Review of Firestar, Rogue Star, Lodestar, and Falling Stars by Michael Flynn. A grand space opera about a privately funded space program and the fear of impact events.
Mariesa van Huyten — or simply The Rich Lady — is obsessed with funding a private space program. She inherited most of an industrial empire from her late grandfather, fueling her obsession. Her motivation for funding the program is an all-consuming fear of an asteroid impact event and how devastating that would be to human civilization. Mariesa has schemes and ideas comparable to those of our real-world entrepreneur Elon Musk.
In a world where no one has any grandiose dreams anymore, Mariesa has to carry the weight of the World and plant the seeds of dreams leading to space exploration. The need for scientific progress to materialize her space program starts with educational reforms and the kids who will be the scientists of the future. Kids who are capable of still dreaming, rather than the current generation of scientists set in their way. This long-term approach towards a goal is interesting in its own way.
Having been written in the late 1990’s, the author developed an obsession comparable to Mariesa’s obsession for asteroids: Cyberspace and all the cool new words and ideas he saw there. A computer hacking character, Jimmy Poole, is written into the story, and the word bonanza begins. The words of the digital age that author Michael Flynn saw dominating everyday speech in the future is a small thrill in their own. At least to anyone with a mild interest in the history of the Internet.
Throughout the series, there are a dozen descriptive and interesting interactions with fictive computer user interfaces. Some of the user interface designs are intriguing and very elaborate. Others, like those involving voice inputs, are less convincing but probably close to what we have today. The third book in the series, Lodestar, starts off by describing what we today call “the Internet of things”. Halfway through Lodestar, we’re into full-fledged virtual environments.
Towards the end of the same book, however, … the technical lingo goes off into just bizarreness before returning back to Earth. Technological progression can be tracked throughout the series. From small things like landline to mobile phones to phone watches. Smartwatches with UIs that the characters dislike. (Even fictional smartwatches seem to have trouble finding a purpose for their existence.)
An especially interesting piece of everyday assistive technologies to come out of the Firestar universe is the Artificial Stupid construct. These personal assistant softwares are geniuses compared to the Google Now, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana personal digital assistances of today. They are, like today’s technology, kind of stupid and thickheaded.
Character development is one of the series’ strongest points. The characters are real, strong, and they are driven by their own goals and convictions. There are many obsessive personalities with believable burning passions. I especially enjoyed Harriet van Huyten — the mother — who starts out shallow and devious but is later revealed to be both smart and delightful. The space opera genre has a tendency to include entirely dead supporting characters. In Firestar, every character is a person in their own right.
The language is rich and descriptive. Although many voices have complained about the descriptiveness, it’s what allows each character to better express themselves. Without this, the story would not be nearly as fulfilling. There are some cute details here and there that change the setting just the right amount not to be boring. Often, these extra details drive the whole character forward.
Firestar is a great piece of space opera. As the genre implies, it’s long-winded and the final pay-off isn’t all that exciting. However, the Firestar series is worth a few good hours of reading. There are no great plot twists and you realize early on what the ultimate challenge towards the end will be.
I recommend Blackstone Audio’s reading of the books. They are available through Audible. Their narrator, Malcolm Hillgartner, has an authoritarian and pleasant voice.