The January Dancer by Michael Flynn Review

Michael Flynn is one of the more unusual figures in modern SF and especially in technically rigorous science fiction, one who delves into areas seldom touched by other writers:  taking a “hard” science approach to social science in In the Country of the Blind; combining nuts-and-bolts hard science fiction with emotionally charged, character-driven tragedy in The Wreck of the River of Stars; and setting a First Contact story in 14th-century Germany in Eifelheim.  With The January Dancer, Flynn turns his talents to far-future space opera.

Michael Flynn

Long ago, humanity was united under the Commonwealth, but that time is past.  On the outskirts of human space, the loose alliance of worlds called the United League of the Periphery is locked in a standoff with the Confederation of Central Worlds, ruled by the mysterious despots known only as Those of Name.  Much of the knowledge of the previous age has been lost, and the human race has become stagnant, replicating the technology of their ancestors by rote but no longer comprehending the scientific principles by which it was created in the first place.

Beyond settled space, Captain Amos January and the crew of the free trader New Angeles are forced to make an emergency landing on an empty world after a navigational mishap.  Excavating what they think is a local mineral deposit in order to get materials for repairs, January and his crew instead stumble upon ruins of one of the now-gone alien civilizations that left their mark on many of the worlds where humans now live.  Seeing an opportunity to recoup the financial losses that will result from their unwanted detour, they take an artifact from the ruins, a strange stone that subtly shifts in shape by unknown means, that will come to be known as the January Dancer.

It soon passes from Captain January’s possession, moving from owner to owner as rumors about the powers the Dancer possesses spread and rival factions across the League and beyond contend for possession of it.  It soon falls to three people to keep the power of the January Dancer from the wrong hands – Little Hugh O’Carroll, an exiled politician-turned-guerrilla; Bridget Ban, an agent of the Hounds of Ardry, defenders the Periphery who keep a watchful eye on the passages linking it to the Confederation; and a mysterious man called the Fudir.  Their pursuit of it will take them across the Periphery, and they must face the many great powers that are contending for the Dancer, from pirate warlords to interstellar corporations to the Confederation and Those of Name themselves.

I liked The January Dancer a great deal.  It is less than 350 pages, but felt longer – not because it was slow or boring, but because Flynn drew me into the story, setting, and characters strongly enough to make me want to take my time so that I could thoroughly chew on and digest each part before I moved on.  The plot is exciting and lets Flynn take the story through a variety of settings and characters as the Dancer moves from world to world and owner to owner.

Though the subject matter is serious, Flynn writes the story with a dryly humorous and sometimes playful style and tone.  The writing does a nice job of offering something different from the relentlessly straightforward style typical of space opera and hard science fiction without becoming gratuitously flowery or seeming impressed by its own cleverness.  It also gives the story a good-natured, largely cheerful feeling that I enjoyed, and which may appeal to readers interested in a change of pace from the dark, grim tone common in modern space opera.

Far-future science fiction set in the aftermath of the fall of a great interstellar civilization is quite common, but Flynn’s use of the trope is interesting.  Though civilization has to an extent been restored, the human society portrayed is stagnant and in some ways primitive.  They have sophisticated engineering ability, and there is enough technical knowledge surviving from better days to maintain an interstellar civilization with sophisticated technology, but their understanding of the underlying natural principles is limited.  There is little or no concept of scientific knowledge as something that humans can learn themselves – in the present age’s garbled “history” of humanity prior to the fall of the Commonwealth, scientists like Einstein are remembered not as people who discovered the laws of nature, but as gods who decreed them.  The book begins, referring to the light of distant stars, with the line:

“Everything in the universe is older than it seems.  Blame Einstein for that.”

At the time, this seems like a figure of speech, but it later becomes apparent that in the worldview of the society Flynn creates, someone who “blames” Einstein for the speed of light means it quite literally.  The idea of scientific progress is so basic to thought in our own society that removing it helps create a fictional future where people live and act in ways that are largely recognizable to us today, and yet seems quite alien.  I liked this a lot – science fiction is full of worlds technologically, socially, and politically different from our own, but the sort of subtle but profound difference in worldview Flynn portrays is seen far less often.

The January Dancer is an excellent book that I recommend for anyone who enjoys space opera or science fiction adventure stories, and especially for fans of those fields looking for something a bit different from the norm in tone and style.  Michael Flynn has once again demonstrated himself to be a unique and powerful voice in science fiction.