Hey all! I have more in the way of novel-writing news. For starters, The Cronian Incident is now just a few chapters short of completion. After over a year of writing, editing, and back and forth with my prospective-publisher, the novel is just about finished. All told, it is now 31 chapters long and just over 85,000 words in length. I anticipate it will be about 100,000 by the time its finished, though I have been known to exceed estimates in the past!
And as per my agreement with my publisher, I have begun working on its sequel. Apparently, publishers like to know the people they sign have more books in them. And they prefer to release sequels within a few months of the first book, to ensure that any buzz they generate with the first release can be capitalized on. Lucky for me I had plans for a second and third novel before my publisher and I started talking, not to mention some spin offs.
So here’s the commercial description for the proposed sequel (i.e. what you’d read on the back of the dust jacket), as well as a rundown on some other ideas I’m working on:
The Jovian Manifesto:
The Solar System is in the midst of a crisis. In the Jovian and Cronian systems, the populations are up in arms, thanks to an inflammatory document that has appeared on the local nets. Known as “The Jovian Manifesto”, this document details how a powerful faction in the Inner Solar System conspired to seize control over the moons of Callisto and Titan and forcibly alter them. Behind the leak is a mysterious personality known only as Clio, who is threatening to release all the details unless the guilty parties come forward.
Back on Venus, a former analyst named Valéria Gallego is called before the Solar Assembly to investigate the Manifesto and its author. In this, she is assisted by Kadera, an infiltration specialist who can get in and out of any location in the Solar System. If they can determine its authenticity, perhaps they can prevent open conflict. But if not, the Inner Worlds may have no choice but to send armed forces to the Outer Worlds to ensure peace and stability.
Meanwhile, a string of violent acts has threatened to bring things ever closer to the brink. For Gallego and all those who are seeking the truth, time is running out…
Now this is a book that doesn’t come with a commercial description, just a general one. But it is set in the same universe as The Cronian Incident and The Jovian Manifesto. Here’s what I am thinking. Basically, I wanted to do a story set on the Moon, ca. the 22nd century, when the Moon is now effectively colonized,,,
Between the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, the Russians (Roscosmos), India (the ISRO), and China (CNSA), the lunar surface now has multiple permanent settlements. Whereas the ESA and NASA have established themselves at the southern polar region – in a domed settlement in the Shackleton Crater – and the Chinese have established a colony in the northern polar region, the Russians and Indians have claimed the mid-latitudes, where stable lava tubes have allowed for the creation of underground cities.
And on the “Dark Side” of the Moon – that is to say, the side looking away from Earth – are a series of installations known as the Unrestricted Zones. It is here that all kinds of weird research, development and experiments take place. Nanotechnology, biotechnology, quantum computing, and man-machine interface – anything goes in these places! Ever since the explosion in learning that took place during the previous century, places all over Earth and the Moon have become dedicated to pursuing technological progress and integration without restriction.
And it is here that a young man named Frankling Houte is seeking to go. Years ago, his sister – named Constant Houte – chose to undergo a procedure where her organic brain would be augmented by merging it with quantum components. But after all contact ceased, he is determined to find her and return her home. But whereas Franklin fancies himself a brave rescuer, it is his sister who will come to save him.
This story will take place entirely in a generation ship that is making its way towards the nearby star system. Within the confines of this self-contained world, thousands of humans have committed to waiting and working for generations as their massive ship – the Traverse Velocity, which in astronomical terms refers to the speed at which a star moves perpendicular to our line of sight – transports them to an Earth-like world outside of our Solar System.
The location of that world is up for grabs at the moment, mainly because new discoveries are being made all the time. Did you hear about the latest exoplanet discovery, located about 39 light years away and already said to be the “best place to look for signs of life beyond the Solar System”? Between that and new findings that claims how previous discoveries are not likely to be habitable after all, I’ve decided to leave the destination blank until I actually start writing it!
But of course, no story would be complete without some intrigue and big ol’ inciting event! And the way I see it, things begin to go awry when the Captain and crew get notification that one of the passengers has awakened from cryosleep prematurely and disappeared into the ship. Shortly thereafter, one of the crew is found dead in what appears to be a sabotage attempt gone wrong. A ship-wide search begins to find the culprit while the atmosphere quickly devolves into one of paranoia and suspicion.
To make matter worse, the crew becomes aware of another ship that is threatening to catch up and overtake them. It seems that another faction from the Solar System, which was also intent on settling (insert exoplanet here) is now trying to get their ahead of them. What began as a journey to a new world, characterized by hopes and dreams, has become a race to lay claim to a planet. And it appears that the planet may have inhabitants of its own, ones which are not interested in welcoming the intruders.
