Sunday, 11 May 2014

Living In The Galaxy

Originally published on Poul Anderson Appreciation, 21 April 2012.

After five thousand years of interstellar travel, mankind has thinly occupied parts of two or three spiral arms. Old Earth, still called Home, is a half remembered myth in another spiral arm. Daven Laure, from the Fireland mountains on New Vixen, has never seen Earth, has never met anyone who has seen Earth and has no family record of any ancestor who had seen Earth. As a Ranger of the Commonalty, he trained at Starborough near Irontower City on Aladir, travels in a ship with a consciousness level computer and encounters nonhuman sophonts. The Commonalty, a service organisation, not a government, has members on an estimated ten million planets but:

"We know that other branches of humanity have their distinctive ways, and hear rumors of yet stranger ones." (1) 

The colonized planet Serieve, poor in heavy metals, is close to the northern verge of its spiral arm with only the galactic halo of scattered ancient globular clusters and a very thin interstellar medium beyond it. The only concentration of gas and dust in the region, the Dragon's Head Nebula, is in transit. New colonists of an entire planet usually build low but the Serievans have built a high rise industrial city, Pelogard, on an arctic island where they can extract minerals from ocean currents. Flocks of blue, winged, bird-like organisms circle above trees with fronded silver leaves.

Several interlocking narratives of the Technic History conclude in the Commonalty period:

(i) Terrans colonized Aeneas;
Dominic Flandry of Terra exiled Aenean rebels;
the rebels colonized Kirkasant hidden in the "Cloud Universe" global cluster;

a ship from Kirkasant made an epic journey to the colony planet Serieve.

(ii) Terrans colonized Hermes and Vixen;
David Falkayn of Hermes discovered the industrially valuable planet Mirkheim and initiated the Supermetals company to exploit it;
Henry Kittredge of Vixen was the Supermetals ground operations chief on Mirkheim;
the Vixenite share in Supermetals bought badly needed weather stations;
Flandry and Catherine Kittredge of the Vixenite weather engineering department successfully resisted alien invasion of Vixen, at one stage hiding in a weather station.

(iii) Helen Kitteridge of Vixen, Terran Space Navy energy weapons controller, joined Olaf Magnusson's revolt;
intelligence gathered by Flandry's daughter brought down Magnusson.

(iv) Vixenites colonized New Vixen;
Daven Laure of New Vixen integrated Kirkasanters into interstellar civilization after a ship from Kirkasant had reached Serieve.

These interlocking narratives touch on the histories of several planets and highlight eight individuals: three Vixenite Kittredges, three major figures - Falkayn, Flandry and Magnusson - and two others, Flandry's daughter and Daven Laure. As with the history of the Ythrians (see here), we would like to know more but this was all that Anderson had space to tell us.

Beyond the Dragon's Head is unexplored space. Directly behind this Nebula is the "Cloud Universe" globular cluster. A globular cluster comprises old, red, metal-poor stars in a nearly perfect vacuum. However, the Cloud Universe's eccentric orbit passes through dense clouds of gas and dust near the galactic center. The cluster gravitationally gathers gas which makes it opaque and condenses into new stars. Periodic ingestion of new matter causes several supernovae per century for at least a million years. Stars are unstable and radiation levels prevent any life in the center of the cluster. From within the Cloud Universe, space appears as neither dark nor empty but as bright and star-filled. Stars are light months apart.

A fleet fled from the Terran Empire. One ship fled as far as possible, a quarter way round the galaxy through two spiral arms, and hid as well as possible, on Kirkasant in the Cloud Universe. Such a long trip in an early vessel required frequent repair, resupply and refilling of nuclear converters. On arrival, the ship needed a rebuild but the Kirkasanters, as they now were, needed five millennia to build the industrial capacity for interplanetary travel. High radiation and a harsh environment hastened evolution. The first generation mined and forged metal. The second supported a literate class. When scientific method was rediscovered, relativity theory, based on observations from within the Cloud Universe, implied a universe two or three hundred light years across with space tightly curved by the concentrated mass. The Kirkasanters progressed from moon rockets to hyperdrive in a single lifetime. They knew it was possible and were guided by old texts and the hulk of the ancestral ship.

The first interstellar ships visited stars visible from home. The Makt crew went further, believing that they would be able to steer home by already charted stars. However, because of the haze and shine in the Cloud Universe, absolute magnitudes and therefore relative distances had not been calculated accurately. Bypassing home space, the ship became lost in the Cloud until it exited the cluster. Theory implied that they had made a dimensional crossing into another universe, even though each universe was visible from the other. Legendary references to space as dark suggested that the ancestors had come from here. When they had re-entered the cluster three times to no avail, telescopes revealed a distant black cloud (the Dragon's Head). Reasoning that the ancestors, fleeing an enemy, might have passed through such a cloud, the Makt crew approached and traversed the Nebula. Then they used neutrino detectors to find the nuclear power plants of an advanced civilization and, nearly out of fuel, reached Serieve.

Entering the Cloud Universe, Jaccavrie (Laure's ship) and Makt could not find Kirkasant and were in danger from radiation, hidden bodies and unpredictable stellar processes. Laure explored several planets both to confirm that they were rich in heavy metals and to establish a claim of ownership for himself and the Makt crew. When miners swarm into the cluster, the Kirkasanters will be rich and the miners' beacons will enable them to map the cluster and find their planet: a neat solution to a technical problem.

That the Kirkasanters were descended from the Aeneans is a reasonable inference given that Anderson did not write anything further to contradict it. It is certainly unlikely that any other human group fled that far that early.

Thus, Anderson constructed an sf story about:

vast interstellar distances albeit traversed by hyperdrive;
unusual celestial bodies and processes;
human communities isolated for millennia in different environments, thus becoming distinct species;
no nonhuman intelligences in this story although they are mentioned once;
no interstellar empires although they had existed earlier in this fictitious history;
a new form of interstellar organization meriting further discussion.

Poul Anderson, "Starfog" IN Anderson, The Long Night, New York, 1983, pp. 242-310, AT p. 248.

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