Mataglap SF

mataglap -- an Indonesian word meaning "dark eye" or, probably, "dilated eye." It is an indication that someone is about to go berserk and start killing people at random. Used in Walter Jon Williams' novel Aristoi as the name of a berserk form of nanotechnology that devoured the planet.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

We Have Fed Our Sea by Poul Anderson
 
Part of the ongoing criticism against the Campbell era in Astounding centers on his insistence on a positive view of space exploration and of man's undoubted primacy over aliens. But that doesn't mean he wouldn't publish depressing stories, maybe "The Cold Equations" being one of the best known examples. Anderson's novel is equally bleak, an uplifting ending doesn't really offer enough counterpoint to the overall nastiness of space, but it goes a long way from the Doc Smith type of space adventure and I think gives a good indication of where things were heading in hard SF. In book form this was published as "The Enemy Stars", but this is a bit misleading (not that the original title is that great either). There is no enemy other than physics (again like The Cold Equations) against which Anderson pits his four protagonists with varying results.

In Anderson's future, space travel to the stars is doable but takes years, and trips to the outer planets take centuries. Instead of perfecting FTL travel, this culture has developed the ability to instantaneously transport people and materials between two points in space, as long as the equipment to receive them is at the other end. This device, which from our modern perspective would seem to be more improbable than FTL travel, is on the spaceship heading towards an interesting star in space, and every so often a new crew is beamed aboard and the old crew returned. The story follows the recruiting of the newest crew, four men of varying backgrounds and discplines who have different reasons for going, or in some cases don't want to go but do anyway.

Anderson knows his physics and emphasizes both the remoteness and isolation of space travel at this distance. Something goes terribly wrong and the ship is no longer able to communicate with Earth, so the astronauts have to apply their various skills to attempt to create their own transporting device and hope they can get it to synchronize with another one in order to have a chance of returning home. Ultimately they succeed, but not in the way they expected, and not everyone makes it back home.

Where the novel is only partially successful is in the contrasts between the four astronauts, the story isn't long enough to get to know them that well, so it makes it a little harder to care about what happens to them, or to even tell them apart sometimes. The title comes from a line from Kipling, relating to exploration by sea and the high price in human lives it required. Anderson correctly anticipates the same level of sacrifice in space, seeing it as something of a necessity and an inevitability. The artifice of teleportation is an implausible alternative to equally implausible generation ships or FTL, but worth exploring for the variety of story it can provide.

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