Sunday, May 13, 2007

Letting ourselves be found, revisited

kw: book reviews, science fiction, first contact, spacecraft, SETI

I reviewed James Gunn's The Listeners just a month back (enter Gunn in the search box above). He takes another whack at the subject in Gift from the Stars.

The prior novel concerned exchange of radio messages, which occurred over a ninety-year span. I wondered at the time how anyone could predict "answer day" with any accuracy, given the several-light-year uncertainty in the distance to the star. The message received was hidden within a replay of very old radio transmissions, so I supposed that the time lag could be calculated.

This novel has the message arriving by gravity waves, bearing plans for a working starcraft and antimatter energy conversion. An engineer has decoded the message from the first gravity wave detector, written a book containing the plans, hidden within an apparently crackpot UFO scenario, then gone insane with worry...he was unstable to begin with (a stereotype of the highly creative). Another engineer, someone who knows rocket science, finds the book.

The long and short of it is, the improbable happens; the engineer and a few friends republish the plans via the Internet, and later manage to wangle agreement to build a starship from the new planetary authority (the old was swept away by an economic revolution based on antimatter energy).

This story is more satisfying than the former, though a few things are infinitely more fantastic. However, I know the Corollary to Finagle's Law: everything is going to cost ten times as much and take twice as long as you thought. Constructing a ship to carry 200+ people for a few years, regardless of propulsion method, would bankrupt the entire planet. A pity.

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