Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Consulting Editor


Who By Fire
by Jeff Samson

Shit Eatin’ Dog
by Bob Sojka

Joshua Who Could See
by Elizabeth Streeter

Calliope Muse
by Rebecca L. Brown

Waver of the Image
by Joe Occhipinti

Salvation of Sam
by Ellen Denton

Three Into Two Won’t Go
by Ann Gimpel

3rd Dragoon Regiment and the Liberation of Contagor’e-Mare
by Don C. Ciers

Collector’s Item
by Doug Donnan


Journey Through the Center of the Earth
by Eric M. Jones

Mars: A New Look at the Old Hump
by J. Richard Jacobs





Comic Strips




Fast Fast Rocket to a Far Far Place

MAYBE THERE’S A SIMPLE solution to the Fermi Paradox—that if aliens exist, they should be here already. Interstellar travel might be impossible simply because of the increasing speed of technological advances of any scientific civilization. Now this might puzzle you. Shouldn’t advancing technology make an interstellar journey easier and more likely? Well ... no, because it also makes it more practical to stay home.

I was 12 years old and I lived to watch Commando-Cody-Flash-Gordon-Buck-Rogers on our 14-inch black-and-white Sylvania TV. I was an avid science fiction reader, too. The first book I borrowed from the school library was “Marooned on Mars” by Lester Del Rey.

But my wild enthusiasm for all things outer space was tempered by my engineer father, who in early 1957 explained to me that people going into space in my lifetime was highly unlikely because the highest altitude any rocket yet launched (the W.A.C.-Corporal ... which disintegrated in flight) was not—in comparison —much greater than a coat of paint on my desk globe. Then Sputnik was launched in October and all bets were off!

In 1959, a Westinghouse scientist friend of my dad patiently explained to me that if a voyage to the stars were ever to occur, extraordinary measures would have to be taken to conserve resources. For example, when a light bulb burned out it would have to be disassembled and the tungsten filaments and tungsten dust salvaged, reformed and reused.

I was young and wildly optimistic—I carefully weighed his words. But I only looked upon the problem as an example of the engineering challenges that would crop up when planning such an interstellar voyage. There would be plenty of them, but what could stop us?

We still think of the possibility of journeying to another star as something that could be done with current technology. If so, it would be a very long trip indeed.

I can imagine the brave spacemen who never left in 1959. They should be grateful that they didn’t have to cope with a spaceship filled with glowing lamp filaments, vacuum tubes, racks of crude transistors, no LEDs or liquid crystal displays (only Nixie tubes and vacuum tube VDTs for digital displays), no computers, integrated circuits, pocket calculators, microporous filters or reverse osmosis in the sewage recycling system, no birth control or advanced medications. Their tiny cabins would have been filled with 33-1/3 and 45 RPM vinyl records, reel-to-reel tapes, wind-up wristwatches, crumbling paperback books, microfiche and 8mm films for entertainment ... and no great velocity to shorten the miserable stinking journey, either.

A few years after leaving Earth, the only logical course of action (other than painless crew-suicide-by-vacuum) would be to cancel the whole damned trip, fire the retro rockets, and return home as rapidly as possible.

But now we see ourselves in an advanced technological wonderland. I hear you say, “It would be different if we left now. There’s been so much technological advancement.” But if we launched a voyage now, in 50 years it would seem far more pitiful in comparison to that 1959 crew.

The quandary is that at any time in the foreseeable future the problem of technological growth outpacing our ability to cross the great void is expected to get even worse. Far worse! Good news if you stay here, bad news if you leave. And this will never change unless civilization collapses.

So the limiting factor that determines our ability to traverse cosmic distances is merely the speed of technological growth. Even if cryo-sleep did exist, it wouldn't change anything.

If you measure technological growth by the gadgets we produce or even the GDP/capita, you would be limiting the definition of technological progress. The concept that civilization’s progress can be measured in kWH per person predates the computer revolution. Now we can measure progress as gigabytes-per-second-per-person. Or better yet, calculations-per-unit-time-per-unit-cost.

The curve of technological progress rises and becomes steadily steeper. Moore’s Law says the number of transistors on a chip doubles every year or two. But this can’t go on forever. The time will soon come when computer speed equals the speed of light (even quantum computers won’t change this). Information storage cost and the cost of calculation is virtually free.

Is it likely that we will stop wanting faster computers? Until the real physical limits are reached the answer is “no.” Smaller computers are inherently both faster and cheaper. Besides, improvements in algorithms account for most of the increase in performance. And this software will steadily improve even if the physical limits are reached.

The coming “Singularity” will redefine every aspect of science and technology. Intelligent machines will design their own more intelligent machines. Soon they will become conscious and possess far greater intelligence than humans.

Don’t believe it? In 1980 microprocessor designs were hand-drawn by humans. By 1990 only computers drew microprocessor designs. The decendants of these machines now design and build all the microprocessors with hard-wired logic that no human can create or understand. We still have our hands in the process ... but for how much longer?

Even now, any task for which an algorithm can be written can be done better by a computer than a human being.

I often tell the story of my good friend’s grandmother who, as a young girl in 1884, sailed from Australia to Los Angeles in a four-masted wooden sailing ship with only tallow candles and whale oil lamps, without a single piece of electronics (or even the distant dream of them), and whose highest technological onboard instruments were a simple magnetic compass and a sextant. When she landed, there was not a single paved street in LA and cowboys and Indians were its main inhabitants. She lived to see astronauts walk on the Moon and thought it absolutely wonderful. My grandma’s tale was similar I told him. My friend thought that there could not possibly be any similar amount of change in our lifetimes.

He was wrong.

Back to his grandmother. Let’s say, by analogy, that in 1884 you wanted to sail from Australia to the US on a multi-generational ship that would have taken 100 years for the voyage. When you arrived in 1984 in the US it would have turned out to be a terrible idea. Your great grandkids would have flown in from Melbourne yesterday to welcome you.

This is due to the increasingly upwards slope of the technological curve. It is critically important on a long voyage, and more so as technology advances. A few hundred years ago, it was hardly a concern. As time goes on, it becomes an increasingly bad idea to make a long interstellar voyage.

It has been speculated that if you went to a planet circling a distant star you would find humans there to greet you—humans who had left Earth much later than you. They in turn had found humans who had left even later, there to greet them. Who in turn, etc. The first humans to leave Earth for some distant planet would be greeted by the people who left Earth the week before they arrived there. What kept you!

So you might as well stay home.

Eric M. Jones