The Big Idea: Allen Steele

I’ve made no secret of the fact that Allen Steele is one of my favorite science fiction writers and has been for some time (he was the first author I ever sent fan mail to! True fact!), and his excellent new novel Hex shows one of the reasons why: The dude thinks big. Like, really big. We’re talking Dyson Sphere big. But Allen’s not content to just take received wisdom about what science fiction has already said about things like the Dyson Sphere — no, he’s going to put his own spin on it. How so? Allen reveals all, in its Brobdingnagian splendor.


So you want to talk about big ideas, do you? Try this one for size…

Imagine a world one AU in radius – that’s 93 million miles – and 186 million miles in diameter, with a circumference of 584,336,233.568 miles. Since this world is hollow, with a G-class sun at its center, it has an estimated volume of 1.086×1017 miles (I don’t think there’s a word for a number that big). Its surface isn’t solid, though, but instead is comprised of approximately six trillion open-center hexagons, each having a perimeter of 6,000 miles. Every hexagon has six cylindrical habitats 1,000 miles long and 100 miles wide. Most, if not all, of these “biopods” are inhabited by one alien race or another, and no one knows for sure how many live here … except perhaps the danui, the ones who built this place, and they’re not telling.

That’s Hex.

I’ve been fascinated by Dyson spheres ever since I read Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, the first novel to deal with Freeman Dyson’s concept (yes, I know all about Larry Niven’s Ringworld … but that isn’t a sphere, is it?). Since then, I’ve read or seen other treatments of the same idea – notably the shellworlds of Iain Banks’s Culture novels, and “Relics”, one of the better episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation – and have generally enjoyed them all.

Nonetheless, a number of things have always bugged me. Looked at from a practical point of view, Dyson spheres don’t seem to make a lot of sense. Build a solid sphere around a star, and you’ll inevitably run into a couple of big problems: namely, a runaway greenhouse effect will eventually make the place uninhabitable, which will probably occur shortly before trapped heat causes the shell to overheat, expand, and fracture just like a sidewalk in summertime.

And even if you ignore all that, there’s also the question of purpose: why build something this enormous if it can have only one kind or environment? Orbitsville, for example, has a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, an everlasting summer, and endless plains of grass. Not only is that … well, rather boring, if you ask me; I like winter, and I love cross-country skiing … but it’s also a waste of potential; thousands of different, non-human races could comfortably reside in something like this, if only there were more environmental variation.

I’d been muddling this stuff around the time I finished Coyote Destiny, the fifth and last book of the Coyote series. This was the conclusion of an epic I’d been writing during the last ten years; during the same time, I’d also done two novels set in the same universe, Spindrift and Galaxy Blues, which formed a parallel storyline to the events taking place on Coyote. Now that the Coyote series was complete, I wanted to provide a capstone for the spinoff novels as well. And since this would probably be my last hurrah, I wanted to go out with something big.

Which brought me back to Dyson spheres and all the questions I had about them. Freeman Dyson is a very smart man; I could not believe that one of the leading physicists of our time would devise something which had such obvious flaws. So I visited the University of Massachusetts science library, tracked down the issues of Science from 1960 in which Dr. Dyson published a couple of letters explaining his idea, and got a surprise: the Dyson spheres of science fiction bear little resemblance to his original concept.

Dr. Dyson had suggested that these spheres would be individual habitats orbiting a star, rather than a solid shell with a sun at its center. In fact, he owed his inspiration to J.D. Bernal’s The World, The Flesh, and the Devil, published in 1929, which discussed the possibility of something rather similar. All right, this made sense … except that, with zillions of these habitats spinning around a star, you’d have one mother of a traffic-control problem. And not only that, but wouldn’t it make sense to connect them somehow, so that inhabitants could easily travel from habitat to another?

I was thinking about this when I stumbled upon a web site article about the properties of fullerenes, sometimes also known as buckyballs. The article featured a diagram of a carbon-based fullerene … but to my mind’s eye, it was a Dyson sphere, only with a framework of six-sided habitats around a central point.

So my Dyson sphere would be something like that: a vast assembly of hexagons, each one sharing sides its neighbors, constructed in orbit around a star. An afternoon spent doing the math for the dimensions of such an object producing bowel-loosening results. Don’t ask what the mass of this thing would be; a fan tried to figure it out when I described Hex to him, and threw down his pen in frustration.