Good news! My second article, which deals with the development of deep-space hibernation, just went public over at Universe Today! This one was especially fun to research, since it deals with a subject that is science fiction gold! Whether it’s from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Alien franchise, Halo, Avatar, or the literature of Alastair Reynolds, the idea of astronauts going into cryogenic suspension has been well-explored over the past few decades.
And now, NASA is collaborating with a private aerospace company called SpaceWorks to research the possibility of using such a procedure when it sends astronauts to Mars and beyond. The advantages are numerous, from cost-cutting to ensuring that astronauts don’t go all nutter-butters during the many, many months (or even years) that it takes to drift through space.
As seems to be the case more and more these days, researchers and planners are getting serious about it. Much like manned missions to Mars, colonizing Mars, a settlement on the Moon, the Space Elevator, or exploratory missions to Europa, science fiction is fast becoming science fact. Man, am I happy to be alive right now!
Back in January, National Geographic Magazine celebrated its 125th anniversary. In honor of this occasion, they released a special issue which commemorated the past 125 years of human exploration and looked ahead at what the future might hold. As I sat in the doctor’s office, waiting on a prescription for antibiotics to combat my awful cold, I found myself terribly inspired by the article.
So naturally, once I got home, I looked up the article and its source material and got to work. The issue of exploration, especially the future thereof, is not something I can ever pass up! So for the next few minutes (or hours, depending on how much you like to nurse a read), I present you with some possible scenarios about the coming age of deep space exploration.
Suffice it to say, National Geographic’s appraisal of the future of space travel was informative and hit on all the right subjects for me. When one considers the sheer distances involved, not to mention the amount of time, energy, and resources it would take to allow people to get there, the question of reaching into the next great frontier poses a great deal of questions and challenges.
Already, NASA, Earth’s various space agencies and even private companies have several ideas in the works or returning to the Moon, going to Mars, and to the Asteroid Belt. These include the SLS (Space Launch System), the re-purposed and upgraded version of the Saturn V rocket which took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Years from now, it may even be taking crews to Mars, which is slated for 2030.
And when it comes to settling the Moon, Mars, and turning the Asteroid Belt into our primary source of mineral extraction and manufacturing, these same agencies, and a number of private corporations are all invested in getting it done. SpaceX is busy testing its reusable-launch rocket, known as the Grasshopper, in the hopes of making space flight more affordable. And NASA and the ESA are perfecting a process known as “sintering” to turn Moon regolith into bases and asteroids into manufactured goods.
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic, Reaction Engines and Golden Spike are planning to make commercial trips into space and to the Moon possible within a few years time. And with companies like Deep Space Industries and Google-backed Planetary Resources prospeting asteroids and planning expeditions, it’s only a matter of time before everything from Earth to the Jovian is being explored and claimed for our human use.
But when it comes to deep-space exploration, the stuff that would take us to the outer reaches of the Solar System and beyond, that’s where things get tricky and pretty speculative. Ideas have been on the table for some time, since the last great Space Race forced scientists to consider the long-term and come up with proposed ways of closing the gap between Earth and the stars. But to this day, they remain a scholarly footnote, conceptual and not yet realizable.
But as we embark of a renewed era of space exploration, where the stuff of science fiction is quickly becoming the stuff of science fact, these old ideas are being dusted off, paired up with newer concepts, and seriously considered. While they might not be feasible at the moment, who know what tomorrow holds? From the issues of propulsion, to housing, to cost and time expenditures, the human race is once again taking a serious look at extra-Solar exploration.
And here are some of the top contenders for the “Final Frontier”:
Nuclear Propulsion: The concept of using nuclear bombs (no joke) to propel a spacecraft was first proposed in 1946 by Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish-American mathematician who participated in the Manhattan Project. Preliminary calculations were then made by F. Reines and Ulam in 1947, and the actual project – known as Project Orion was initiated in 1958 and led by Ted Taylor at General Atomics and physicist Freeman Dyson from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
In short, the Orion design involves a large spacecraft with a high supply of thermonuclear warheads achieving propulsion by releasing a bomb behind it and then riding the detonation wave with the help of a rear-mounted pad called a “pusher”. After each blast, the explosive force is absorbed by this pusher pad, which then translates the thrust into forward momentum.
