Prometheus

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Volume 29, Number 1, Fall 2010

Up Jim River

By Michael Flynn

Tor, 2010
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

Up Jim River is a sequel to Flynn’s The January Dancer, a 2009 Prometheus Award nominee, with a third volume clearly in the works. Flynn moves the characters of The January Dancer’s framing narrative to center stage, sending them on a quest of their own through the civilizations of his future spiral arm. As in the first volume, we see a complex mixture of elements from Earth’s many cultures. One of Flynn’s favored ways of conveying this is through language; most of the characters speak forms of English most of the time, but often with skewed grammar, distinctive accents, a vocabulary partly borrowed from other languages and partly made up of mispronounced and misspelled English words (“v’gedda-boddi” as a response to being thanked), and occasional literal translations from non-English languages, as when a character addresses another in the classical Greek style as “O best one.” In the process he sets his readers a series of puzzles, of which I’ve figured out some...I was happy to have it confirmed that the world of Dao Chetty was originally “Tau Ceti,” and I can see that Murkanglis is “American English”...but others still leave me perplexed. Readers who like linguistic play, as I do, will find this fascinating.

Many of the world do have a clear cultural source on Earth: Thistlewaite is modeled on Imperial China; Nuxrjes’r has reminiscences of Hinduism. Boldly Go is an amazonian feminist separatist world. Others, such as Harpaloon, are more complex mixtures. Perhaps the most complex mixture is the “Terrans,” refugees from a subjugated Earth dreaming of going home someday, like other diaspora peoples. In the spiral arm, Terrans are a classic middleman minority, leading a marginalized existence that gives them freedom sometimes denied to more respectable people.

Freedom is a scarce commodity in this interstellar future. On the first page of the story, Flynn quotes the ancient Greek saying that “the strong take what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” and his future is one where this is grimly true. One of his two central characters, “the scarred man,” is a victim of manipulation by Those of Name, the merciless rulers of Dao Chetty, for example...Flynn gives the impression of an entire world governed by mafiosi. There is nothing in this setting like a meaningful hope of freedom, or even a protest against repressive societies. Nor is the primary theme related to the dangerous allure of power, as was the case for The January Dancer. So I can’t nominate this sequel for the Prometheus Award.

Despite this, I found it worth reading. The setting is a delight for anyone who takes pleasure in human cultural diversity. And the characterization is richer than in the first volume; I grew particularly fond of Teodorq Nagarajan, a man from a barbaric culture setting out to imitate the example of Heracles...and proves his own worth in the end. This is Flynn in a Poul Anderson mood: In love with heroic sagas and with the interstellar future as a space for the cultural diversity that Earth is now losing.

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