Once I drew pencil sketches of Hex, my friend Rob Caswell came up with the frontispiece illustrations that appear in the book. Rob also read the book as I was writing it and made several suggestions. And I had great fun coming up with the different aliens that appear during the novel; some, like the hjadd, had previously shown up in Spindrift, Galaxy Blues, and the Coyote novels, but others like the danui and the soranta haven’t been seen before.

Figuring out why someone would go to the trouble of building something like this provided me with much of the plot and story. I won’t go into that here, except to say that Hex isn’t a Big Dumb Object; it’s a Big Smart Object, its creators haven’t disappeared, and their motives are eventually explained. You’ll have to read the book to learn more.

Hex is about the discovery and exploration of Hex. But despite what I said at the beginning of this essay about this novel being a series finale, I’m not entirely certain that I’m done with this place. I’ve got some questions of my own that I’d like to have answered.


Hex: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Listen to an audio interview.

46 Comments on “The Big Idea: Allen Steele”

  1. Sounds interesting as hell. Steele is one of those authors I have been meaning to read for a long while. Might as well get to it.

  2. This sounds great! I’ve been looking forward to seeing more of Hex since we visited it briefly in “The Other Side of Jordan.” Does anyone know if that story is part of Hex the novel?

  3. For what it’s worth, the first novel (assuming you think of it as a novel) to deal with Dyson’s concept was Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker.

  4. I read the first Coyote novel and wasn’t really enthused enough to read the second one; “heroic Libertarian colonials versus evil Terran statists” aggravates me on several different levels. It’s not that I dislike Steele’s writing, more that I dislike his universe. I’ll be interested to read what he comes up with in future, though.

  5. Mindboggling numbers are mindboggling.

    That aside: WANT. I absolutly adored ringworld; I have an absolute love for strange world concepts. :)

  6. I frick’n love Coyote. It’s one of my all time favorite novels, and I was thrilled to find a signed copy of the hardcover at a convention last year. I haven’t read all of them (I still need to pick up the last two), and I wasn’t thrilled with Spin Drift, but this one looks outstanding. I’ll have to go pick it up.

  7. I fell in love with Steele’s writing when I rescued a copy of Kings of Infinite Space from a Goodwill. Since then, my wife and I have devoured his books. This same thing happened with Jack McDevitt’s works.

    When I saw this pop up on Amazon, I was stoked. After reading this, I’m really looking forward to getting a copy. In fact, I may just go order it now…

  8. Oh no, he’s recreating the Well World? It was only Earth sized, divided into 1560 hexagonal regions, created by the Markovians to each have a different climate, tech level, etc. Sounds like Steele is upping the ante on this.

  9. Sandy @8 – Yeah, that was my first thought, too. Similiar, but enough to make me interested.

  10. Goody, a new Steele! Looking forward to it.

    (Also: I’ll be glad when publicists finally stop name-dropping Heinlein on book covers.)

  11. I’m very interested in the concept, but it’s unclear to me whether I need to read “Spindrift” and “Galaxy Blues” first, since “Hex” is described as a a “capstone” to those novels. (By “need” I don’t mean “is it absolutely necessary” but rather “would it significantly impact the reading of Hex to have read the earlier novels?”)

  12. @8
    Yay! Someone else is a Chalker fan. He died on my birthday. I was sad.

    The similarities do intrigue me, though. I expect I’ll be acquiring this one sometime in the near future.

  13. Pedantry alert: 1.086^17 = 4.065+. Suspect Mr. Steele meant 1.086 x 10^17, which is pretty big, but by no means out of bounds in astronomical terms.

    Good article — thanks for the peek behind the screen.

  14. yes, I know all about Larry Niven’s Ringworld … but that isn’t a sphere, is it?

    No. No, it isn’t. The clue is in the title: Ringworld, not Sphereworld or Ballworld or whatever. The ring shape is important to the setup and the plot in many ways.

    From the same paragraph, I also don’t recall Banks’s habitats frequently being called “shellworlds”, though I haven’t read all of the Culture novels (a quick Google suggests it’s a term used in Matter, one of those I haven’t yet read). In at least two of the novels (Consider Phlebas and The Player Of Games) the bracelet/ring-like shape of the habitats is repeatedly emphasized and something of an important point.

    This is of course all nitpicking offhand comments. But they’re such unfortunate offhand comments.

  15. @15 Shellworlds are different from the “ordinary” habitats of the Culture. They are the artefacts of an extinct race, some of which are now inhabited by others.

    Using hexegons and different habitats for different species/cultures, but not at least namechecking Chalker, I have to say I am not impressed by this essay.