Though hardly elegant by modern standards, the proposed design offered a way of delivering the explosive (literally!) force necessary to propel a rocket over extreme distances, and solved the issue of how to utilize that force without containing it within the rocket itself. However, the drawbacks of this design are numerous and noticeable.
F0r starters, the ship itself is rather staggering in size, weighing in anywhere from 2000 to 8,000,000 tonnes, and the propulsion design releases a dangerous amount of radiation, and not just for the crew! If we are to rely on ships that utilize nuclear bombs to achieve thrust, we better find a course that will take them away from any inhabited or habitable areas. What’s more, the cost of producing a behemoth of this size (even the modest 2000 tonne version) is also staggering.
Antimatter Engine: Most science fiction authors who write about deep space exploration (at least those who want to be taken seriously) rely on anti-matter to power ships in their stories. This is no accident, since antimatter is the most potent fuel known to humanity right now. While tons of chemical fuel would be needed to propel a human mission to Mars, just tens of milligrams of antimatter, if properly harnessed, would be able to supply the requisite energy.
Fission and fusion reactions convert just a fraction of 1 percent of their mass into energy. But by combine matter with antimatter, its mirror twin, a reaction of 100 percent efficiency is achieved. For years, physicists at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva have been creating tiny quantities of antimatter by smashing subatomic particles together at near-light speeds. Given time and considerable investment, it is entirely possible this could be turned into a form of advanced propulsion.
In an antimatter rocket, a dose of antihydrogen would be mixed with an equal amount of hydrogen in a combustion chamber. The mutual annihilation of a half pound of each, for instance, would unleash more energy than a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb, along with a shower of subatomic particles called pions and muons. These particles, confined within a magnetic nozzle similar to the type necessary for a fission rocket, would fly out the back at one-third the speed of light.
However, there are natural drawback to this design as well. While a top speed of 33% the speed of light per rocket is very impressive, there’s the question of how much fuel will be needed. For example, while it would be nice to be able to reach Alpha Centauri – a mere 4.5 light years away – in 13.5 years instead of the 130 it would take using a nuclear rocket, the amount of antimatter needed would be immense.
No means exist to produce antimatter in such quantities right now, and the cost of building the kind of rocket required would be equally immense. Considerable refinements would therefore be needed and a sharp drop in the cost associated with building such a vessel before any of its kind could be deployed.
Laser Sail: Thinking beyond rockets and engines, there are some concepts which would allow a spaceship to go into deep space without the need for fuel at all. In 1948, Robert Forward put forward a twist on the ancient technique of sailing, capturing wind in a fabric sail, to propose a new form of space travel. Much like how our world is permeated by wind currents, space is filled with cosmic radiation – largely in the form of photons and energy associated with stars – that push a cosmic sail in the same way.
This was followed up again in the 1970’s, when Forward again proposed his beam-powered propulsion schemes using either lasers or masers (micro-wave lasers) to push giant sails to a significant fraction of the speed of light. When photons in the laser beam strike the sail, they would transfer their momentum and push the sail onward. The spaceship would then steadily builds up speed while the laser that propels it stays put in our solar system.
Much the same process would be used to slow the sail down as it neared its destination. This would be done by having the outer portion of the sail detach, which would then refocus and reflect the lasers back onto a smaller, inner sail. This would provide braking thrust to slow the ship down as it reached the target star system, eventually bringing it to a slow enough speed that it could achieve orbit around one of its planets.
Once more, there are challenges, foremost of which is cost. While the solar sail itself, which could be built around a central, crew-carrying vessel, would be fuel free, there’s the little matter of the lasers needed to propel it. Not only would these need to operate for years continuously at gigawatt strength, the cost of building such a monster would be astronomical, no pun intended!
A solution proposed by Forward was to use a series of enormous solar panel arrays on or near the planet Mercury. However, this just replaced one financial burden with another, as the mirror or fresnel lens would have to be planet-sized in scope in order for the Sun to keep the lasers focused on the sail. What’s more, this would require that a giant braking sail would have to be mounted on the ship as well, and it would have to very precisely focus the deceleration beam.
So while solar sails do present a highly feasible means of sending people to Mars or the Inner Solar System, it is not the best concept for interstellar space travel. While it accomplishes certain cost-saving measures with its ability to reach high speeds without fuel, these are more than recouped thanks to the power demands and apparatus needed to be it moving.
