Posted Aug 10, 2009
Last Updated Aug 10, 2009

Book Review of
by Michel Flynn
(No spoiler here)

At grad school in the 1950s, I'd sit at a work table with a heavy old mechanical desk calculator — a Friden or Monroe or Marchant — manually calculating thousands of squares, cross-products, etc, gaining a first-hand acquaintance with statistical analysis.  (There remained, of course, the task of rationalizing the results — making sense of them.)
    From grad school I moved to a research career in forest ecology, with a notion that it should be possible to model ecosystem dynamics.  Dynamics that included community evolution — both biological and environmental. 
    And over 17 years of research found my understandings shifting, transforming… and yep, evolving. 
    So I was a natural for Michael Flynn's THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND (CotB) (Tor, 2001).  CotB is an excellent action-adventure/suspense/mystery/psycho-social thriller, with a wealth of layered ideas.  In CotB, Flynn not only tells a plausible story; he explores the dynamics of human society from a viewpoint, and in a manner, I found very pleasing, worthwhile.  Thought provoking.  Flynn is an excellent storyteller, an explorer of humanity and history. 
    Flynn's address is in Pennsylvania, but here he writes largely and knowledgeably of Colorado, and I suspect has spent significant time there.  He knows the mountains, and his details of what grows where feels very largely right to this long-time wildland ecologist with 8 years of intimate experience in the Colorado Rockies.
    But that is incidental — condiments and spice.  Flynn plows an interesting, thought-provoking field — cultural/political engineering — turning up old roots, worms, and badger dens, exposing potentials and limitations (lots of both).  Sowing it with excellent (and sometimes bizarre) characters and intriguing relationships, and made me care about them.  Surprising me nearly to emotional exhaustion.  And tied it up with an understated but marvelous wrap-up scene. 
    A very satisfying yarn.  And when the story has been told, he proceeds — for those who are willing — he  proceeds to discuss the underlying subject matter, in a dissertation on the modeling of history and engineering, or influencing the future — in a 70-page Afterword complete with math, graphs, tables, and literature citations.  Engrossing.
    I've read an Amazon review that complained of Flynn's large cast of characters.  But some stories require them, and readers have their own viewpoints and tastes.  Some also get disoriented by time switches.  I enjoyed Flynn's use of key historical scenes — natural, distinctive, convincing— that introduce each part of this contemporary action adventure.  In fact I have no complaint with any of it.  If we write stories that avoid all the things that bother anyone, damned little would get written.  And that little, I  suspect, would not have much to recommend it.

    There was, however, one mystery in Flynn's nest of mysteries that he didn't solve for me.  Readers have gotten used to cover art that has little to do with the story; that even misrepresents it.  The cover of Country of the Blind, however, features what looks like an action portrait of the heroine, lean and athletic, caramel-colored and graceful…very good cover art!  Admittedly the apparatus on her head seems appropos of nothing in the story, but what the heck.  It does mark it as science fiction.
    Then I noticed her hands, like transplants bequeathed by some large brawny longshoreman from the cotton docks at Galveston.  What is this? I wondered.  I have a granddaughter who was a  gymnast from about age 8 to about 18.  She has strong hands — I arm wrestled her recently and tore a rotator cuff (served you right, old-timer) — but her hands are tidy, feminine, and do not look at all like the hands of Sarah Beaumont.  Not at all. 
   And it seemed to me it was deliberate, that somewhere in the novel I'd find an explanation for those hands.  I didn't.  I still suspect it was deliberate, but the meaning escapes me.  
   At any rate I recommend the whole package.  Tor can be proud of it, and so can Flynn.  And the artist. 

Mike Flynn

Aug 17, 2009

I was living in Colorado at the time the first couple "installments" were written. Part One appeared as a 2-part serial in ANALOG under the book's title. A portion of Part Two appeared as a novelette, "A Rose by Other Name." When I combined these plus the remainder into the novel, I was by then living in New Jersey, where the pizza joint where Red and Sarah are shot at is still in business.

John Administrator

Aug 17, 2009

I remember those precursor versions. I seem to remember one scene which struck me as the west slope of the Sangre de Cristo, with pinyons near timberline. And thinking they might well have been limber pines (or not; the elevational zones get weird there). LP there can much resemble pinyon in form, needle length –– and seeds! Like pinyon, limber pine seeds have no wings, and are similar in size! Tricky buggers.

And at the other extreme of LP morphology, southwestern white pine (Pinus stroboformis) was still being lumped in with LP, despite a plethora ("plethora"; neat word) of countering evidence which has since worn the taxanomic conservatives down.

From what I've read, native Americans were much more pragmatic in naming plants.

Geoffrey Kidd

Aug 10, 2009

I quite agree with your evaluation of the novel. Flynn has a gift for taking some hard speculation and making it real. The Tor edition was somewhat rewritten from the original paperback published by Baen Books in 1990, and if I recall correctly, some of the supporting background giving aspects of the possible mathematics behind the science of "cliology" was also added for the Tor edition.

The Baen cover was better and more relevant, in my opinion. You can see a thumbnail of it at: It consists of a mushroom cloud in the distance behind a man wearing an eyepatch.

One treasure my wife and I have taken from the book is a comment that "In cliology, distance is a function of frequency and depth of contact." We've used that metric to evaluate relationships, and it's led to a distinction in our lives between "family" (people we see often and talk about things important to us) and "relatives" (people who are *genetically* close, but we almost never see/hear them or from them, and the contact is trivial).

I'm glad you liked the story.