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Literature / Spiral Arm

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The Spiral Arm is a Space Opera series by Michael Flynn, consisting thus far of

  • The January Dancer
  • Up Jim River
  • In the Lion's Mouth
  • On the Razor's Edge

They take place in a far-future galaxy, caught between the League on one side, and the Confederacy on the other, of a starless rift, in a great game of intrigue and adventure.

The setting is further in the future of his previous Firestar series, a near future SF novel set about private space travel being financed by a female industrialist. Earth attained an advanced civilization with AI and nanotechnology, and underwent periods of successive Chinese and Indian world hegemony(known to the far future people as Zhogwo, a corruption of the Chinese term Zhonguo for Middle Kingdom and Tantamiz, a Tamil term for their language respectively).

Wormhole variants called Krasnikov tubes and sublight seedships were used for interstellar colonization and an Earth ruled interstellar empire called the Commonwealth was founded and most nations on Earth founded colonies, which were oppressed and called the "Lesser Worlds". Evidence of an ancient empire of silicon based alien life called the People of Sand and Iron was discovered and used by the Chinese and Indian regimes in the Commonwealth to justify oppressing the colony worlds as a defense measure against an alien threat.

The colony on Tau Ceti, now referred to in the contemporary language as Dao Chetty, revolted and founded a totalitarian regime called the Confederation of Centralized Worlds ruled by a secretive elite nomenklatura called Those of Name and destroyed the Commonwealth, and initiated a forced population transfer called the Cleansing against their former oppressors on Earth. The Cleansing included deliberately mixing nationalities to stifle revolt among the deportees through linguistic and cultural conflict. AI and nanotechnology were lost during this period.

Eventually, after a period of interregnum, a new interstellar age comes about with the United League of the Periphery, a series of colony worlds ruled by the Ardry monarchy and supported by their Hound secret agents in rivalry with the Confederation.

Fallen colonies exist at the edge called the Wild, with such worlds as Oram and Enjrun existing in savagery and independent planets such as Cynthia and Gladiola vying for power with the larger interstellar nations.

Worlds have formed their own cultures and ethnicities and Terrans, the deported Earth people live in segregated ghettoes on various worlds called Terran Corners. Science, much of it lost with the Cleansing, has devolved to a syncretic religion that worships Newton, Einstein, Maxwell and Schroedinger as literal gods to be prayed to and the universe is in a kind of transhuman medieval stasis.

The novels focus on intrigue between these groups, various individuals and the search for prehuman artifacts of the People of Sand and Iron.

Tropes included in these works:

