Up Jim River by Michael Flynn
There are times when you think you’ve hit pay-dirt (an evocative term from the mining industry which signals the possibility the humble-looking earth you’re digging through contains ores in sufficient quantity so that, after extraction and refining, you’ll be able to afford that island in the Caribbean you’ve always promised yourself) yet proves to be just more dirt to move out of your way by hand. So it is with Up Jim River by Michael Flynn (Tor, 2010) The January Dancer II which starts off like an express train with wonderfully evocative language and a not-wholly-original quest, then slows to a walking pace, and soon gets bogged down in its own pretentiousness. This is such a shame because, with a little more wit and a savage pruning, this could have been excellent.
This is a sequel to The January Dancer with the action picking up some twenty years later (i.e. long enough for Bridget-ban’s daughter, Lucia Thompson aka Mearana, to have been born and grown up into a determined young lady). Mummy Hound has disappeared and the Kennel, spy agency to the stars, has officially declared her probably dead. Lucia refuses to accept the probability of death — Mummy spies are very hard to kill — and tracks down The Scarred Man aka Donovan aka The Fudir, one of the three people who were with Bridget-ban on the earlier mission (both Greystroke and Hugh offer assistance in this quest — I hope you’re keeping the numbers of people here straight). We now come to the core of what could have been fascinating.
I’m heavily burdened by memories of characters like Miro Hetzel and Magnus Ridolph from Jack Vance, Retief by Keith Laumer, and so on. These are men of action who roam the galaxy, righting wrongs and fighting incompetence wherever it raises its ugly head. More importantly, they do it with a swashbuckling smile and a marked reluctance to engage in violence unless it’s absolutely unavoidable. This preference for jaw-jaw over war-war was at odds with the mind-numbing stupidity of much space opera of the day but, when it came to gentle peregrination about the galaxy, there was no-one better to accompany you than a character created by Jack Vance. There would be moments of travelogue description, a wry nugget of previously unacknowledged history, and some derring-do when required — Vance was not averse to blowing up a moon if it would make an artistic point.
So The Scarred Man could be a modern recreation of this time-honoured character as we set off to find the lost Mummy. Indeed, every word in the first twenty or thirty pages is Vancean and gives rise to such hope and expectation. . . Ah well, such are the dreams of frustrated old readers. Even the idea of the character is inherently interesting. For reasons not clear, the mind of this former spy has been fractured into separate personalities. To get anything done, there must either be a committee meeting and something approaching a democratic decision, or one mind must assume control, e.g. Brute to fight, Sleuth to investigate, and so on. At times, this lack of instinctive response leaves our hero literally paralysed as disputing personalities argue what should be done. While experiencing the equivalent of an epileptic fit is not inherently dangerous in ordinary life, it can be a distinct disadvantage to an ex-superspy trying to make a come-back. So unless Brute can take over in an emergency, this is an essentially vulnerable man attempting to shepherd an inexperienced young woman around the galaxy on what may be a fruitless search for her mother. On the way, they acquire a couple of helpers, meet up briefly with Hound Greystroke and Pup Hugh, and catch up with the absent-minded academic who’d been doing the initial research that had so fascinated Missing Mummy. This leaves them planet-hopping and later stuck up Jim River without a paddle. All this could have been delightful if there had been more inherently interesting action, or more comic interludes. As it is, the whole enterprise grows tiresome, not least because of all the ghastly reproduced accents and garbled languages that the various people speak. I could have coped with travelogue if it had all been in English but this gaelic (punning reference to galactic — yes, the humour is this desperate) is just so annoying, it swamps any enjoyment that might have come from the plot. Ah, yes, the plot. Frankly, it’s fairly obvious what they’re going to find at the end although the nuts and bolts of the final discovery are quite well thought out and the reason for Mummy’s failure to return is quite satisfying.
So Up Jim River has its moments but, like one of the characters they meet — a leader who’s held prisoner because no-one else wants to be the leader — you just end up thinking life’s too short to read every word in space opera books like this. Skipping gives you the story and allows you to escape the enveloping mind-numbing before it completely shuts down the brain.
Magnificent artwork from Sparth.