Here it is halfway into April and I just finished my first book in the Year of Astronomy Challenge. Good thing it’s a year, at this rate I am going to need it!
The Starry Rift by James Tiptree Jr. is not about astronomy, but it is a science fiction book that takes places in space. The book is a series of three long short stories that are linked together by a theme and a sort of frame story that takes place in a library. The theme of the main stories is that they all take place at the Rift, a portion of space that is nearly empty of stars and planets. It is the frontier of human space exploration. All ships going out to explore the Rift leave from FedBase 900. Humans have made contact with several different alien species and so go out prepared to explore with first contact training and a special kit that includes a sort of video ipod thing that has 100 words and pictures to help facilitate communication. Two of the stories have first contact in them, the third is sort of a space pirate story.
I didn’t know the book was made of three short stories until after I had already started reading it. I enjoyed them all, but with stories there always tends to be one that I like best and in this book it was the first story, “The Only Neat Thing to Do.” It is about a 16-year-old girl who just got her first little runabout space ship. She has always wanted to be a space explorer and has been saving her money for the day when she can seize the opportunity to go out on her own. Her parents had no idea that the little ship they gave their daughter for her birthday got tricked up and fitted out for long distance travel.
Coati sneaks away and heads for FedBase 900, fuels up and stocks up on food. She has plans to do some exploring but nothing too dangerous. Of course things don’t end up as planned and she finds herself inadvertently an explorer and making a first contact. What I liked about this story is Coati. She is a smart, courageous girl and not once does the fact that she is a girl cast doubt onto her abilities. Maybe that is because Tiptree is a woman, but sometimes in science fiction that doesn’t always make a difference in how girls and women are treated.
Something fun about reading older science fiction (as if 1986 is all that old), is the science part of the story. In the book the space ships don’t have warp drives or anything like that. They can travel fast, but the ship’s occupants are still subject to the laws of space-time so go into “cold sleep” until they reach their destination. In cold sleep the body has minimal functioning and, at least in these stories, doesn’t age. So if it takes 20 years to get to your destination you wake up as if those 20 years had not happened. However, for the people you left behind, those 20 years have passed. It would have been interesting to delve into the cultural and societal complications this could create, but that wasn’t part of these stories.
As for communication, the Rift didn’t have beacons set up across it yet so once you passed the range of the last beacon you could only communicate by “pipe.” Pipes are very small auto-pilot space ships that can be set to navigate back to the FedBase with “cassettes” inside them. Yes, cassettes, which sound suspiciously like tapes because they are described as being threaded onto a machine before they can be listened to. Their navigation charts were holograms but their voice recordings were cassette tapes. You have to love that!
The book was published in 1986 and was Tiptree’s last book before her death in 1987 (her real name is Alice Sheldon). According to a blurb on the back of the book, The Starry Rift is set in the same universe as Tiptree’s novel Brightness Falls from the Air, a book I have not read, but now want to. I have wanted to read Tiptree for ages and this is the first of her books I have managed. I look forward to reading more.