Generation/Cryo-Ship: Here we have a concept which has been explored extensively in fiction. Known as an Interstellar Ark, an O’Neill Cylinder, a Bernal Sphere, or a Stanford Torus, the basic philosophy is to create a ship that would be self-contained world, which would travel the cosmos at a slow pace and keep the crew housed, fed, or sustained until they finally reached their destination. And one of the main reasons that this concept appears so much in science fiction literature is that many of the writers who made use of it were themselves scientists.
The first known written examples include Robert H. Goddard “The Last Migration” in 1918, where he describes an “interstellar ark” containing cryogenic ally frozen people that set out for another star system after the sun died. Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky later wrote of “Noah’s Ark” in his essay “The Future of Earth and Mankind” in 1928. Here, the crews were kept in wakeful conditions until they reached their destination thousands of years later.
By the latter half of the 20th century, with authors like Robert A. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Paradises Lost, the concept began to be explored as a distant possibility for interstellar space travel. And in 1964, Dr. Robert Enzmann proposed a concept for an interstellar spacecraft known as the Enzmann Starship that included detailed notes on how it would be constructed.
Enzmann’s concept would be powered by deuterium engines similar to what was called for with the Orion Spacecraft, the ship would measure some 600 meters (2000 feet) long and would support an initial crew of 200 people with room for expansion. An entirely serious proposal, with a detailed assessment of how it would be constructed, the Enzmann concept began appearing in a number of science fiction and fact magazines by the 1970’s.
Despite the fact that this sort of ship frees its makers from the burden of coming up with a sufficiently fast or fuel-efficient engine design, it comes with its own share of problems. First and foremost, there’s the cost of building such a behemoth. Slow-boat or no, the financial and resource burden of building a mobile space ship is beyond most countries annual GDP. Only through sheer desperation and global cooperation could anyone conceive of building such a thing.
Second, there’s the issue of the crew’s needs, which would require self-sustaining systems to ensure food, water, energy, and sanitation over a very long haul. This would almost certainly require that the crew remain aware of all its technical needs and continue to maintain it, generation after generation. And given that the people aboard the ship would be stuck in a comparatively confined space for so long, there’s the extreme likelihood of breakdown and degenerating conditions aboard.
Third, there’s the fact that the radiation environment of deep space is very different from that on the Earth’s surface or in low earth orbit. The presence of high-energy cosmic rays would pose all kinds of health risks to a crew traveling through deep space, so the effects and preventative measures would be difficult to anticipate. And last, there’s the possibility that while the slow boat is taking centuries to get through space, another, better means of space travel will be invented.
Faster-Than-Light (FTL) Travel: Last, we have the most popular concept to come out of science fiction, but which has received very little support from scientific community. Whether it was the warp drive, the hyperdrive, the jump drive, or the subspace drive, science fiction has sought to exploit the holes in our knowledge of the universe and its physical laws in order to speculate that one day, it might be possible to bridge the vast distances between star systems.
However, there are numerous science based challenges to this notion that make an FTL enthusiast want to give up before they even get started. For one, there’s Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which establishes the speed of light (c) as the uppermost speed at which anything can travel. For subatomic particles like photons, which have no mass and do not experience time, the speed of light is a given. But for stable matter, which has mass and is effected by time, the speed of light is a physical impossibility.
For one, the amount of energy needed to accelerate an object to such speeds is unfathomable, and the effects of time dilation – time slowing down as the speed of light approaches – would be unforeseeable. What’s more, achieving the speed of light would most likely result in our stable matter (i.e. our ships and bodies) to fly apart and become pure energy. In essence, we’d die!
Naturally, there have been those who have tried to use the basis of Special Relativity, which allows for the existence of wormholes, to postulate that it would be possible to instantaneously move from one point in the universe to another. These theories for “folding space”, or “jumping” through space time, suffer from the same problem. Not only are they purely speculative, but they raise all kinds of questions about temporal mechanics and causality. If these wormholes are portals, why just portals in space and not time?
And then there’s the concept of a quantum singularity, which is often featured in talk of FTL. The belief here is that an artificial singularity could be generated, thus opening a corridor in space-time which could then be traversed. The main problem here is that such an idea is likely suicide. A quantum singularity, aka. a black hole, is a point in space where the laws of nature break down and become indistinguishable from each other – hence the term singularity.
Also, they are created by a gravitational force so strong that it tears a hole in space time, and that resulting hole absorbs all things, including light itself, into its maw. It is therefore impossible to know what resides on the other side of one, and astronomers routinely observe black holes (most notably Sagittarius A at the center of our galaxy) swallow entire planets and belch out X-rays, evidence of their destruction. How anyone could think these were a means of safe space travel is beyond me! But then again, they are a plot device, not a serious idea…
But before you go thinking that I’m dismissing FTL in it’s entirety, there is one possibility which has the scientific community buzzing and even looking into it. It’s known as the Alcubierre Drive, a concept which was proposed by physicist Miguel Alcubierre in his 1994 paper: “The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity.”
