Saturday, May 31, 2008

Half a Galaxy is better than none

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, space aliens

Under the covers of the social and political infighting needed to get a space program going during a time of global navel-watching (an echo of the post-Apollo years, including today), there are plenty of ideas in Chauldron to keep me busy for a while. Hard, realistic science fiction, including space fiction, is my favorite genre, and Jack mcDevitt is presently its best practitioner.

The setting of Chauldron is satisfyingly middle-of-the-road. In the 22d and 23d Centuries, a "superluminal" starship drive, based on some kind of hyperspace, is in use. This makes it possible to go a few light years in a day or so, and a few hundred in a few weeks. A smattering of planets with life have been visited, but no civilizations have been found. One signal, received for a few weeks, that then abruptly stops, which has been translated, has been the total yield of 15 decades of the original search program of SETI. Public indifference is reflected in the reordering of political priorities and the space program is dying the slow death of an uneconomic white elephant.

At such a juncture, nothing can restore public interest in space except a much easier, cheaper, faster star drive. Given a Galaxy that is 100,000 light years across, whose nearest similarly-sized neighbor is two million light years away, a few-light-year-per-day velocity is Model T stuff. So, of course, the author kicks off the book's plot with a new star drive, using a different kind of hyperspace or folded space or whatever, that is thirty times faster.

Naturally, given sudden public interest, surging donations to a space flight society, and offerings of corporate backing, the protagonists decide to equip two ships to explore a spot near the center of the Galaxy, some 30,000 light years away, but only a few months' ship time for transit. This spot, called the Cauldron or the Mordecai Zone, is the apparent source of lightning-spewing "omega" clouds that have a penchant for incinerating anything with right angles...such as cities on planetary surfaces.

The ideas with which the author weaves his tale include:
  • Complex life and civilization only arise when a suitable planet has a single large moon.
  • Civilization is fragile, and technology overruns common sense within a thousand years of the invention of printing using movable type.
  • The attainment of potential immortality by the conquest of aging leads to social stagnation, a civilization that endures with no heart, a planetary zombie.
  • A living plasma being, perhaps the size of Mercury's orbit, might arise in areas of great turmoil and radiant intensity, such as near the Galactic core.
The lovely thing about fiction like mcDevitt's is that only one or two suspensions of disbelief are needed to really get into the tale. He can even make you almost feel a caring pity for the plasma being.

The book is the sixth of a loosely-connected series, one that raises the ante enough that the author should be able to produce several more in the new territory he has opened up.

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