  16. Sounds intriguing. I’ve not read any Steele. I like to start series at the beginning (I’m funny that way) so I thought I’d buy an e-copy of “Coyote” and see how I liked it. I see the following four Coyote books for sale in e-form, but not the first. If that’s the case, it’s rather unfortunate (for everyone, including Mr. Steele).

    Am I missing something?

  17. Argh. The physics pedant in me cannot resist. He’s speaking of the surface area, not the volume of the sphere, which would be 3.37*10^24 cubic miles. Surface area must be measured in units of area, which means square miles, not miles. And yes, as Andrew Hackard (#14) points out, the sphere’s surface area would be 1.086*10^17 _square_ miles.

  18. John Scalzi’s @ #11:

    When was the last time some marketer name-dropped Semonides, or even Olaf Stapledon?

    Also, too, I plan on living forever.

  19. While Dyson’s original concept of a habitat cloud seems messy, I’m not sure how one keeps a latticework shell around a star from collapsing any more than one could a solid sphere. You could spin it, but that leaves the problem of the poles. At least some of those habitats are going to have the gravity of the sun pulling them inward without benefit of already being in free fall.

    So there has to be some kind of antigravity keeping them where they are. Dyson’s version at least had everything in orbit.

  20. I’m glad other folks mentioned the Well of Souls; it was the first thing to come to mind when I read the description, and I kept waiting for Steele to mention it (especially given the mentions of a mysterious race that created the world). That said, the focus on the Dyson Sphere as opposed to the alien race gimmick will hopefully ensure this gets sent off in its own direction.

  21. You know Game of Thrones takes place in a Dyson Sphere, right? Just watch the tv intro. ;)

  22. Hello John,
    I very much like Alan Steele. I also enjoy reading his works. This is one that I plan to get as soon as I can.
    As I said, I have met and like Alan Steele; he is a very nice person, and if you get a chance to see him, jump at it.
    To #8 and #13- About Jack Lawarence Chalker- I had met him a number of times, (VERY nice person) We would meet at a convention, and he was so interesting to talk to.

  23. I floved his early novels, but fell out of like with Alan Steele a while ago. Maybe I should give him a second chance.

  24. @Matt McIrvin: Yeah, unfortunately when someone messes up relatively simple math/physics that early in his self-description, it makes me less likely to want to read the book. I don’t require absolutely believable and plausible physics, but it at least has to be not blatantly wrong. The spinning strutwork might work, though, as long as the tensile strength is sufficient to distribute the forces around the poles… but you’re correct that you’d probably wind up with a flattened ellipsoid rather than a sphere, for the same reasons that galaxies and solar systems are quasi-planar. Which would cause its own problems in terms of habitats. Of course, since the author can’t be arsed to get his units correct, I can’t be arsed to do a complicated calculation for plausibility.

    However, I am enough of a nerd to wonder about these things, so I did a back of the envelope calculation for vague plausibility. Modelling the individual struts (“habitats”) as as steel thick-walled cylinders filled with nitrogen, 15% steel by volume, and calculating the tensile stress if the entire gravitational force of one cylinder were applied in tension to another such cylinder along its axis, it’s at least well under the tensile yield strength of steel. Of course, one then has to find ~28 Jupiter masses of steel/iron in a single solar system, or else import them. Less cosmically abundant elements such as titanium would be even worse. Then again, someone scared by the math of numbers like 10^17 probably shouldn’t be writing about solar system engineering problems.

  25. 1.086×10^17 = 108.6 Quadrillion Cubic Miles, but who’s counting when you get to numbers like this.

    Allen Steele is my second favorite currently writing author. I was thrilled to meet him and my favorite at the Nebula awards weekend last month.

  26. Awesome. I like the Coyote books, but they aren’t my favourites of his work. Looking forward to a non-Coyote novel.

  27. “Build a solid sphere around a star, and you’ll inevitably run into a couple of big problems: namely, a runaway greenhouse effect will eventually make the place uninhabitable, which will probably occur shortly before trapped heat causes the shell to overheat, expand, and fracture just like a sidewalk in summertime.”

    There is a problem, but he is confused about what it is. There is no greenhouse effect. On the inside, the sphere can’t radiate away power because it will be absorbed elsewhere in the sphere. On the outside, there is no atmosphere, so the sphere will in fact radiate away power quite effectively. The radius of the sphere is totally arbitrary, though, so we can make it cooler by making it bigger (and thereby increasing the size of the radiating surface). If I typed in the Stefan Boltzman constant correctly, you would need sphere with radius 6 AU to be a comfortable 20 C.