The equations and theory behind his concept postulate that since space-time can be contracted and expanded, empty space behind a starship could be made to expand rapidly, pushing the craft in a forward direction. Passengers would perceive it as movement despite the complete lack of acceleration, and vast distances (i.e. light years) could be passed in a matter of days and weeks instead of decades. What’s more, this “warp drive” would allow for FTL while at the same time remaining consistent with Einstein’s theory of Relativity.
In October 2011, physicist Harold White attempted to rework the equations while in Florida where he was helping to kick off NASA and DARPA’s joint 100 Year Starship project. While putting together his presentation on warp, he began toying with Alcubierre’s field equations and came to the conclusion that something truly workable was there. In October of 2012, he announced that he and his NASA team would be working towards its realization.
But while White himself claims its feasible, and has the support of NASA behind him, the mechanics behind it all are still theoretical, and White himself admits that the energy required to pull off this kind of “warping” of space time is beyond our means at the current time. Clearly, more time and development are needed before anything of this nature can be realized. Fingers crossed, the field equations hold, because that will mean it is at least theoretically possible!
Summary: In case it hasn’t been made manifestly obvious by now, there’s no simple solution. In fact, just about all possibilities currently under scrutiny suffer from the exact same problem: the means just don’t exist yet to make them happen. But even if we can’t reach for the stars, that shouldn’t deter us from reaching for objects that are significantly closer to our reach. In the many decades it will take us to reach the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and Jupiter’s Moons, we are likely to revisit this problem many times over.
And I’m sure that in course of creating off-world colonies, reducing the burden on planet Earth, developing solar power and other alternative fuels, and basically working towards this thing known as the Technological Singularity, we’re likely to find that we are capable of far more than we ever thought before. After all, what is money, resources, or energy requirements when you can harness quantum energy, mine asteroids, and turn AIs and augmented minds onto the problems of solving field equations?
Yeah, take it from me, the odds are pretty much even that we will be making it to the stars in the not-too-distant future, one way or another. As far as probabilities go, there’s virtually no chance that we will be confined to this rock forever. Either we will branch out to colonize new planets and new star systems, or go extinct before we ever get the chance. I for one find that encouraging… and deeply disturbing!
Ever since my writing group and I got on the subject of space and colonization, some recurring themes have come up. For starters, there’s the concept of interstellar space travel, the kind that doesn’t involve fictitious Faster-Than-Light drive systems and therefore cannot exceed the speed of light. In those situations, which are far more likely to happen in this and the next century, the question of how to keep crews alive until your arrival keeps popping up.
One way is to utilize some kind of cryogenic procedure, where passengers are put into “reefersleep” for the duration of the journey and awakened upon arrival. Though it might sound a bit crude, it’s actually a very practical solution to the problems of how to keep a crew preserved and provided for during the incredibly long voyages that space travel entails. This procedure has come up repeatedly in the realm of science fiction, particularly H.P. Lovecraft’s Cool Air, Robert A Heinlein’sThe Door into Summer, Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, PKD’s Ubik, the Alien franchise, and the Revelation Space universe, just to name a few.
The other solution, which is the subject of this post, is to construct generational ships. These are basically “interstellar arks” where people and even entire biospheres are transported from one location to another. Crews are kept in waking conditions, experience subjective time, and entertain themselves in interactive, simulated or virtual environments in order to stay sane until they complete their voyage. Though much more expensive to build, these ships are an equally elegant solution of what to do about non-FTL space travel and colonization.
These two have made many appearances in science fiction, and I’ve compiled a list of all the Generation Ships, Space Arks, and O’Neil Cylinders I could find.
Firefly: At the beginning of each episode, it was explained how Earth was used up, prompting humanity to seek out a new home. This is what eventually led them to 34 Tauri in the 22nd century where they began the process of terraforming and settling its the many worlds and moons. Though it was never explained in detail, mainly because the show was cancelled before they could (screw you Fox!), indications are given in the movie Serenity and the expanded universe that this involved Generation Ships.
In the movie, this was done mainly through visuals, where a large of flotilla dusts off from Earth and eventually finds its way to the system of the White Sun. It was also said that the process of terraforming took decades, which would require that the crews had somewhere to stay while the terraformers did their work. Also, speculative point here, but it would stand to reason that the fleet would have to have some pretty large ships to accommodate both settlers and the kind of equipment they would need.
