Review: Starship Century

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Starship Century Back Cover image by Don Dixon
Starship Century Back Cover image by Don Dixon

Starship Century is a book based on the proceedings of the 2011 100- Year Starship Symposium, which brought together scientists and futurists to discuss the future of interstellar travel; to decide whether it was feasible, practical or even possible for us now or in the future.

Edited by the Benford brothers, both of whom are scientists—with real science degrees—and science fiction writers, this book attempts to bring science, and interstellar travel, back to the attention of the book-reading public. When I was a young man, it was taken as axiomatic that humankind was going to reach for the stars–at least in the science-fiction-reading community that I and many young people were a part of; the path was plain: we had already reached the fringes of the atmosphere, we were going higher (to the moon, Alice!) and eventually would escape the surly bonds of gravity entirely to explore first the solar system and then the galaxy and the universe!

And the science fiction I read echoed this optimism, as the real world began to follow a science-fictional path: the future was real and it was going to include space travel! I, and thousands like me, watched in awe as Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier; then Alan Shepherd and John Glenn went out into space and orbited the Earth; the President announced we were going to the moon—and we went there! (I was late for work because I insisted in watching the first human step onto the Lunar surface on our fifteen-inch black-and-white TV!)
So we reached the moon, and brought many pounds of moon rocks and dust back to Earth, and drove a vehicle on the moon’s surface, and sent Vger (‘scuse me, I mean Voyager) out into the solar system and beyond, and… and… and it all began to stagnate. Despite the many spin-offs of space science and research, people began to question what all the expense was for, and we had better things to spend our money on, such as various wars and other boondoggles.

Even science fiction began to reflect this sad state of affairs; we no longer wrote of FTL travel, because it seemed Einstein had locked us into a universe where the nearest star was out of reach unless in a “generation ship” such as Heinlein and others had written of. Then Star Wars the movie came along, and science fiction became lost in a maze of fantasy films and economic failure.
Starship Century is an attempt to bring us out of this morass, with the assistance of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The book contains articles by such people as Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson, Martin Rees, James Benford, Richard Lovett, Geoffrey Landis and more; and fiction by Neal Stephenson, Gregory Benford, Nancy Kress, Joe Haldeman, David Brin, John Cramer and others.
The articles examine the pros and cons of interstellar travel; whether it’s physically or economically possible to leave our solar system and travel to other stars; assuming it is possible, how we could possibly do it.

The fiction does approximately the same thing, with as many diverse approaches as there are writers. I’m not going to review specific stories or articles here; I’m just going to say that, for the first time in many years, I have—after reading this book—the same hopeful feeling about our future that I had as a teenager. Both the fact articles–most with illustrations by noted artists like Don Dixon, Rick Sternbach, Jon Lomberg and even Hieronymus Bosch!—as well as the technical illustrations, bring a sense of possibility, and even wonder.

I found myself reading and rereading the articles more than the fiction, trying to visualize the kind of world my descendants will live in when I’m dead–and rather than a dreary Earth-bound existence, I believe that our children and our great-great-great grandchildren will inherit not only the Earth, but the universe!

I heartily recommend this book for any lover of science and science fiction.

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