  • Air-Vent Passageway: Graceful Bintsaif suspects that Ravn Olafsdottr and Mearana used one to escape Bridget ban's mansion, but Bridget ban dismisses the idea and figures out they escaped by other means.
  • Alien Geometries: Some of the artifacts of the people of sand and iron exhibit this, most notably the Ouroboros Circuit. At first glance, it looks like a wreath of tangled wires; but if you try and trace the wires with your eyes, and you'll find yourself staring into hyperspace.
  • …And That Little Girl Was Me: As the scarred man tells the story of January's Dancer to Mearana the harpist, it is eventually revealed that one of the characters is actually him before he acquired his scars: he was Donovan, aka the Fudir.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Arson, rebellion and leaving your licensed township.
  • Artifact of Doom: January's Dancer is believed to be the Twisting Scepter of King Stonewall, an ancient prehuman weapon of incredible power. As the scarred man tells Mearana his story about it, she realizes that everyone who comes into possession of the Dancer dies soon after. It's revealed at the end that people aren't using the Dancer, it's using them: it isn't King Stonewall's scepter, but King Stonewall himself.
  • Battle in the Center of the Mind: The scarred man fights one in Up Jim River. Nine of his fragmented personalities team up in his mind to destroy the tenth, "Nothing", a suicidal personality which is trying to kill him.
  • Big Dumb Object: The underground treasuries.
  • Black Box: Much of the technology humanity uses is no longer understood, and in fact believed to be so far beyond human understanding that it could only have been crafted by Gods. A distinction is explicitly drawn between "science" and "engineering". "Science", the understanding of how technologies work, is considered religiously mystical and beyond human understanding; the most that men can aspire to is "engineering", creating working reproductions of existing technology.
    Tina Zhi: It is Technical. It can be imitated, but not understood.
  • Blessed with Suck: You find a marvelous array of treasures — that you can't remove.
  • Bodyguard Betrayal: Paul Feeley, the Radiant Name, refuses to allow his Protectors to retreat when his residence comes under fire because he is defended by his sparkle armor, disregarding the fact that the Protectors are not similarly equipped. Disgusted by the Radiant Name's disregard for the lives of those who serve him, his captain-Protector orders the retreat and then kills his master himself.
  • Bottled Heroic Resolve: Booster
  • Butterfly of Death and Rebirth: Used metaphorically
  • Buy Them Off: Werguild is offered, after a civil war.
  • The Cardinal Virtues: The harper tells the emperor that courage is one of the Four Great Strengths, and when he asks, that the other three are prudence, justice, and moderation.
  • Cincinnatus: Cited in an argument, with George Washington and two more names.
  • The City Narrows: Terran Corner on Jehovah
  • Cliffhanger: Up Jim River and In the Lion's Mouth
  • Compelling Voice: What the Dancer gives
  • Cool Mask: The Secret Name wears a golden mask with the semblance of the sun.
  • Corrupt Bureaucrat: On one planet, a country revolts from a honest administration.
  • Cyborg: Domino Tight is transformed into a powerful combat cyborg by the Technical Name.
  • Daddy Had a Good Reason for Abandoning You: Sometimes you really have to deal with something dangerous.
  • Disappeared Dad: the harper was raised by her mother alone.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Discussed in a subverted form.
  • Dramatic Thunder: When the storm first strikes.
  • Driven to Suicide: There are a couple of examples during the civil war in the Lion's Mouth. Shadow Prime, the mentor of all Shadows, is driven to despair by the sight of his students divided and slaughtering one another; and Kelly Stapellaufer, whose infidelity provided a pretext for the beginning of the civil war, kills both her lovers and then herself.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: When Mearna first meets the scarred man, he spends so much time at the bar on Jehovah drowning his past traumas in drink that he practically lives there.
  • Due to the Dead: Ravn promises a proper burial to Donovan.
  • Dysfunctional Family: The Hounds are somewhat likely this, according to noe.
  • The Exile: Fa Li, according to those at court
  • Famed in Story: The civil war was immortalized in song before it was four weeks old.
  • Fearless Fool: The Brute
  • Feudal Future: The Ardry — or king.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: In the civil war.
  • Fisher King: The emperor of the morning dew really hates that his subjects believe this. After all, if the land's behavior reflects the emperor's will, then everything bad that happens must be the emperor's fault. And since the planet is ravaged by frequent earthquakes, there's always some new disaster to blame on the emperor.
  • Flashback: Many of returning memories for Donovan
  • Friendly Enemy: After a civil war, the two sides often join to sing of the various exploits.
  • Friend or Foe?: A problem with an undercover war.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: Discussed in a subverted form.
  • Good Samaritan: An undercover Hound helps Domino Tight by giving him "booster" after an ambush, risking his own cover by using League medical equipment in Confederate territory, for no reason other than basic decency.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Bridget is furious when she hears another woman seduced Donovan.