Chasm City: This novel, set in Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space universe, involves a large thread that follows the settlement of the world known as Sky’s Edge. This took place early in the universe’s backstory, before the development of lighthuggers and therefore required that the ships used be able to support crews for long periods of time.
From Reynold’s descriptions, these ships were large, cylindrical vessels that boasted vast bays to hold their many cryogenically-frozen passengers. At the same time, the waking crew needed vast facilities to provide for their needs. These included mess halls, sleeping quarters, medical bays, and recreational facilities. Sky Haussmann, one of the children amongst the crew, had a nursery with a robotic clown and virtual backgrounds.
This divide, between a waking crew and frozen settlers, represents a sort of compromise between the cryoship design and the generation ship. On the one hand, you’ve got the majority of your crew at near-frozen temperatures and perfectly preserved for the voyage. On the other, you’ve got a crew walking about and looking for food, rest and entertainment. However, it still qualifies, and even inspired my group in our quest to design the perfect story for colonization!
Orphans of the Sky: One of the earliest known examples of the use of generation ships in sci-fi, this two-novella set was also one of Heinlein’s first works. Like Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, it features a massive cylindrical ship that is drifting through space. But unlike Rama, Heinlein’s ship, known as the Vanguard, has become a derelict that is permanently adrift in space.
As the story goes on, we learn that this was due to a mutiny which killed all the piloting officers many generations back. Since that time, the descendants of the surviving loyal crew have forgotten the purpose and nature of their ship and lapsed into a pre-technological culture marked by superstition. In fact, they now view their ship as the cosmos itself, and interpret its “voyage” as a metaphor.
The crew are also ruled by an oligarchy of “Officers” and “Scientists”, at the head of which is the descendent of the original captain. Much like pre-industrial times, most crew members are dedicated to a simple life where they tend to agriculture and are illiterate. Seldom does anyone ever venture to the “upper decks” where the “muties” (aka. “mutants” or “mutineers”) are kept. These individuals, it is learned, know the truth of the ship’s purpose, another reason why they are ostracized from the rest of the crew.
As you can plainly see, this book not only featured a generation ship and some rather hard science when it came to colonization, it also raised some valid and interesting questions about how space travel and confining environments could effect subsequent generations of people. Those who were born into an enclosed environment would come to know it as their whole world. And in the absence of external, verifiable facts (such as messages from Earth or historical records), they could even be led to believe there was nothing beyond their walls.
Paradises Lost: Similar in tone and setting to Heinlein’s Orphans, this story by Ursula K. LeGuin focuses instead on the psychological impact that generational travel would have on a human crew. Adapted into a musical, this story explores the basic question of what happens when you spend your whole life (and entire generations) traveling toward a goal, only to find that the endpoint has become otherworldly and unattainable?
The story takes place aboard a generation ship known as the Discovery, where people are born and die on a trip to colonize a distant planet. Much like the Orphans, the ship becomes their entire universe and begins to seem more tangible to them than Earth or their mission to colonize a new world. The reason for this quite simple; as the journey goes on, those who knew a life on Earth are slowly dying off, and subsequent generations know about these things only through tales and lore.
As a result, a new religion is borne which teaches that the ship is “spaceship heaven” and that it is bound for eternity. This religion is known as Bliss, and the younger generation are embracing it against the wishes of the older. The story is told through the eyes of two elder characters – Hsing and Luis. They know their lives will end on board the ship and that their mission lies in the hands of future generations. Naturally, they worry since said generations are convinced that they should never leave the ship they call heaven.
Rendevouz with Rama: One of the best examples of a generational ship, which extra-terrestrial in origin! Known as Rama, this massive space cylinder was basically a self-contained world that was carrying the Raman civilization from one corner of the galaxy to another. When a crew from Earth arrive and begin to survey the interior, they begin to notice several tell-tale features.
For one, the interior contains several structures which appear to be arranged in “cities” – odd blocky shapes that look like buildings, and streets with shallow trenches in them, looking like trolley car tracks. In addition, there is a sea that stretches in a band around Rama dubbed the Cylindrical Sea, and trenches cut into the sides that appear to be windows.
In time, all the machinery comes to light, thanks in part to the admission of light through the ship’s long windows. Small creatures that appear to be biological machines (aka. “biots”) begin to come out as well and conducting routine maintenance. In time, they come to the conclusion that the buildings constitute factories, that the cylindrical sea contains trace elements and bio-matter which they will begin to convert into “Ramans” as soon they get in range of their destination.
