a matter of time. Next millennium. Next century. Next year. It did not matter. "You shall know neither the day nor the hour." Earth had to be ready. Don't let the Goal eat you up, Belinda had warned her. (p. 410)

Toward the end of the book, another warning from Belinda: ". . . Too many megawatt lasers or impulse engines . . . or asteroids . . . can distract you from the important things. . . ." (p. 520, ellipses in original)

Since the book appears to be the first of four related novels, perhaps she will re-gain her soul later. Keith is her CFO, until his death by heart attack, and the only person in the book who is unambiguously good.

Mariesa doesn't really perform any overt evil acts, or order anyone else to do so, and some rather nasty acts are done by others to her, or to her companies. But the goal consumes her so much that she uses others merely as a means to an end. As one of Ursula K. Le Guin's characters put it, in an honored science fiction work:

". . . However, the mission I am on overrides all personal debts and loyalties."
"If so," said the stranger with fierce certainty, "it is an immoral mission." The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Ace, 1969) p. 104.

One aspect of Firestar that I didn't expect is that one of Mariesa's corporations is educational -- it makes money, or at least keeps even, by taking over failing school systems. The book includes some understanding of what teaching is about, and its problems, hardly standard science fiction fare. Some of the students from one of these schools have various important roles later in the book. One of these is the Styx mentioned in the second quote above. Belinda, mentioned in two of the quotes, is director of the educational corporation. She may be good through and through, but we don't see enough of her to know.

Another important character seems, in a way, to regain his soul. He apparently gives up a cherished ambition out of love for his wife.

I don't wish to give away any more of the plot.

Thanks for reading.


Keetha said...

If ONLY I liked sci-fi

Martin LaBar said...

You can go to heaven without liking fantastic literature, or at least I hope you can, or my wife may not make it.