The Big Idea: Dave Freer

There are a lot of stars out there in space — and as we’re constantly discovering, lots of planets around those stars. But how many of those planets are “earth-like”: that is, good for us? And what will it take to reach them? And what if we get there and discover the planet’s not as good for us as we thought? What then?

Eric Flint and Dave Freer considered these questions, and came up with a solution: chuck all of that and find a new way for humans to colonize the stars. What is that way, and how does play out in their latest novel Slow Train to Arcturus? Dave Freer, e-mailing in all the way from South Africa, explains the big idea for you now.


“When we get there, the place stinks.” One of the underlying problems with slower than light interstellar colonisation has always been that it is a long, hard journey and, when we get there, the planet humans had hoped to settle on is considerably less habitable than we’d hoped (Larry Niven’s A Gift From Earth) , or even totally uninhabitable … or has occupants.

Which means we face up to doing all over again. It’s the elephant in room with all slower-than-light stories. Now the problem that my co-author Eric Flint has, is that his African-dwelling co-author still instinctively regards elephants as something that will either trample you or make a really big barbeque. I am not good at ignoring them and hoping that they’ll leave the room. So: when Eric suggested we should do a slowship story – if we could come up with something different, it was the elephant that got targeted. The big idea for Slow Train to Arcturus was born out of the idea that there are probably relatively few terraformable (let alone habitable) worlds out there, compared to the number of stars, and, if you’re going to keep trying star systems — you’re in for a very long trip, because unless you’re going to turn the organic content of your starship to jelly, acceleration and deceleration will probably treble the length of an already long journey.

So: what if the slowship didn’t ever slow down? What if it was a modular ship (like James White’s Grapeliner) that, once accelerated, just kept on going, dropping modules as it approached stars. The modules slowed down instead… and then the human colonists didn’t try to colonise a world at all: They were in a space habitat, designed to make more space habitats. They were colonising space, not worlds. All they need is sunlight and space-debris – something every star out there has. And there is a potentially habitable zone around every star. Of course space habitats or enclosed habitats have not yet been shown to be very long-term viable. This is an island biogeography problem – isolated population have serious issues with diversity and viability. The bigger the island, the less the problem. Or… the more ‘complicated’ the island…

Okay, so I am a fisheries biologist. I admit it. I go to regular fisheries biologists anonymous meetings. Besides complaining about how our wives don’t understand that a man must smell of fish, we talk about the effect of surface area on fish carrying capacity. And, if it applies to fish, it naturally has to apply to space habitats, especially as most people think of space habitats as an enclosed volume with people living on the inner skin. To increase that carrying capacity you have to increase size and volume hugely… but if we layered the habitat, you can increase surface area vastly without increasing volume. That’s a pretty big idea, let alone space habitat.

I’m a biologist. But my co-author is an historian. And any story is really about the people in it not the gadgets or biology, and people are the stuff of history. So we filled our isolated modules with people — the same sort of colonists who once had enough of life under Chief Big-Guy in the Great Rift Valley, who thought Attila the Hun was too liberal, who left Europe for America to chase dreams or to leave religious or state persecution. You know: the misfits, the dreamers, the hardline conservatives, the starry-eyed idealists. The rootstock of all colonisation, of humanity itself. The blokes who didn’t fit back home. The people who colonised America. The forefathers of just about everyone who doesn’t still live in the Great Rift Valley (and I wouldn’t bet on those either). So: What happens when you isolate those fragments for three hundred years. Do we need each other? Is isolation worth it? Who really are losers that society would be better without? Anyone? And how would an aliens species (especially one that didn’t have two sexes at birth) see them?

Now, I’ve written a lot of satirical humor, and some historical fantasy. This book was neither and both. I had to reign in the humor and get into the skin of a hero who was quite unlike me – a pacifist and a deeply religious traditional agrarian. I had to research the cultures of several of these groups and try to present a fair picture of their society. It did bring home just how complex such a seemingly simple society can be and how varied (and really human) the people in them can be too. Of course – I wrote a lot of it. There is humor and satire too.