In the end, it seemed that the Ramans determined that the best way to spread their species was to break them down into their component parts, place them aboard ships that would float for generations through space, and begin recompiling them once they got to where they wanted to go. Ultimately, Sol was just a stopover on their long journey, and more ships were coming in subsequent novels. Still, this first exposure to the alien generation ship was an educational experience!
Ringworld: Written by Larry Niven, the Ringworld series is considered one of the greatest examples of exploratory sci-fi. Set in the Known Space universe of the distant future, the story revolves around the discovery and exploration of the Ringworlds, an artificial habitation ring built by an extinct civilization. With the makers of these rings long dead, the rings themselves are adrift and their engineered inhabitants degenerated into a primitive state.
These artificial rings are roughly one million kilometers wide and one thousand kilometers across, approximately the diameter of Earth’s orbit. Each one encircles a Sol-type star which provides both life sustaining energy and light. And of course, they rotate, thus providing artificial gravity that is 99.2% as strong as Earth’s through the action of centrifugal force. And night is provided by an inner ring of shadow squares which are connected to each other by thin ultra strong shadow square wire.
The ringworld has a habitable flat inner surface that is equivalent in area to approximately three million Earth-sized planets. Hence, it is able to sustain extensive ecosystems and all forms of life. This appears to be purpose of the rings in the end, the creation of habitable areas in space that were removed from terrestrial environments. And added bonus was the ability to transport said life over vast distances through space without having to stick them in an enclosed environment.
So really, these things were like a gigantic version of a generation ship, capable of moving an entire species or civilization through space.
The series Stargate Atlantis contained a few mentions of vessels which fit the profile of generation ships. For starters, there was the Ancients City Ship, a self-contained city that was also a spaceship. Though it was capable of FTL travel, the vessel was capable of sustaining a city-sized population for extended periods of time as it traveled through space.
In addition, in the third season episode entitle “The Ark”, Colonel Sheppard’s team discovers a facility inside a hollowed-out moon that turns out to be an ark created by the people of the planet around which the moon is in orbit. The ark was built to preserve the existence of the people from the planet so that they could reemerge and rebuild their civilization. Generations prior, these people had fought a disastrous war with the Wraith in which they were almost exterminated.
Though not a vessel per se, the moon base served the same purpose as a generation ship. Though the moon orbited their original homeworld and the people really weren’t traveling through space (except in orbit around their planet), the principle was essentially the same. People were kept in stasis until the day came when they could awaken to transplant themselves on the intended world, thus ensuring the survival and expansion of their civilization.
Yes, the examples abound! In fact, the concept of the generation ship and related ideas are so fertile that I’m kind of surprised that it took me so long to really appreciate it. But then again, I came to a lot of the classics a little late in life. Ah well, it doesn’t really matter when you get to the destination, provided that you get there and enjoy the journey. Which is kind of the concept behind a generation ship isn’t it? If you can’t just warp your way across the universe – if you got to take your time and drift slow – you might as well travel in style!
Not long ago, I reviewed a movie that had the honor of being not only one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, but one of the best movies period. That movie was Blade Runner, one of Ridley Scott’s most enduring classics. So it is with great pleasure that I dedicate this next review to another one of his masterpieces, the cult classic known as Alien. However, one can scarcely get into this movie without at least mentioning the franchise it spawned. Indeed, Alien went on to become not only a commercial success, but a cult-hit that inspired three sequels, two cross-overs, several video games, and even books and comics. Many of said sequels sucked, the less said about the crossovers the better, and Scott himself was not attached to any of the sequels as director. But that does not change the fact that the Aliens franchise was, at it’s core, one of the most original and inspired science fiction franchises of all time.
Over the years, this movie inspired lasting praise, not the least of which came from literary critics who drew parallels between it and classical literary sources. These included H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountain of Madness, not because the movie was similar in terms of storyline, but in terms of its “dread-building mystery”. Upon the release of the Director’s Cut, Roger Ebert listed the movie in his Great Movies column, calling it “one of the most influential of modern action pictures”, and praising it for its pacing, artful direction, and how it took its time to build tension. It was also a commercial success, something many classics don’t see until years after their release. But enough of what others thought about it, let’s get to what I thought about it! Cue the opening sequence!
