In the Spiral Arm, where civilizations are diverse and unwelcoming, the human diaspora persists, haunted by the memory of Earth, and by the ever-present horror beyond the Rift, “a place where some ancient god [drew] a knife across the galaxy’s throat[.]” Somewhere off the Electric Avenue, in the slow crawl of Newtonian space, a merchant ship’s chance discovery of a pre-human alien artifact sets players in motion in a game none of them understands.
But the tale begins in the bar on Jehovah where a harper seeks a story for her songs, and seeks it from the fractured mind of the Scarred Man. He’s only too qualified to tell the twisted tale of Captain January’s dancing stone, and what came of its discovery.
Michael Flynn, medievalist, statistician, and master storyteller, weaves a yarn so layered and so rich, that it’s a compliment to say that it’s slow moving, and demands a lot from the reader. There’s no Star Wars-esque rolling banner in this strange blend of hard sci-fi, space opera, and mournful Celtic poetry. The reader feels fully immersed — entangled — in a landscape so foreign that the only hope for clarity comes from deep immersion. Who is the Scarred Man? What lurks beyond the Rift? What is the tyranny of Dao Chetty and why do Those of Name inspire such terror? What is this Twisting Stone? Is the knowledge worth the price, when those who obtain this object of desire have an odd tendency to lose it — and their lives?
The Spiral Arm is haunted by ghosts. Some of these are assassins never seen until it’s too late, some faceless corporate entities, some bitter memories, and some the mere mirage of ships that passed long ago through roads of Electric Avenue, leaving their fading images in the walls of subluminal mud.
Flynn writes beautifully. Read his work, and try to maintain the prejudice that science fiction cannot be literature. The genre has evolved since the days when its stories were largely fables, tales for propagating, or agitating against, particular scientific, philosophical, or political systems. Now it is a genre whose best works struggle with the meaning of personhood, of what it means to be human, and what might still be true in a world very different from our own.
Flynn writes wonderfully, but the people and situations about which he writes are often unlovely — except at odd moments. This is not a book to recommend to someone who struggles with purity, to young people, or to anyone with a very sensitive conscience. (Please see the latter paragraphs.) There is much disorder on display, and the world itself seems scarred almost beyond repair, as if Tolkien’s “long defeat” were that many thousands of years further along. Yet it is a world masterfully realized, and one in which the sinful protagonists still carry within themselves a germ of light — just enough, despite what they are, to stay off total darkness. The Spiral Arm is not a world to get comfortable in, but, then again, our own is not a world in which to get comfortable.
Flynn’s is a melancholy world where odd fragments of light endure, trembling, like stars against a backdrop of near infinite dark. The author weaves Irish and Gaelic influences into the cultures of the worlds of the Periphery, a strategy which, besides being delightfully idiosyncratic, has a purpose. In fact, Flynn cleverly reframes the traditional reductionist-materialist superstition about man’s smallness and meaninglessness in a huge and heat-death-damned universe, subtly re-casting the melancholy of the stars as a meditation on the impermanence of this present darkness, but not, perhaps, of existence itself. This universe is a tale told, not by an idiot, but by a red-haired harper teasing meaning from a broken man’s bitter memories. Against such rough backdrops as are found on the Spiral Arm, even a single act of charity — such as one radical act of generosity towards a wretched street urchin that fundamentally reorients his life— stands out like a flickering torch. The reader is struck by light’s persistence, even in clay vessels, and by the implication that there may be more in existence than endless clay vessels.
A comparison with Alastair Reynolds’s enjoyable 2000 novel Revelation Space is both obvious and instructive here. Both novels fall roughly in the category of hard sci-fi/space opera, both involve a post-earth human race thriving on terraformed worlds, both feature a long since deceased, godlike alien race that seems to hover uncomfortably in the background, and both show us a world in which various kinds of transhumanist and machine-body manipulations are common. Both novels also feature pervasive religious language and various religious groups, none especially trustworthy. But besides their vast difference in style, plot, and purpose, there’s a subtle but noticeable difference in the metaphysical space they occupy. Reynolds’s world feels not only grim, but matter-of-factly materialist. As vast and interesting as it is, it’s ultimately self-referential. Flynn’s world is broken, dangerous, unpleasant, and populated by hard and seedy people, and yet his characters sense that in hoping for any real good at all, and in attempting to act on it, they are also hoping for something beyond what their own world, or their own selves, can offer.
Still, the book’s audience is limited by some of its content. Among other things, a female intelligence operative uses sex to influence or control her quarries, which includes several of the main protagonists. There are also frequent allusions to seedy behavior, and one very uncomfortable scene by which the author, without showing his hand too obviously, demonstrates futuristic notions of transgenderism and transhumanism, two areas of interest in modern sci-fi. Where other authors might normalize the combination of technology and gender — Looky what science can do! — or, perhaps, openly editorialize against it, Flynn immerses his reader in a world where individuals can manipulate gender. Those familiar with Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins will have a sense of what I’m talking about here. The whole episode with the body-altering, sissified hedonists on Peacock Junction is unsettling, leaving one repulsed at the thought of what human beings might do to themselves.
Yet in a genre with so much atheism, Flynn’s novels somehow open the metaphysical roof, letting in a vapor of transcendent meaning, without altering the rules and concerns of the sci-fi genre. His stories, while very entertaining and engrossing, hurt the heart, leaving it uncomfortable and vicariously fractured, like the fractured mind of the Scarred Man. Readers familiar with Flynn’s blog, with his Catholicism, and with his occasional contributions to Catholic apologetics, might be surprised to discover that his fiction does not indoctrinate — it deviates. It’s written in crooked lines, and populated by crooked, but somehow admirable, people. Without being Christ-centered in the sense of openly propagating faith, his books are, in my opinion, Christ-haunted.
For regular sci-fi readers, and for readers able to “clinically distance” themselves from disordered elements in novels, this novel would be one of the best of many choices in its genre. But this is not a book I’d recommend to just anyone, and I do think that Flynn sometimes goes further than the story itself requires. The book’s sheer quality, as well as my own feeling of awe after having recently re-read it, compel me to give it four stars, but some of the content precludes both a higher rating and Forum Fit certification. Still, for readers of the appropriate disposition in search of a contemporary series, it would be hard to find a more absorbing, challenging, and poetic recommendation.
 The January Dancer is a stand-alone novel, but it’s followed by Up Jim River (2010), In the Lion’s Mouth (2012), and On the Razor’s Edge (2013). Together these constitute the Spiral Arm series.
- Briget ban’s real name is Francine Thompson, very similar to Francis Thompson, a fragment of whose poem “The Hound of Heaven” appears in passing in the book. This can’t be unimportant, since Bridget ban is one of the Ardry’s hounds. What is the author trying to do here?
- With the previous question in mind, why do you suppose the novel’s only main character with explicit knowledge of/belief in the Triune nature of God is also the story’s proverbial “harlot”?
- Why does the Scarred Man hate the Fudir? Do the Fudir’s actions merit this hate?
- How do you regard the actions of the book’s true protagonist? In what way were this character’s actions at the end heroic? Did they make you want to follow this character into future books?
- Obviously the Spiral Arm is a veritable soup of races, cultures, and religions, and Flynn incorporated many actual historical cultures into its workways, folkways, and placeways. What are some that you recognized?
- Many of the characters have minds or bodies that have been augmented or altered in various (often useful) ways. Are there circumstances where any of this could be good or helpful? If so, where exactly do we draw the line?
- Transhumanism is a movement that sees human-machine integration as essentially inevitable given the current trajectory of technology. How inevitable is it, really?