Saturday, December 15, 2012

Review: Blue Silence by Michelle Marquardt

This  review is posted as part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge. I have cross-posted it from my review blog. I have now completed the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2012, and you can read my de-brief here.

Blue Silence by Michelle Marquardt was originally published in 2002 and is sadly now out of print. Although I see it's in stock at Infinitas as of this writing. It was a winner of the George Turner Prize (as my edition proclaims on the cover).

The story opens when a mysterious ship docks with one of the space stations in orbit around Earth. The ship is, on the outside, an exact replica of one that was sent out into deep space 180 years ago, and then never heard from again. The difference? This ship has new drive technology which was only invented a couple of years ago. And instead of the seven original crew members, it's full of stasis pods and five hundred creatures, half of whom look human, half of whom look almost human.

None of the aliens know where they came from or why — they have no memories before waking up docked with the space station — and the authorities on the space station don't really know what to do with them either.

Senator Maya Russini is the leader of the group of people who first board the ship. A mission which one of the group does not return from alive. Are the aliens dangerous? What do they mean for the various political machinations happening within the space station's government and between them and other governments?

I liked Maya. She was an excellent example of a female character that doesn't need to run around kicking people in the head to gain power. She's also secretly a telepath (secret because she didn't register when she turned 21), but in a nice twist, she's the weakest kind of telepath, only able to read emotions, not thoughts. I think Marquardt has done a good job of portraying a society in which women are equal without making a big deal of it. (There are, in the end, more male characters, but that's mostly because the two main aliens are male.)

Her friend Ienne, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, also gets involved with the aliens. Unlike Maya who mostly regards them as suspicious and dangerous, Ienne is always looking for a way to use them to his advantage (there's a treaty they and another space station are wrestling over). He also goes out of his way to be rude to everyone with the occasional exception of Maya.

As I noticed when I was past half-way, Blue Silence is a very character driven story, unusually so for science fiction. The world does not need saving, nor does any war break out. Instead the action comes directly from the interactions between the characters, including two of the aliens who I don't think I can say much about without spoiling key elements. There is excitement and there's no missing the climax, but it's not like a plot driven story where all the action was building up to an inevitable climax and world-saving event. In the end, we know more about the aliens, but we don't know everything. Some answers are only hinted at or presented as speculation. In a way, this was slightly annoying because I like to know all the answers (arguably why I'm a scientist in real life), but it worked for the book. The story wasn't about the people trying to study the aliens, it was about people whose paths happened to cross theirs.

Also, the science, which I feel obliged to comment on, was well done. It wasn't a technology-oriented story, but having been published ten years ago, there was a risk the technology would feel a bit dated now. It didn't. They didn't have smart phones, but they did have pagers which were functionally mobile phones and received the equivalent of email on ubiquitous computers. There was also a discussion on the merits of different kinds of space stations (mimicking Earth versus giant building floating in space) which was interesting.

I highly recommend Blue Silence to anyone looking for something a bit different in their science fiction. It also emphasises the variety we have in the Australian science fiction field, something you might miss if you only looked at the most recent few releases.

4.5 / 5 stars

Friday, December 7, 2012

Year-long days and living in them

This blog post was inspired by an email conversation with someone regarding the possibility of a planet having year-long (or half-year long) day/night cycles. The original question was whether this is even possible and whether such a planet would be habitable.

From a purely astronomical point of view, this is definitely possible. There's no reason why you couldn't have a slowly rotating planet at around the same distance from it's sun as Earth is (well any reasons that do exist are fairly theoretical so we can ignore them). That said, if the planet is similar to Earth and its sun is similar to ours, then you kind of have to have the same length year because the length of the year (ie how long it takes to orbit the star) depends only on the mass of the star and the distance from it. This is due to Kepler's Laws, which I have previously discussed here. If you made no changes to star/planet distance, the year length would have to be the same.

Image nicked from Wiki here. The little red line
represents the same point on the surface of
Mercury. The numbers are the order in which
the positions happen: 6, 1, 2 are night for
the red line and 3, 4, 5 are day, roughly.

You could also have something similar to Mercury which has three rotations (called "sidereal days" which are measured relative to the stars, not the sun) to two years. Because it rotates so slowly, weird stuff happens with its solar days (the light/dark periods, completely ignoring the positions of stars) so that in one year it experiences half a solar day. Mercury is like this because it's so close to the sun. It could have been tidally locked (the same side always facing the sun – discussed further, including for Mercury in particular, here) but the gravitational effects of the other planets in the solar system caused this more unusual resonance.

However, if we're talking a planet as distant from the sun as Earth is, there's no danger of it becoming tidally locked in the sort of cosmological time frame we're currently living in. The time taken for the angular momentum between planet and star to be distributed into the tidally locked configuration takes longer the further apart they are (and the less massive when they're close enough). The Earth-moon system will eventually become more tidally locked: the moon already faces the same side towards us all the time, and eventually the same side of Earth will always point towards the moon.

But that's a bit of a tangent, back to planets with long days and nights. You could have a planet rotating as slowly/quickly as you like, but you should be mindful that the people living there would almost certainly have a way of distinguishing between sidereal and solar days. Ancient people on Earth already had this worked out (the difference between sidereal and solar days is why the stars move across the sky with the seasons).

Living there

Uranus: almost completely sideways.
If you did have a planet with a year-long day, the periods of day and night would be roughly equal in the same way they are on Earth, just scaled up. It could vary a bit depending on the planet's axial tilt (how much the line between the poles is tilted relative to the plane of it's orbit — Earth's is around 23º and changes slightly when earthquakes occur) so the more inclined the axis, the more extreme the seasons. If there was no or very little axial tilt, there wouldn't be seasons. The other variable in day/night lengths is the latitude. Further away from the equator sunrise and sunset would last longer and the shortness of winter days and length of summer days would be more extreme (as on Earth, but a different axial tilt could make this more so). If there was no axial tilt, the poles would be in a state of twilight permanently. The other extreme is something like Uranus which has a 90º-ish axial tilt so that during a southern summer the south pole points towards the sun and during a southern winter the south pole gets no sun at all. Spring and Autumn are the transition period. The equator is in twilight during summer and winter and has more "normal" days, like what we're used to, during spring and autumn.

Also, astronomical plausibility aside, I'm not convinced complicated life could naturally arise on a planet with a super-long day/night cycle, due to the long periods of boiling (day) and freezing (night). In terms of temperature-stability, probably only the twilight areas would be habitable. I suppose you could have migrating species (but that also has problems because in staying in permanent twilight they'd need sufficient landmasses connecting the two poles). Also, you'd probably get some sort of storms around the twilight zone, since the temperature would be in in a state of flux. I'm not an expert on atmospheres or meteorology, though, so that's a (-n educated) guess and I can't be too specific. But in short: our 24 hour days are what keeps Earth's temperature relatively temperate and suitable for life.

There's be fewer issues for microbial life to arise but I don't know that anything larger would be viable. Maybe at the poles: if the planet was slightly closer to its star than Earth is, there could be non-migratory life living near the poles and with a stable orbit and rotational period, it should survive. Since the non-polar regions wouldn't have naturally arising complex life, there could be with completely different ecosystems/forms of life at either pole with only something like microbial ancestors connecting them.


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