Alien opens on the scene of a massive vessel traveling through deep space. The passengers, haulers who work for the mega corporation Weylan-Yutani, are in deep sleep and awaiting their safe return to Earth space with their shipment of ore. However, a distress signal from a neighboring planet brings them out of deep-sleep and sets them on course for this planet. Upon waking, they learn of the signal and their change in course, and are quickly told that company policy demands that they answer the call, otherwise they will lose their “shares” when the shipment is brought in. Through all this, we are immediately made made aware of two things: One, corporate monopolies control all shipping and mining in this universe; and two, that the company maintains loyalty by appealing to their employees greed. Another thing which we are made aware of is the concept of cryogenic-units which are used to keep people preserved during deep space travel in this universe. While the Alien franchise didn’t invent this concept (I believe Arthur C Clarke has that honor) it did much to popularize it. One can scarcely pick up a hard sci-fi book without reading a bit about “hypersleep”, “cryosleep”, “reefersleep”, and the like.
Skip ahead to the planet where the distress signal is originating from, and we are confronted with an alien derelict which I can only describe as awesome! Really, truly, alien looking! In the course of spelunking through the cloudy and oddly shaped interior (you can feel the tension building!), they encounter a field of eggs. One of these eggs opens up when the XO – Kane, played by John Hurt – gets near, and let’s lose a spidery parasite that attaches itself to his face. After he’s returned to the ship, the crew learns that there’s nothing they can do for him now, since the parasite will kill him if it’s disturbed, and that it has acid fpr blood and therefore can’t be removed without causing serious harm to the ship. They learn this second fact the hard way, giving the thing a tiny cut causes an acid spill that melts through two decks! And in a space ship, holes are not something you want! But, as luck would have it, the parasite falls off and dies all by itself. Problem solved, right?
Well, no… shortly after losing the spidery thing and waking up, Kane ups and dies, in the most graphic and horrible way imaginable! This is another aspect of the movie that was both novel and original for its time, the concept of the chest exploding alien! They gestate inside you, scary enough, and then emerge as this nightmarish, toothy thing with spindly arms and a long, segmented tail. In any case, the crew jettisons Kane’s body and is just beginning to breathe normally again when the fully-grown thing of nightmares kills another member of their crew. What follows is a claustrophobic, mad rush to kill the alien, but those attempts quickly fail. The ships Captain (Tom Skerritt) is one of the first to fall, leaving Lt. Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) now in charge. She soon realizes that the company wants the alien taken alive, and is even willing to sacrifice the crew to get their hands on it. She further learns that one of crew – Ash, played by Ian Holm – is a corporate mole who’s job, it now seems, is to make sure this directive is followed to the letter. Oh, and did I mention he’s an android?
As soon as he’s found out, Ash tries to kill Ripley, but she and her crew manage to take him down and get some answers from him. He confirms that the company wants the alien and the rest of them are expendable, and is also sure to leave them with some cryptic words: “You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” “You admire it,” says one of the crewmen, to which Ash replies: “I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Classic lines! Then, just to be prick, he let’s them know exactly how slim their odds of survival are: “I cannot lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies”. Naturally, they say “screw it!” and decide to scuttle the ship. But the alien creature is no slouch and manages to kill all but Ripley and the ships resident cat. To this day, I am not sure what the point of the cat was. Maybe to provide some tension; I mean nothing is more scary than a cat jumping out of nowhere during an already tense scene, right? In any case, she finally kills the alien by blasting it out the airlock of her shuttle and burning it with one of the ships thrusters. She is then left alone to drift home, and files a heartfelt report of how all her friends were killed in deep space by a hostile creature of unknown origin.
To be honest, this movie was a tad uncomfortable at times, at least when compared to the sequel. But then again, that was the whole point of the movie, wasn’t it? It was meant to feel uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and paranoid, because that it exactly what you would expect to feel if you were in that situation. Put yourself in a spaceship, surrounding by vacuum, then imagine you have a hostile organism on your hands that has the run of the place, and is both an expert hunter and hider. What feelings come to mind? Claustrophobia, since you’d feel like your trapped with it, and agoraphobia because you know you can’t just open a door and run outside. For these reasons, and because of the amazing artwork, set designs, the concept of the aliens, and of course the theme of personal and corporate greed, Alien deserves full credit for getting the ball rolling on the whole of the franchise. But really, it was never meant to be a standalone piece, so comparing it to the sequel is not really fair or warranted. If anything, this film and it’s sequel are companion pieces, Aliens picking up where Alien left off and expanding on it, something which it did very well. But more on that next time, stay tuned!
Alien: Entertainment Value: 8/10