Posts Tagged ‘Larry Niven’

A Tale of Piracy, Murder and Revenge in the Far Future

March 15, 2020

Alastair Reynolds, Revenger (London: Orion 2016).

And now for a bit of good Science Fiction. Julian, one of the great commenters on this blog, asked me to write a review of Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger a couple of months ago. Well, it’s taken me a little bit of time to get round to it, but here it is.

Reynolds has a doctorate in astronomer and was a scientist for the European Space Agency before becoming a full-time writer. He specialises in hard SF, the type of Science Fiction written by authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. This is based, more or less, in known science, although obviously this can be stretched to a greater or lesser degree. Hard SF tends of avoid Faster Than Light Travel and concentrates on creating worlds and futures that are scientifically plausible, given the present state of knowledge.

Revenger, however, is set in the very far future when the Earth and the other planets have long been broken up to create a plethora of habitable, artificial space environments like the space colonies advocated by the late Dr. Gerald O’Neill’s L5 Society and other space colonisation groups. There are about 20,000 such worlds, collectively referred to as ‘the congregation’. The Earth is no longer even a memory, and the Solar System has been subject to successive waves of colonisation, known as occupations. The present period in which the book is set is the twelfth. These occupations have spanned lasted thousands of years, with vast periods in between, so that the Solar System is very ancient indeed. And not all the colonising civilisations that have risen and fallen have been human.

Some of these lost civilisations were extremely advanced, far more so than the present state of humanity. They have vanished, but stashed pieces of their technology in the baubles, tiny artificial worlds sealed off from the rest of the universe. Although tiny, these have their own artificial gravity provided by swallowers located in their centres. Chemical rockets and ion engines are known and used, but the chief method of flight between the worlds of the congregation is the Solar Sail. This is limited to sublight speed and the inhabitants of the Solar System are themselves unable to reach the other cultures of the ‘Swirly’, as the Galaxy is called. Nevertheless, there is evidence that some of the ancient ships with which the Congregation was settled came from outside the Solar System, and there are a number of alien species from outside doing business there. Chief among these are the Clackers, who act as humanity’s bankers, and who have a mysterious, intense interest in the ancient discs used as currency. There is also a trade in the lost technologies contained in the baubles with ships, whose crews specialise in raiding them for their wonders.

The book’s the story of Arafura ‘Fura’ Ness, a rich young woman, and her quest to rescue her sister, Adrana, and avenge her murdered crewmates after the ship she and her sister join is attacked by the pirate queen, Bosa Sennen. The sisters come from a rich family that has fallen on hard times. Determined to restore the fortunes of their widowed father, they sign on as bone readers with one such ship plundering the baubles, Monetta’s Mourn under Captain Rackamore. The bones are a strange communication device, ancient alien skulls containing mysterious circuitry, or fragments of them, into which an especially sensitive human can jack to send and pick up messages from other vessels. There are also more conventional forms of communication like 20th century radio and television. After their ship has successfully plundered one bauble, it is attacked by Sennen. Ness is hidden from Sennen by the previous bone reader, a young woman driven mad by the bones. This woman and Adrana are taken by Sennen, who needs new bonereaders. She ruthlessly tortures and kills the other crewmembers, before departing the wrecked ship.

Ness and another woman, Prozor, manage to survive and make their way back to civilisation. Ness is ambushed by an agent for her father in a bar, and taken back to her home on Mazarile, where she is drugged and kept as a virtual prisoner. With the aid of her robot, Paladin, she escapes, rejoins Prozor, and the two make plans to join a suitable ship they can use to rescue Adrana and destroy Sennen and her evil crew.

Although set in the far future, the congregation and its worlds are nevertheless based on real scientific speculation. They’re a Dyson cloud/ swarm – I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the precise term. It’s a form of Dyson sphere. The physicist Freeman Dyson suggested that advanced, space-travelling civilisations would break up the planets of their solar systems and use the material to build solid spheres around their suns in order to harness all the stars’ light and energy, with the civilisations then living on the inside of the spheres. However, there are problems with such a concept. For example, the gravity generated by centrifugal force would be stronger at the Sphere’s equator, and disappear at the poles, making these areas difficult for civilisations to occupy. Larry Niven dealt with this problem by suggesting that they would only build an inhabited ring around the star, hence his masterpiece, Ringworld. Dyson, however, believed that such spheres would not be solid, and would in fact be composed of a cloud of tiny worldlets arranged in suitable orbits. This is the idea that Reynolds has used as the basis for this book.

