Firestar by Michael Flynn

I will go on record saying that I enjoyed Atlas Shrugged more than I didn’t. Ayn Rand and I wouldn’t see eye to eye in a number of areas, and I have a feeling she’d hold me in contempt in a few other areas, given her aggressive atheism and disdain for charity and my relatively orthodox Catholicism. But for all that, there are a lot of sentiments in it that I can admire, like Dagny’s push for exceptionalism in the face of a world that worships mediocrity, and frankly, I think that in all that pontificating is buried a fine science fiction novel.

Firestar isn’t Atlas Shrugged; in some ways, it’s as anti-Atlas Shrugged as you can get while still remaining in the libertarian end of things. There’s no John Galt analogue; the Dagny Taggart analogue is the one running the show, and she’s not withdrawing from the public. She’s grabbing the reins and bending society to fit her vision. The government lacks the malice that it had in Atlas Shrugged, and is instead mostly just incompetent.  But Firestar shares in enough of Atlas Shrugged‘s atmosphere and premise to make the comparison, if not inevitable, then useful. This is a more even keeled Atlas Shrugged without the pontificating, swapping out trains for a space program and despair for optimism.

There are two major threads to Firestar‘s narrative: the first follows Barry Fast, a public school English teacher in New Jersey; the second follows Ned Dubois, a down on his luck test pilot. By the time the novel proper starts, in 1999, public schools in general are a disaster, the global economy is reeling from a recession and the clock is ticking towards the next recession. In short, things are a mess, and without intervention, they’re likely to get worse. Barry’s school, noted for generally failing its students, is contracted out to a private company, Mentor Academies, who comes in with a sweeping set of changes that are more or less viewed as a step back by many people– abandoning modern teaching models in favor of a more classically minded model and increased expectations on student behavior. Meanwhile, Ned, having been kicked out of the X Planes Program for pushing the envelope too hard, is working as a bouncer in a bar in Corpus Christi when he is approached by a representative of Daedalus Industries, a tiny Brazilian aerospace firm with secret plans to make a reusable, single stage to orbit spacecraft. The program is all very hush hush and far too large for a small aerospace company to really be managing on its own.

Behind all this is Mariesa Van Huyten, heiress to a vast fortune and the Van Huyten business empire– more of a zaibatsu, really, than an empire, as its holdings run from the Mentor Academy schools to all the way to the aerospace industry. Mariesa is one of the few people who know that another recession is looming and one of the few people who appreciate how society is crumbling, and most likely the only person in a position to do anything about it. Driven by a deep and secret fear that she keeps hidden from everyone else, she has constructed layers and layers of shell companies and diversified holdings to make sure that her plans come to fruition.

So I said that Firestar has enough in common with Atlas Shrugged to provoke comparison, and you can probably see it in the description. A culture sunk into ineptitude. Virtuous CEO recruiting skilled people; Ned and his fellow test pilots fit that mold, with Mentor Academies designed to manufacture more skilled people for recruitment when they come into age.  Private sector enterprises blow anything the government can field out of the water, provoking legislative rage. In that regard, it mostly pulls the good from Atlas Shrugged and leaves the bad behind. There are no giant “I am John Galt” chapters where a diatribe lays out the author’s philosophy just in case you didn’t catch it in the last 900 pages; there’s no wrong-headed screeds against charity. Most of Firestar‘s characters are too proud for charity, but there’s no distasteful sneer in its direction. Those characters are all fairly well drawn and complex; there aren’t any one-note cardboard cutouts in the main characters, and there’s no mustache twirling villainy.

A few things fall flat for me, though. Firestar‘s space program is well researched and put together well enough to pass inspection by an aviation buff like myself; but for whatever reason, I never quite bought the test pilots’ love of flying. There’s a part of me wondering if I’m just broken from exposure to the excellent Macross Plus‘ test pilot characters, or if maybe there was something in the audiobook narrator that kept me from connecting to them. (It’s a question that’s been getting a lot of traction in my head lately– how much does the narrator affect the way I perceive the book?) My other major complaint comes back to the characters as well: Firestar is occasionally prone to soap opera antics of the sort that make you groan and want to strangle the characters. There’s a fine line between character drama affecting plot and getting fed up with the stupidity of some (fictional) people, and I’m not entirely sure Flynn managed to stay on the right side of that line at all times here. That having been said, Firestar is a fine tale of near future (well, recent past) space exploration and well worth the investment.

Side note: I’m not sure what this adds to Firestar, but it seems that this book and its sequels take place in the same universe as Flynn’s excellent The January Dancer. I, for one, am a sucker for future histories that run from the present day to the distant future. (For what it’s worth.)

  • Joseph Moore

    I Liked Firestar as well. Wondered if Elon Musk ever read it. The only things in it that struck me as not-so-plausible: the schools enduring a takeover (in California, where the Teacher’s Union is a near-absolute gatekeeper to all political action, that is not happening) and the government’s fairly passive reaction to the project – Flynn, who has actual political experience, probably knows better than I, but – really? Not crushed like bug? But I can go with those things for the sake of the story.

    Haven’t read January Dancer yet, don’t know where it falls in the timeline. Hobartium, the high-temp superconductor used in the magsails of The River of Stars, is named for its inventor, Hobart, one of the students in Firestar. So, the Firestar Universe extends at least as far as The Wreck of the River of Stars. Some of Flynn’s short stories also seem to reside there.