  28. I think the “trapped heat” thing was actually a feature, not a bug, at least in its initial conception — the idea was that your civilization had reached the point that you needed all of the energy being radiated by the star, whether it was being intercepted by a ping-pong-ball like spherical shell or just a great spherical agglomeration of individual units.

    And now I want someone to write books featuring every kind of megahabitat described in Larry Niven’s “Bigger Than Worlds” essay. Bonus points for using them all in the same book.

  29. Oh dear, they’ve done it again. Neither “Ringworld” nor “Hex” would be dynamically stable. Eventually star and shell will meet, oh, the embarassment, all die (literally). Also dead–my WSOD.

    Banks’s Orbitals don’t suffer from this problem, since they are small (for Culture values of small) bodies in orbit around the star. His shellworlds aren’t actually habitats around a star, they are space stations that have a vermin infestation problem. We just happen to be the vermin.

    Jack Tingle

  30. Yuck, when an author tries to do a world based on a huge astro-engineering idea and can’t get the most basic physics right, that’s not very encouraging. And it’s not as if Dyson spheres haven’t been seriously studied. I was so annoyed with the naive politics (and incredibly stupid characters, too stupid to live, basically) in Coyote that I wasn’t close to reading any of the other novels, at least now I know up front not to start Hex.

  31. Defiantly going to get this, on Kindle (if i can ;) ) Also looking to pick up the Coyote series, cant believe i didnt know this was around!

  32. I had the pleasure of meeting Allen “The Animal” Steele at Readercon last year while he was browsing through a vendor book selections and signing copies of his books. I asked him which of his I absolutely must read and after flummoxing him he handed me Spindrift and Coyote. Very nice guy. Very nice books.

  33. I just bought it on Amazon. It sounds fascinating! Thanks for letting me know!

  34. It does sound intriguing — I read more F than SF, but in my SF I want scale. Gigantic constructs, histories stretching back millions or billions of years, galaxy-spanning events, the eventual fate of the universe. Which reminds me: I should reread Last and First Men and Star Maker one of these days.

  35. Oh dear, they’ve done it again. Neither “Ringworld” nor “Hex” would be dynamically stable. Eventually star and shell will meet, oh, the embarassment, all die (literally). Also dead–my WSOD.

    At least solid spheres are only uncoupled to the star within. Ringworlds are actively unstable. Of course, given that the Ringworld is stocked with Pak, maybe its building wanted to make it easy to dispose of them.

    The classic swarm of a brazillian solar collectors in orbit around a star would not have the driftng issues of the shell or the instability of the ring but it would have something of a traffic management problem.

  36. Allen Steele is a master at creating characters, which is sometimes ignored in loo of cool science in Sci Fi novels. He also creates interesting political landscapes, something also difficult to in sci fi. Can’t wait to check out the book.

  37. And the sphere is only uncoupled from the star to the extent we can assume it’s infinitely rigid. The star will still be pulling on any individual bit, and the stresses get unbalanced if the sphere starts drifting.

  38. Again, something avoided with the clearly superior swarm approach.

    I did like the model used in Pohl and Williamson’s Farthest Star where the dyson sphere was a huge intergalactic generation ship that massed four times the star inside [1], and where one of the habitats available was the entire surface of the shell, a realm with a billion times the surface area of the Earth and only a milligee of surface gravity.

    1: If there was a star. Not 100% that was more than a supposition.

  39. I’ve been fascinated by Dyson spheres ever since I read Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, the first novel to deal with Freeman Dyson’s concept

    AFAIK the first SF novel to use the Dyson Sphere idea was Robert Silverberg’s 1969 novel Across a Billion Years, predating Orbitsville by 6 years.

    Steele’s Hex idea sounds a bit like Topopolis.

  40. Well, Mr Steele is certainly a great author, especially as he is able to tell so many stories and still stay in his Orbital Decay universe. But Mr Scalzi, you’re incredible too! Just finished The Last Colony last week, and can hardly wait for my next bookstore trip to pick up a few more of your books. My girlfriends oldest girl is rapidly becoming a fan of your books as well!

  41. Pretty good book so far; I have never read anything by Mr. Steele, and I am enjoying this one very much.

    I do have to ask one question, though. As this is a book based on HEXAGONs, and with all of the editing and proofreading that must go on before a book like this gets published, how exactly is there a diagram of an OCTAGON on page 164?

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