As advanced as technology is in Revenger – limbs can be removed, replaced and traded quickly and painlessly in shops like items in a pawnbrokers – the society of the congregation is very much like that of 19th century Europe. Their doesn’t appear to be any system of public, state education, so that many people are unable to read, and the sisters are initially somewhat resented because of their moneyed background. The sexes are equal in this future, with women and men performing the same jobs. But the Ness sisters’ father is a recognisable Victorian patriarch determined to do whatever he can to hold on to his daughters. The technology has changed so that the ships are driven by the light from the Sun rather than the terrestrial wind, but they’re still sailing ships. And the baubles with their treasures locked away are the interplanetary equivalents of desert islands and their buried treasure. The book therefore reads almost like something Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, would have written after an evening drinking with Jules Verne and the two knew about quantum physics, solar sails and Dyson Spheres. Reynolds is good at creating credible future worlds, and the Congregation and its worldlets are very convincingly depicted as places where people live and work. 

While not everyone likes or reads SF, and this may not be to every SF fan’s taste, it is a good, rattling yarn which successfully marries far future Science Fiction with 19th century pirate fiction. So avast, ye planet-lubbers, and hoist the mainsail to catch the wind from the Sun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stephen Hawking on Why We Need to Colonise Space

September 6, 2017

Next Monday evening, 11th September 2017, on BBC 2 at 9 pm, Professor Stephen Hawking will present a programme arguing that humanity needs to colonise another world. Entitled The Search for a New Earth, the blurb for the programme on page 72 of the Radio Times runs

Physicist Stephen Hawking thinks the human species will have to populate a new planet within 100 years if it is to survive, with climate change, pollution, deforestation, pandemics and population growth making life on Earth increasingly precarious. In this programme he examines whether humans could relocate to other planets, travelling the globe to meet scientists, technologists and engineers working on the means and method.

There’s more information about the programme on page 71. This passage states that

Stephen Hawking is convinced that, if we are not to risk annihilation, humans need to leave Earth within the next 100 years and make a new home on another planet.

It sounds like sci-fi, but a planet has already been discovered “in our neighbourhood” that’s a contender: Proxima B is in the Goldilocks Zone (the narrow orbit where conditions are perfect to sustain human life), but we’d need a massive technological feat just to get us there.

Astrophysicist Danielle George and Hawking protégé Christophe Galfard explore the practicality of where and how e could create a human colony in space.

There’s also a single page feature about the programme in the Radio Times on page 31, which includes Danielle George’s replies to the following questions

Do we really need to leave Earth?

What does a new planet need to be human-friendly?

How many people will it take to set up a colony?

Stephen Hawking believes Proxima B may be the most suitable planet. Why?

How far away is Proxima B?

How long would it take to travel 4.2 light years?

Could we fit 20 years’ worth of astronaut food into a spaceship?

Dow we have the right to take over another planet?

Do you think there is the will to make this happen?

Regarding the amount of time required to journey to Proxima B, George states that using current chemical rockets it would take 250,000 years. But there is a project at Caliphornia where they are experimenting with propelling a nano probe the size of a mobile phone sim card using a laser beam. This may make it possible for such a probe to reach Proxima in 20 years.

That last sounds like a version of the old proposal to use space-based lasers to send a light sail to another star. One of the proposed missions was Starwisp, which would use solar sails to carry a 50 kilo instrument package to Alpha Centauri. The probe would reach a speed of 1/3 of the speed of light, and make the journey in something like 20 years.

The veteran hard SF writer, Larry Niven, also used the idea of laser-driven solar sails in his classic The Mote in God’s Eye. This is about the encounter between an expanding human galactic empire, and an alien race, the Moties. These are so called because their homeworld is a planet in a nebula dubbed Murchison’s Eye by humanity. The Moties are highly intelligent, but lack the Anderson Drive that has made it possible for humans to move out into the Galaxy. Instead, they have sent a vessel out on the centuries long voyage across interstellar in a ship using such a solar sail, powered by laser beam from their own system. It is the light from the laser beam which has given the Moties’ nebula its characteristic red colour.

As well as being super-intelligent, the Moties also possess between three and four arms, depending on their caste and function, and change sex throughout their life. Which makes me wonder whether the writers of the X-Files’ episode, ‘Gender Bender’, about a group of sex-changing aliens, who live an existence like the Amish had also drawn on the book for their inspiration. As well as the writers of Doctor Who when they decided that the Time Lords are also not restricted to remaining the same sex when they regenerate.