Sunday, 18 May 2014

Through Space

Originally published on Poul Anderson Appreciation, 6 March 2013.

Very often in science fiction, interesting events occur on another planet and space is merely the distance that has had to be travelled, or the void that has had to be traversed, in order to reach that planet. If events do occur en route, then they usually occur entirely within the closed environment of the spaceship. It is rare that space itself is presented as an environment where events can occur or where there is the equivalent of a landscape with distinctive features that can be discovered by travelling between them.

As can be expected, Poul Anderson does more than once focus on what space travellers see and fly past outside their ship while they are travelling. In "Starfog", we learn that, millennia earlier, a ship fleeing from a conflict had traversed two spiral arms and passed through a dark nebula before colonising a planet in a bright opaque cluster. Descendants of those colonists, travelling in an experimental interstellar ship, emerge from their cluster into what is to them the unfamiliar environment of dark space where stars are distant points light years instead of light months apart.

Remembering legendary accounts of space as dark and sighting the distant Dragon's Head nebula, they reason that their ancestors might have passed through such an even darker region in order to evade pursuit so they steer towards and through the nebula. There, on the far side of the nebula, they locate an industrialised colony planet by detecting its neutrino emissions and manage to reach it before running out of fuel. Thus, the journey itself has involved passing through physically different regions and steering by the landmark of the nebula.

In Tau Zero, a spaceship making an interstellar journey but accelerating uncontrollably must fly into the space between clusters of galaxies to attempt repairs but must then fly between clusters of clusters to effect the repairs, steers across a hundred million light years of dark and empty space to the next "clan" (cluster of clusters) but, unable to stop, keeps going between and through clans until the universe contracts at which point the ship orbits around the new monobloc until that explodes into a new universe.

The ship's crew colonises a planet in the new universe but, obviously, the main point of the story has been how they got there.

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