  • Happiness in Slavery: Podiin, a servant of Gidula who begs not to be freed.
  • Harmless Lady Disguise: Hugh uses it.
  • Hates Everyone Equally: Donovan considers this to be a positive quality of Jehovans.
    Jehovans did not like Terrans, but Jehovans did not like anyone; and as long as they did not dislike Terrans more than anyone else, Donovan counted that as warm embrace.
  • Help Face Turn: Do not ignore that you have armor and your men dont'
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: A danger of repression
  • Honorary Uncle: Does not make a man less dangerous.
  • Honor Before Reason: Burning down your own ammunition factory to keep guns out of the war.
  • I Gave My Word: Hugh's motive for returning to New Eireann.
  • I Have Many Names: The narrator introduces the scarred man with observations about how many names he has, and he is not the only character to have a lot. Many of the important characters have at least two, their birth-name and their office-name. Some of the characters have also changed names, used aliases, and accumulated titles, resulting in a truly impressive number of appellations. For instance, there is Ringbao della Costa, aka Ludovic IX Krauzer, aka Slim, aka Little Hugh O'Carroll, aka the Ghost of Ardow, aka Rinty.
  • I Know You Know I Know: Is a good reason to confide in your enemy.
  • I Owe You My Life: Donovan saves Billy Chins from a lynch mob on Harpaloon. Afterwards, Billy insists that by the custom of atangku, Billy's life now belongs to Donovan and he is obligated to become Donovan's servant.
  • In Harm's Way: Brute's opinion
  • In-Universe Catharsis: A drug used for a vision quest has substantial effects on Donovan.
  • Invisibility Cloak: One of the Seven Wonders of lost technology from the time of the Commonwealth is a high-tech invisibility cloak. The existence of the cloaks are kept secret, and they are used only by Those of Name.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: When Khembold Darling and Number Two decide that Mearana has outlived her usefulness, they switch to calling her "it".
  • It Was a Gift: The harper's necklace
  • Jack of All Trades: Black Shuck is a Hound of the Ardry who is highly esteemed for his skill in a great many different areas; he is said to be best at nothing, but second-best at absolutely everything.
  • Kill the Ones You Love: Gidula views affection as a weakness, and personally kills anyone he begins to feel affection for in order to free himself from that weakness. He killed his wife, infant child, and number one minion for this reason, and attempts to kill Ravn Olafsdottr as well.
  • King in the Mountain: Hugh escapes and promises to return
  • La Résistance: The Loyalists
  • Last Kiss: In memory, Donovan could not wait for one.
  • Living Legend: Zorba
  • Lost Technology: The technology of the ancient Commonwealth, much of which was lost in the Purges that unsettled humanity from Terra and scattered it across the stars. Some remaining Commonwealth technologies are known as the "Seven Wonders" and are carefully controlled.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father/Luke, You Are My Father: Both in a fraught scene
  • MacGuffin: Discussed
  • Magpies as Portents (One for Sorrow, Two for Joy nursery rhyme): Invoked
  • Mama Bear: Bridget, about Mearana
  • The Man Behind the Man
  • Manly Tears: Pyati defends his, revealing a death.
  • Meaningful Rename: Dubbing Five "Pyati"
  • Mexican Standoff: One occurs between Donovan and Ekadrina Seanmazy during the battle on Yuts'ga.
    Donovan: This is what Terrans call a 'Mexican Standoff'.
    Ekadrina: Mexican. Ack. And how do 'dese 'standoffs' end?
    Donovan: Badly, usually.
  • Missing Mom: Mearana the harpist's motivation in Up Jim River is to locate her mother, who disappeared a year ago.
  • Mistaken Identity: Most everyone believes that the scarred man's original identity is Geshler Padaborn, rebel leader of Padaborn's Rising. When the scarred man fully regains his memory, he realizes that he isn't Padaborn.
  • Mook Horror Show: During the infiltration of the Gayshot Bo, the narrative briefly switches to the perspective of the Magpies getting picked off one by one by the heroes.
    Magpie Seven Bhatvik had thought himself third from the rear, but when he glanced over his shoulder on the stairwell he saw no one behind him. This was not a good thing to see, and he shivered a bit with unreasoning fear.
  • More Hero than Thou: Issa insisted on staying and covering his retreat.
  • The Mutiny: Brought down one maxraj — Donovan reflects on the analogy
  • Never Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight: An attempt to avert it by burning down the ammunition factory means
  • Never Speak Ill of the Dead: Red Sweeney sold out Little Hugh O'Carroll before dying. When Little Hugh reminisces fondly about their past friendship, the Fudir decides not to tell him of Red Sweeney's treachery.
  • The Nondescript: Greystroke
  • Oireland: A country puts it on for the tourist trade.
  • Old Flame Fizzle: Despite Fire-Forged Friends
  • One-Gender Race: The inhabitants of the planet Boldly Go are all female; in fact, it is illegal for any man to set foot on the world.
  • Ontological Mystery: Given the Dancer's powers, how can you know what really is happening?
  • Opposites Attract
  • Ouroboros: The Ouroboros Circuit
  • Patron Saint: Cecelia and Jude are invoked.
  • The Plan: Retrieving Donovan