Also, this is a hard-science book with minimum handwavium. And lets’s face it, in a lot of those the writers get so obsessed with the shiny gadgets and pretty lights that they leave you feeling mentally pummelled with it all. It’s great stuff but not easy reading. But… our society is full of quite complex gadgetry — that we take for granted. When your hero goes into his kitchen he doesn’t explain how the microwave oven he’s using works. He probably doesn’t actually know. And that is the key to writing accessible hard sf that I had to learn. I had to dig into the physics and mechanical side, with the help of some great and knowledgable people — and then let my characters live in the environment without explaining it. They don’t understand it. They just live in it. Heinlein did just this, and if it was good enough for him I guess Freer and Flint will just have to learn to do it too.

And that’s it. Face aliens with humans in a series of habitats – some of which are inimical. Put the species and cultures together. Mix. See what happens. It’s kind of about the future, vast dreams, and the past.

It’s a huge universe, and a long way to Arcturus.


Slow Train to Arcturus: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an online excerpt of the novel here. Visit Dave Freer’s LiveJournal here.

13 Comments on “The Big Idea: Dave Freer”

  1. I read the book and absolutely loved it. It’s the offspring of Lemuel Gulliver and Pandora, with a diversity of habitat cultures opened up by some aliens who have no *clue* what they’re getting into. And it was one HELL of a lot of fun to read.

    As with all of Eric and Dave’s work, I recommend that, if you do read it and need to eat or drink, that you stop, eat/drink and swallow before continuing. Otherwise there is serious risk of spewage when one of the jokes hits you.

  2. Gah, my comment is stuck! Guess it’s the link…

    Well, I just wanted to say that if you go to the website, you can buy and download an e-copy of Slow Train for Arcturus in several DRM-less formats, including Palm, Kindle, Sony, MS Reader. Just click “Dave Freer” in the author’s list in the left-hand column and scroll the titles. Very cool.

    And yes, I just did so. E-book paypal’ed and downloaded, as fast as reading the “Big Idea”. I’m a fan of Eric Flint’s 1632 series already, but now I’m very curious about this Freer-Flint collaboration.

  3. Ok, so tell me how you do it John Scalzi: get any focus in between coming to look and see if there are any comments/ new comments?
    Thanks for the kind ones, guys. Sehlat, the elephant is in the post. Really. If it isn’t there by friday go down and ask ;-).

  4. I also loved this book. The different subsets of humans and how their societies evolved, or in one case, totally devolved was very well done.

    The aliens were interesting both as a culture and individually. The final solution to the problem was both creative and hopeful.

    My only complaint is I wanted to know more about the people in charge of the ship, who are only shown in glimpses of radio transmissions and e-mails.

  5. I have that one, from the October webscription at Baen. It’s one of the reasons I picked up that month. But I haven’t gotten around to it yet, probably some time over the holidays. I will say that the blurb text on it makes it seem like much more of a humor book than a hard sci-fi book, although I’m fairly ok with both.

  6. This sounds very, very cool. Time to add to my Amazon short-list. (Like my wish-list except short-term, as in next order or so)

  7. Skip: It’s slightly more serious than usual, although the sheer ridiculousness of some human foibles veiwed through an alien lens are, well, laugh or cry. There is some degreeof parody and poking of fun and situational humor… but the setting and concept are my attempt at a serious look at slower than light multi-generational ships.
    Cynthia: I hope to write that book… the proposal will go in just as soon as I finish this (late) one…

  8. I just finished reading the excerpt online… this is definitely going on my “buy it” list.

  9. Argh… I am torn. I read the first couple of chapters and added it to my wishlist (out of book money for the month,) but now I can’t decide whether to read the rest of the excerpt or wait until I get a hard copy.

  10. Sounds interesting, and Flint/Freer is good brain popcorn. And I’ve never understood, if you could build a generation ship, why you’d /bother/ settling at the bottom of a gravity well – once you’ve managed to invent an indefinitely self-sustaining closed environment your descendants can just settle the asteroids from here to forever. So it’s good to see someone actually running with that idea. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

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