Monday, October 08, 2012

O Death

Thirty-five years after they were launched, the two Voyager spacecraft are approaching the edge of the Solar System, where the solar wind breaks on the shore of interstellar space; at least one commentator believes that Voyager 1 has already exited the Solar System.  It is currently more than 18 trillion kilometres from the Earth, and it takes about 16 hours 47 minutes for its signal, travelling at the speed of light, to intersect Earth's orbit, but that's a mere scratch in terms of interstellar distances.  The width of the meniscus on a grain of beach sand compared to the breadth of the Pacific Ocean.  The nearest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 light years away, 2200 times the distance Voyager 1 has travelled so far; Gliese 667, a triple-star system that possesses the best-known candidate for an Earth-like exoplanet, is 22.1 light years away; the supermassive black hole churning at the Galactic Centre is something like 27,000 light years distant.  Voyager 1 isn't aimed at any star in particular, but if it was heading towards Proxima Centauri, it would take almost 17,500 years to reach it.  And so on.

Much science fiction gets around the problem of interstellar distances by using wormholes, warp drives and other conveniences that turn stars into the equivalent of stops on a suburban railway line, or speeds at which relativistic time contraction shrinks the subjective length of voyages.  But if you stick to the Einsteinian speed limit and plausible velocities, travel across the great voids between stars becomes a serious act, with serious consequences.  It becomes, it seems to me, much like death.  Starships with cargoes of deep-frozen passengers are pharaonic tombs; those great generation starships, in which descendants of the original crews so often descend into barbarism and forget their purpose and destination, are obvious metaphors for rise and fall of civilisations; the uploaded minds of passengers will be expelled from their pocket heavens at voyage's end, refleshed, reborn.  Whether they are lumbering, hollowed-out asteroids or smart basketballs packed with nanotechnology and gene banks inscribed in imperishable quartz glass, starships are the equivalent of funeral barges:
Now launch the small ship, now as the body dies
and life departs, launch out, the fragile soul
in the fragile ship of courage, the ark of faith
with its store of food and little cooking pans
and change of clothes,
upon the flood's black waste
upon the waters of the end
upon the sea of death, where still we sail darkly,
for we cannot steer, and have no port.

T.H.Lawrence, 'The Ship of Death'
There's a great deal of science fiction about death; or rather, there's a lot of science fiction about escaping or avoiding death.  About longevity and immortality, uplift and the Singularity and Omega Point gods and all the other Peter-Pan dreams of never dying, or rather - and I think this is the important point - never growing old.  There are many teenage heroes in science fiction, and some of them are well into their second century.  Maybe it's a Boomer thing, like blue jeans and the Beatles.  O, Death.  Won't you spare me over 'til another year?  And do you take Amex?

Anyway, one of the characters in The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun is obsessed with trying to outwit death.  I hinted at the human cost of that obsession in those novels, and wanted to expand and elaborate on that theme, and to play with the image of the starship as a vessel of death and rebirth.  Amongst other things, trying to fit the two tropes together led to the writing of In The Mouth Of The Whale, in which the passenger of a starship relives her childhood as she is prepared for rebirth at the end of her long voyage, and finds history has moved on without her.  That's the trouble with being dead, even if it's a strategy for long-distance travel: you cede autonomy to the living.


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