Sunday, June 03, 2012

Book Review: Going Interstellar

It's a tough market for trying to "sell space" right now. Budgets are tight for space agencies worldwide, and there's no telling how long it will take for some of our more ambitious missions to the moon, Mars, or an asteroid to come to pass. So it might seem a little outlandish to be talking about missions out of the solar system--to other stars, no less!--but that is the exact point of Going Interstellar, a new anthology of articles and short stories about interstellar travel using current technologies.

The editors (Les Johnson and Jack McDevitt) and writers of this book have decided to throw caution to the wind, daring to talk about how human missions beyond our solar system might unfold. The technical articles in the book are brisk and light on equations or technobabble. In addition to Johnson, who's written extensively about solar sails and other high-tech propulsion systems, Dr. Greg Matloff has added articles on fusion and antimatter starships. They make it clear that the systems needed to span the incredible distances between stars are all technologically feasible, and none of them require "warp drive" or violations of known physics. Of course it should be pointed out that "feasible" is a long way from "doable right now." For instance, the ability to generate every Star Trek fan's favorite, antimatter, would take years. The energy output would be akin to half the world's total current production and would require special facilities out near Mercury's orbit. Hydrogen fusion, another favorite of science fiction writers, is also elusive, but we're at least working on it. "The rest," as physicists might say, "is just engineering."

The stories in this book are quite engaging. In fact, I finished this book over the course of three days. With stories by Ben Bova, Jack McDevitt, Louise Marley, Michael Bishop, Sarah A. Hoyt, and Mike Resnick, Going Interstellar looks at adventures beyond the solar system from a variety of unique perspectives, including an aging astrophysicist, a technologist in an interstellar feudal society, an artificial intelligence program, a teenager, and the next Dalai Lama. Interstellar travel is a bit like other frontiers for writers where there is little known about the place or the experience of getting there. It allows them to impose their own dreams and obsessions on a blank slate, much like Sir Thomas More place his Utopia in America. Intelligent machines? A reborn Tibetan culture? Why not?

What I liked about this book, beyond the brisk pace of the writing by multiple authors, was its willingness to touch on something that sometimes is sorely lacking: technological optimism without "magic." As I noted above, there is no faster-than-light-speed travel, no instantaneous travel between stars. This is a look at what really ambitious human spaceflight could look like using tools and machines accessible to us today, and the stories are informed by emotion, imagination, and technical know-how. In short, it's everything you'd like hard science fiction to be, and it's a pleasure to read.

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