by Jeff Gundy
I fantasize about outer space as if I have some relation to it besides being an animal in its zoo. No visitors. No matter how far I travel on earth I wind up sitting in rooms.
-Brenda Shaughnessy, “Gift Planet”
“It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.”
-Han Solo, Star Wars: A New Hope
2.2368421-13 parsecs from origin, Thursday morning, 1966
The yellow bus rattled and banged over the gravel, and Stanley rattled on from the seat in front of me about what had happened on Lost in Space. Wednesday night was church night, so I always missed the last half of the show, but Stanley was Lutheran and could watch to the end. It seemed to take him longer to narrate the last parts than the show itself lasted, but there were many slow miles to school, and no hurry.
I found Stanley kind of boring, but silly as it was I loved the show, especially the robot, with its wildly waving, occasionally useful robot arms. The venal, troublesome Dr. Smith looked a lot like my Uncle Chuck, who was really my great-uncle, lived in Meadows with his mother, my Great-grandma Gittinger, and never married. He grew lots of flowers and moved to Arizona after she died, well into her eighties; I heard from my mother that he had acquired a “special friend.” She didn’t entirely approve. But Uncle Chuck always had strawberry pop in his fridge, and when I went to college he gave me a little plywood desk with three drawers on one side that he’d built himself. We still have it, stashed in our smallest bedroom.
Most things on the prairie were relentlessly horizontal, the bus, the fields, the roads. The Lutheran churches had tall steeples, and the grain elevators thrust upward, but the only visible escape routes were along the rectilinear roads. No wonder I wanted to go straight up.
1.5789474-11 parsecs from origin, 2019
Fifty-some years after I spent 35 cents on the Scholastic paperback of Revolt on Alpha C, I learned that Robert Silverberg was only 19 when he wrote it—only six or seven years older than I was then. Blogger John Booth found a copy in 2012 and thought it held up pretty well as YA science fiction of its day. I remember liking it, though not swooning, and reading it several times, as I did most of the books I managed to buy in those days. Odd details stick, beyond Alpha Centauri being one of the closest stars to Earth and therefore a likely place for a first colony—concrete roads, the young hero smashing a radio tube when he finally decides to side with the rebels, so the powers back on Earth won’t learn about the rebellion that’s underway on the colony. (OK, radio signals would take more than four years to reach Earth, and what kind of tube-powered radio could send that strong a signal anyway? Oh, never mind.) Even back then I understood it as an allegory of the American Revolution. A vacuum tube . . . our TV was crammed full of them, too, glowing warmly through the holes in the back cover, powerful and mysterious and delicate. Yes, today your phone and mine are many times as powerful, and less fragile too.
I can’t find my copy, though I still have shelves full of paperback SF novels, some from way back then. But what’s supposed to be the “S” shelf goes from Fred Saberhagen to E. E. “Doc” Smith to Norman Spinrad to Theodore Sturgeon, without a single Silverberg. Probably I left it at home when I went off to college. Besides dozens of SF books, Silverberg also had a serious interest in archeology—I just discovered his nonfiction book The Mound Builders, about which more later.
2.2368421-13 parsecs from origin, a Thursday morning, 1966
We started the New Math in eighth grade. I remember trying to do calculations in base 2, and doing well enough on an exam that the math teacher decide to pull me from the regular class and tutor me in algebra during his free period. That meant going into the teacher’s lounge, which reeked of cigarette smoke and coffee, and trying to follow Mr. P. as we hunched over the algebra book together. His breath smelled too, not exactly like anything I could identify. He had dark hair, combed back, usually needed a shave, and I guess he was handsome in a slight seedy way. I didn’t learn much algebra, and went back into the regular class the next year, but that was all right with me. I didn’t have any real friends in the class ahead, and math class with them would have been an ordeal.
2.2368423-13 parsecs from origin, an afternoon in spring 1970
By my senior year Mr. P. was gone and the math teacher was a young woman who was dating Becky K.’s older brother. She was nice enough, but had no sense of how to explain “senior math” to the six of us circled around her. We spent a lot of time just chatting. I managed to do each set of problems, but the concepts didn’t stick, and by test time it was all a jumble in my head.
I didn’t really care. I loved big ideas, but was lukewarm about numbers. I wanted mostly to get lost in extravagant books, or the smell of my girlfriend’s hair, or a sweaty game of basketball. I wanted to get off the farm, to live with people who weren’t my siblings or my parents, to grow my hair long, to be something I wasn’t yet and couldn’t quite imagine. I thought that somewhere in the music of Jimi Hendrix or Jefferson Airplane or the Doors or Crosby, Stills and Nash there must be a way to live a life as fine and reckless and splendid as the songs.