  • Precursors: The "people of sand and iron", also known as the prehumans, who disappeared before humanity reached the stars and left many artifacts behind. Only they didn't actually disappear; they fought a war against Terra, and afterwards King Stonewall used his power of mind control to make humanity believe that the prehumans were ancient legends. However, some knowledge of the prehumans survived in folktales, and the prehumans themselves still live in the Rift and ambush travelers.
  • Proud Warrior Race
  • The Quest: Discussed. Also invoked
  • Ramming Always Works: When his fleet is destroyed, the Molnar attempts to ram Hot Gates with his ship. However, Fir Li is expecting the tactic and had prepared for it beforehand, allowing him to successfully evade.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Tina Zhi has used one of the Seven Vestiges to extend her lifespan. It is not clear exactly how old she is, but it is many times a normal human lifespan.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Many in the League view Fir Li's assignment to the edge of the Rift as this. Fir Li, however, is quite happy with the posting; it is exactly the duty he wanted.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: Jumdar's characterization of the Loyalists.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: Red Sweeney sells out Little Hugh, and receives three bullets as a reward. The Fudir thinks that he was a fool for expecting any other payment.
  • Rule of Three: On Razor's Edge opens with the observation that it started with three
  • Sacred Hospitality: The Terran custom of offering bread and salt. Once it has been given, no harm may be offered to a guest.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: King Stonewall, a great and terrible prehuman king who was defeated and imprisoned by his rivals. He is the Twisting Stone, January's Dancer.
  • Seven Deadly Sins: Donovan notes that the entertainment center in Ravn Olafsdottr's stolen monoship caters to at least five of them.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Discussed in January Dancer
  • Shout-Out: Dozens
  • Silicon-Based Life: The prehuman Precursors, hence their nickname "the people of sand and iron".
  • Soft Gas: When you hit a star at speed — it's not true.
  • Space Is an Ocean: Played with.
  • Space Pirates: The Cynthians are notorious as space pirates, living by the philosophy "the strong take what they can, the weak suffer what they must".
  • Speak of the Devil: Tina Zhi teleports to Domino Tight's location whenever he speaks her name twice. He also warns other people not to speak her name in his presence, as he's not certain whether that can attract her attention as well.
  • Split Personality: The scarred man, first hinted at when he keeps switching between "I" and "we" when referring to himself. He began with two personalities, "Donovan" and "The Fudir", which was useful for going undercover and allowed him to resist the Dancer's mind control. However, Those of Name subsequently divided his mind to give him eight more — "The Brute", "The Sleuth", "The Pedant", "The Inner Child", "The Silky Voice", "Nothing", "Pollyanna", and "The Young Man" — and the internal disarray drove him insane for years.
  • Stern Chase: And a stern chase is a long chase.
  • Stealth Hi/Bye: A specialty of Greystroke. A Running Gag involves characters wondering where he is only for him to reveal that he is sitting next to him. At one point, he and Little Hugh are riding in a car together, and Little Hugh keeps checking to make sure Greystroke hasn't somehow vanished.
  • A Storm Is Coming: Drives them off the planet
  • The Storyteller: The scarred man in January Dancer — the ministrel sought him out for it.
  • Taking the Bullet: Sofwari jumps in front of four bullets meant for Mearana.
  • Talkative Loon: The scarred man is regarded as one in the bar in Jehovah were Mearana seeks him out, as he sits alone and constantly mumbles to himself as he drinks. By the time Ravn Olafsdottr brings him to the Lion's Mouth, his mental health has improved, but he deliberately continues to act out his former talkative loon traits as a form of Obfuscating Stupidity.
  • Tap on the Head: the dangers are hinted at but not used.
  • Tears of Joy: Podiin, when Gidula promises not to free him.
  • There Are No Coincidences: thought of a murder
  • There Is Another: The scarred man initially believes that he is unique, but later learns that there were several others who had their minds divided by Those of Name. There were five, the five leaders of Padaborn's Rising. Of the others, two died, one went insane and had to be mercy-killed, and the final one became the Secret Name.
  • The Tourney: A descendent is practiced among the Shadows.
  • Unexpected Successor: Hugh on New Eireann, due to being the only one not present at a bombing meant to take out the leadership. Ironically, the reason he wasn't there was because he honestly had no interest in becoming leader.
  • Ungovernable Galaxy: It's hard to impossible to control even a planet, let alone large stretches.
  • Used Future: Owing to Mind Control, war, and other problems, much of the future has been used
  • Ventriloquism: One of Mearana the harpist's talents is throwing her voice, which she occasionally uses to deceive adversaries.
  • Wandering Minstrel: In the opening of January Dancer, a woman shows up at the bar, and plays for her food, without asking.
  • War Refugees: One Hound thinks he may have aided one of these.
  • Would Not Shoot a Civilian: One failure draws down opprobrium
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Manlius thinks life is romantic, albeit a tragic romance
  • You Are in Command Now: Hugh
  • You Shall Not Pass!: Many rear guards near the end of the war on New Eireann