Discussion and news about the modern effort to understand the nature of life on Earth, finding planets around other stars, and the search for life elsewhere in the universe

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Summer reading

It's not the usual post. A conversation about interstellar travel reminded me of a short, whimsical, piece of fiction I'd noodled with a while back. Nothing to do with the search for life in the universe, but much to do with the nature of long-distance travel, human enterprise, and that cosmic force; irony. So here goes, a little reading for the celestial beach chair.

All personnel. This is Mother, attention please. As you know we have now entered the Alpha Centauri AB system. The Santa Maria is adjusting for final insertion into a wide survey orbit. All navtechs and astros are to report to workstations and are reminded to follow United Federation survey protocols. Reactors three and four will begin shutdown as plasma drives are brought offline. Personnel generations six and seven are reminded that it is critically important to assist final generations with adjustment from interstellar environment. Counselors will be available to mediate. All children are to continue school on the normal schedule.

All personnel. This is Mother, attention please. Initial survey indicates two terrestrial mass inner planets around Alpha Centauri A, one with significantly non-equilibrium atmosphere, indicating potential biosphere. Gas giant b harbours two large moons, inner moon appears oceanic with high specular reflection. Access to Santa Maria spin axis recreational arenas and hydroponic fields will be limited, personnel are encouraged to remain on outer decks for g-acclimation. Colonization refresher courses will be available on deck nine. Exceptions will be made for centenarians and older.

All personnel. This is Mother, attention please. The Santa Maria will switch internal clocks to local frame in twelve hours. Elapsed journey time will then be 1,015 Earth years, eight Earth months and three Earth days precisely. Wide band modulated transmissions have been detected from terrestrial planet c, precise nature of transmissions has not yet been established. All anthropol personnel are to report to workstations and follow contact protocols. Counselors will be available on decks seven through ten.

All personnel. This is Mother, attention please. Contact has been established with planet c. Personnel of the United Federation interstellar cruiser Vixen have established a colony there during the past ten years. Colonists report that a quantum-entanglement drive was developed during year 950 of Santa Maria journey time. Vixen departure from Earth was during year 980 of Santa Maria journey time. Counselors will be available on all decks until further notice. Anti-depressants will be made available following consultation with assigned medical personnel.

All personnel. This is Mother, attention please. Arrival two hours ago of the United Federation interstellar scout-class Sabre was responsible for strong electromagnetic pulse. All primary systems are fully functional, secondary systems will be back online shortly. The singularity worm-drive onboard the Sabre was developed during year 995 of Santa Maria journey time. The Sabre is now deploying its colonist transports to gas giant b ocean moon. Personnel are advised to join counseling groups on all decks.

All personnel. This is Mother, attention please. The results of the Santa Maria referendum on proposition 1A have been tabulated. Santa Maria will be refurbished with a singularity worm-drive and upgraded habitat resources. Cryochambers will be added to deck five for optional suspension and all interior living areas will be resurfaced and modernised. Generations six through eight will disembark and join Vixen and Sabre colonists on planet c and the gas giant b ocean moon. Remaining generations will retrain for the journey to Barnard’s Star, anticipated to take only fifteen years. Congratulations as you begin this historic voyage as the next colonists to another star. Legal counselors are available on decks two through five to assist in waiver statements with regard to the United Federation’s limited liability for your first arrival status at Barnard’s Star.

(c) C. Scharf (2010).


CoffeeCupContrails said...

Very nice. I enjoyed it immensely. It has a strong touch of Arthur C. Clarke. You definitely need to expand on this. And I'm glad that you declared 'earth years' and 'earth days'. Too many sci-fi stories on TV and in print miss out on that.

Gerard O'Neill's 'The High Frontier' has been an inspiration to at least two generations of space enthusiasts. I've been reading that these past few weeks and it has excited me tremendously as an engineer.

While sci-fi stories elaborating on life on Mars and other planets have always been good, I have been searching for good stories on interstellar travel, because they seem more inspired and dreamy. Clarke has a huge contribution here. Kip Thorne's Black holes and Time warps has that running story line about interstellar travelers that was just perfect, with the right background music in your head (for me it was the Armageddon score): it kept me hooked like no other popular science book has ever done. Lisa Randall made an attempt in her brilliant book Warped Passages, but it felt far short. It took me months to finish reading her book. Especially when these days, like many others, I read about 4 books simultaneously, you can keep me hooked if you have a story to tell. I respect science books that make me dreamy, not sleepy; that inspire and not just inform.

I think more scientists need to do what Thorne, Clarke and Sagan did: explain inspiring scientific concepts (like your entanglement drive or the multitude of clever engineering in Thorne's book) using good stories. It helps keep the attention of today's highly distractible internet audience, who love science articles and books, but only next to a good story. Even long Sci-Am articles could do with a strong dose of entertainment.

Do you have any other recommendations on interstellar travel based sci-fi stories, even short stories that inspired you? Other commenters, please feel free to add your recommendations.

Caleb Scharf said...

Thanks for the generous comments.

It's interesting, long-time criticisms of the O'Neill vision are that it would just be too expensive to ever be worth doing - but of course that assumes all sorts of things about human population needs and energy and raw elemental needs (espec. for things like the rare earth elements these days) - that just may change.

I couldn't agree more that there could be more 'vision' in the way scientists put across ideas and discoveries - I think it's possible without diluting the reality. Sagan had a rare gift for placing a very humanistic view right next to hard science, which of course worked extremely well to create immediacy and interest.

I'll confess that some of Iain Banks' stuff, especially his 'Culture' novels, have impressed me greatly in how they deal with interstellar travel, as well as alien environments. Check out the 'Algebraist' for a great ride.

Nick said...

Nice work Caleb, enjoyed that. So when is the first collection of short stories out? I want a signed copy.

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