I thought that if we could stay out of nuclear war and the scientists kept working at rockets and capsules and computers we could all find our way off the flat and drab surface of the earth entirely, into the dazzling darkness. But why, then, do I barely remember noticing the night sky? We hardly went out at night except to go to church or basketball games. We drove everywhere because it made no sense to walk four miles to town or the other four miles to the country church. I traveled to Alpha C and to Mars with Podkayne and to Middle Earth and to Far Arcturus, but only years later, when I slipped out after a day full of books and papers to lie out on the baseball field with my college friends, did I begin to contemplate the inexpressible dim excesses of the actual stars and the light that was just now revealing itself to me, after years and millennia and millions of millennia on its way.
.01136033684 parsecs from origin, 6 February 2019, 8:24 p.m. EST
If you’ve been wondering about the numbers, here’s how I figured them:
- The surface of the earth spins at several hundred miles an hour, faster at the equator.
- The earth moves around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour.
- The sun and the solar system move at 448,000 miles an hour in relation to the Milky Way—or so says Elizabeth Howell at Space.com, and her figures are close enough for me.
By the time you read this we will of course have spun and spiraled into yet another space, and all these numbers will be even less accurate, though I trust they will remain significant in the literary rather than the mathematical sense.
Adrift in the realm of possibility, 8:27 p.m. EST, some day or other
Every SF buff knows about fictional ways to go faster than light. The Star Trek universe has its warp drive, Star Wars its hyperdrive, Doctor Who his Tardis with its roomy interior and amazing freedom to roam both space and time. (Han Solo’s famous flub, apparently referring to parsecs as a measure of time rather than distance, has sustained decades of discussions among Star Wars fans.) There are cruder but more plausible ways of covering interstellar distances; the most tedious involve generations on a colony ship or in suspended animation. The dirtiest is “nuclear pulse production,” which as the name suggests means detonating nuclear bombs: “Each unit explodes and the shockwave delivers concussive force to an immense, steel pusher plate, which is connected to the most immense shock absorber system that you could imagine behind a (presumably very strong) pusher plate,” writes David Warmflash in an essay for Discover.
Some people love to imagine spectacular and dangerous ways of doing things, and not just science writers, apparently. Recently there was news of a Russian missile system powered by a small nuclear reactor, and a test model apparently blew up, killed a number of people, and irradiated a considerable area. “Is this a good idea?” someone asked on the radio this morning. “No.”
A cleaner plan for space flight would push a very thin light sail to high speeds with laser beams from earth. In 2016 a Russian entrepreneur announced a plan to launch thousands of small chips attached to such sails, accelerate them to a fifth of light speed in just a few minutes, and collect data as they coast through space like high-tech dandelion seeds. At that speed, the Centauri system would only be 20-some years away. Technical challenges abound, but some respectable scientists, including Stephen Hawking and Freeman Dyson, have backed the project. (Seth MacFarlane, best known for Family Guy and American Dad, and currently playing a starship captain on the SF series The Orrville, is also a supporter.)
Something called the Alcubierre Drive keeps turning up as the coolest of the possibly, maybe, potentially feasible ways to actually go faster than light. It would use a bubble of “negative energy” to warp space before and behind the ship, making speeds ten times that of light possible. NASA is reportedly interested enough to be researching the technology with some degree of seriousness.
0 parsecs from Here and Now
It took us six hours in those early years to drive from Bluffton to the Illinois farm. It still does, and though the best route has evolved slightly, many tedious miles on two-lane highways are still involved. The planet has moved some minor but real fraction of a parsec through space since then, something like 215,846,400,000 miles by my imprecise calculations. We still cling to the surface of this singular, troubled, threatened planet, though the hypothesis that we only exist as a gigantic computer simulation seems to be gaining ground.
I still dream about space, though many days I don’t even get into a car, just walk from my house to my office and to class and home again. Our little blue marble carries us on its headlong way, turns and wheels through the mostly dark and silent universe no matter how much we argue, how much time and energy and fossil fuel we burn taking ourselves here and there and back again, no matter how far and away we think our machines might carry us, how many ways we imagine to defy the limits of physics as we know it and leave this troubled life behind. Any day now, any day.