The Big Idea: Adam Oyebanji
In his novel Braking Day, author Adam Oyebanji wants to take humans into deep space. But just because he wants to take them into deep space doesn’t mean he’s going to make it easy and simple for them to get there… or stay there.
I fear I’m here under false pretenses. I don’t really have a big idea when I write. I have a little idea that spirals out of control. My little (and utterly unoriginal) idea was this: wouldn’t it be great if we could travel to other stars? Jeez! Even by my standards, that’s lame. Sci-fi is full of stories about interstellar travel. For some people (me) that’s the whole point of the genre.
But here’s the thing. I want to go there, like, for realz. I want the dream to come true. I want to write something that might one day happen.
Which means that 99.9% of space stories are off the table. The vile and unpleasant truth about the universe we live in is that Faster Than Light is impossible. So FTL in its various and multitudinous form, hyperdrives, jump points, wormholes (okay, so technically not FTL but still pretty freakin’ impossible) isn’t going to work for us. Someone, someday, is going to have to build a big ass means of propulsion and push. Sub-light.
But sub-light, while painfully slow for sci-fi is not, you know, slow. 99.9% of light gets you from Earth to Mars orbit in comfortably under four-and-a-half minutes. At that speed, the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is less than four years away. Not great, but sailing ships used to be away from their home ports for years at a time, so totally doable. Let’s go!
Not so fast. No. Really. Not so fast. Per Einstein, the reason you can’t get past the speed of light is that the faster you go the more massive you get. One pound of mass becomes two becomes twenty and, at light speed, infinite. Just under? Freakin’ tons. Not going to happen. The only reason light travels at light speed is because it has no mass. I guess photons could eat as much as they like and still not put on weight. Bastards.
So, let’s get real(ish). Maybe we can aspire to a speed where the relativistic effects of weight gain can be kept to a minimum; where the energy required, while astronomical (see what I did there?), is not so massive that one loses hope for our future selves. Say, one tenth light speed.
Okay, one tenth light is bad. But not the end of the world. We can still get to Proxima Centauri in, say, forty years. Put our guys in cryo and let’s go, go, go.
Why the hell not?
First, in sci-fi, everyone and their dog has been to Proxima or Alpha Centauri. Precisely because it’s close. Alpha Centauri makes a guest appearance in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation as early as 1942, it’s the intended destination for the 1960s TV show (and Netflix reboot) Lost in Space, and Proxima Centauri features heavily in a 2013 Stephen Baxter novel, called, unsurprisingly perhaps, Proxima (it’s awesome, by the way). I could go on (and on and on), but I won’t. I don’t want to go there. Second, even if I did want to go there, I don’t want to go in cryo. Nothing happens in cryo. That’s the whole point. How the heck can we write about an interstellar journey if everyone is asleep?
Well, I guess we could if something went wrong and they woke up, right?
Right. But I don’t want to do that. Cryo isn’t FTL. It’s absolutely a plausible way to travel, and I could write a cryo story where they wake up mid-flight. But no. What I want to do is write a story where the mission goes basically as planned. I want to show interstellar travel working.
But if things go as planned, you won’t have a novel. Stories where everything goes swimmingly aren’t stories, they’re Instagram posts. Still fictional, because no one’s life is that great, but totally lacking in drama, conflict, or anything else. So just put them in cryo, break the cryo and…
No. We’re not going in cryo, and we’re not going to the star next door.
Fine. Fine. So, where are we going?
Hmmm. Well, the nearest stars that are vaguely like ours are Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti. We should go to Tau Ceti. It’s less of a mouthful than Epsilon Eridani but Brits and Americans pronounce it differently. That has got to be good for some real mischief down the road.
Tau Ceti, regardless of how you pronounce it, is about twelve light years from Earth. So, you want to have a journey of 120 years?
At least. Let’s slow them down a little and say 130 to 135 years. This has got to be a generation ship if no one’s going to sleep. We can get in an extra generation that way. If you count a generation as, say, twenty-five years, Gen One launches, Gen Two is the first cohort born in space. If you do the math like that, by the time they’re getting ready to decelerate at the end of the journey, Gen Seven is just getting around to being born, Gens Four and Five are running things, and our heroes will be from the still-young Gen Six. Youth is too young and too stupid to realize you can’t change the world, which is the only reason the world actually changes. Thank heavens for young people.
Young people aren’t as stupid as you seem to think. To have our story get off the ground (both literally and metaphorically) we’d have to get a bunch of ’em to board a ship they’re never going to leave. It’d be like boarding a high-tech coffin. Why would they do that?
I guess a couple of reasons. First, where they are might not be so great (we’ll figure out why later). And second, we may all live on Planet Earth, but we only live long enough to see a tiny fraction of it. Many people live their best lives within small towns. If it has the resources, most of us could be perfectly fulfilled in a city of, say, ten thousand people.
How many? That’s insane! Our generation ship is going to have to be, like, huge.
Several miles long, I’m thinking. We’ve got zillions of tons of mass to move now, which means zillions of tons of fuel, probably. So, miles of fuselage for the fuel tanks and other stuff. It’s space, so it can be more like a really big gantry than a fuselage. No need to be aerodynamic and less mass. A gantry stretching on and on through space with our big ass propulsion at one end and the habitat wheels at the other
Sure. Artificial gravity á la Star Trek doesn’t exist. Worse, we have only the faintest idea about what gravity is and no good basis for thinking we can ever make it to order. It’s like FTL: great for sci-fi, but probably ain’t gonna happen. As humans can’t live without gravity….
So, we’re not going to genetically modify them, then?
No. What am I? A monster? We want a story about people like us (but cooler) in deep space. As people can’t live without gravity for very long, we need to make some. And the only way we know to do that is to spin something up. Our people will need to live inside a giant wheel…
Wheels. Ten thousand people, remember.
Inside giant wheels with centrifugal/centripetal forces keeping their feet on the ground.
Now look what we’ve done. We’ve talked ourselves into a miles long ship crewed by ten thousand people living inside spinning wheels that have got to be a mile or more in diameter. That’s inhumanly large. We’ll never persuade anyone that the humans who live there are even remotely like the rest of us.
Sure, we will. People have been building bigger and bigger structures since the year dot. It doesn’t make us any less human than our ancestors. Besides, our main character should have some very human failings.
Well, motion sickness for one. Like people in the “vomit comet.” You know, the plane where they do all that freefall training you see on TV. Our protagonist gets spacesick.
But they’re born in space! We can’t make them spacesick. They’ll never hear the end of it.
No. I guess they won’t. I feel sorry for them already.