Another Mile of Silence

Orbitsville — Bob Shaw
Orbitsville, book 1


1975’s Orbitsville is the first volume in Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville trilogy.

Vance Garamond is a competent starship pilot but a terrible babysitter. He fails to prevent his boss’s son from falling to his death. His boss, Elizabeth Lindstrom, the autocratic president of the company that controls interstellar flight, is notoriously vindictive. Rather than wait to see what form her vengeance will take, Garamond collects his wife Aileen and son Christopher and flees to the stars in a commandeered flickerwing starship, the Bissendorf.

If only there were somewhere beyond Lindstrom’s reach Garamond and his family could flee …

Lindstrom’s company, Starflight, is as powerful on Earth’s lone colony world Terranova as it is on Earth. If Garamond and his family are to survive, they must find a new, uncharted habitable world. The odds of doing that are poor. Despite almost a century of star-flight, only three Earth-like worlds have been discovered: Earth, Terranova, and Sagania. And Sagania was burned clean of all life in a catastrophe that happened millennia ago, long before humans made their way into space.

In a desperate bid for survival, Garamond steers his commandeered starship towards a seemingly empty part of the sky, using ancient maps from dead Sagania as his guide. He finds no welcoming planet waiting for him. Instead, the Bissendorf discovers a huge alien artifact, a Dyson sphere with as much habitable land as a billion Earths1. The discovery offers humanity’s five billion an Earth’s worth of land for each of them. It also provides Garamond with enough fame to deter Lindstrom’s vengeance, at least for the moment.

But only for the moment. Lindstrom is a patient, focused monster. She has Bissendorf sabotaged, which sends it careening to almost certain doom. When it is seemingly lost with all hands, she offers her hospitality to naïve Aileen and Christopher. Not out of guilt for killing the man she blames for Harold’s death (or guilt over all those unfortunate enough to be on the Bissendorf with Garamond). No, Lindstrom simply wants to murder Christopher in revenge for her dead son.

What Lindstrom does not know is that Garamond and the crew of the Bissendorf managed to bring their craft down more or less safely inside the Dyson sphere, now dubbed Orbitsville. The ship will never fly again but it can provide the raw material for a small fleet of airplanes. Simple math suggests it will take years for Garamond and his companions to find their way back to the lone human settlement within Orbitsville. There is no hope of saving Aileen or Christopher, it would seem, only hope of vengeance.


I had no idea there was a third book in this series.

The Big Dumb Object genre is one of the children of disco era, although there have been occasional outbreaks in the years since. Examples include the Ringworld, Patra-Bannk, Cuckoo, Rama, and Orbitsville itself. BDOs are artifacts, generally but not always built by aliens (see Cageworld for an exception). They are big. Very, very, very big. Some are bigger than worlds. For the most part, they are habitable by humans2, which is convenient because in almost all of the examples that come to mind, the protagonists end up having to walk or fly across vast stretches within the BDOs.

Shaw isn’t an author in whose works I’d expect to find sympathetically portrayed women. Orbitsville turns the dial further by containing some extremely dim or mean women. Aileen is dumb: she accepts an offer of help from someone she should know wants her son dead. Lindstrom is vindictive, unpleasant, ugly … and she smells bad.

BDOs offer authors glorious opportunities to demonstrate extreme ignorance of physics. Anything like the Ringworld, for example, would be notoriously unstable. Orbitsville is opaque to all radiation, which means everything within should have been cooked ages ago. Shaw is also ignorant of the shell theorem, because he provides the inner surface with gravity3. I suspect he got letters about the various oversights in this novel and that’s why his later Ragged Astronauts series was explicitly set in a universe where the laws of physics were what he wanted them to be, where pi was exactly equal to three.

I usually ignore or mock Baen-published books but I will admit that the 1989 Eggleton cover

would have prompted me to buy this, if I had not already been seduced by the 1977 Ace edition (not so much by the David Schleinkofer cover, more by the “Ace Science Fiction Special” tag4). And by Shaw’s name. It may not be clear from this review, but I was a Shaw fan in the 1970s.

Shaw did at least address one issue that other authors have ignored or dismissed with handwaving: why would any intelligent being would bother building something like a ringworld or Dyson sphere or topopolis? Shaw being the gloomy fellow he was, he decided that the reason wouldn’t have been to give everyone can have a swell home in which to have fun and feel good about themselves. To say more would be spoilerish. I note only that if you want happy endings, you may not want to read Shaw novels.

Orbitsville is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: Well, 625,000,000 Earths if you compare total area to total area. Because Orbitsville is mostly land, it has as much land as five billion Earths.

2: It’s been decades since I read it but it would not surprise me if James White’s Federation World also included habitats unsuited for humans. His Sector General hospital space station certainly offered a vast range of habitats and Federation World was an entire Dyson Sphere.

3: He also opts for the “Sure and begorrah, I guess Einstein was just wrong” school of faster than light. It turns out that

[quote]when a body of appreciable mass and gravitic field reached speeds approaching .2c it entered new frames of reference. Once a ship crossed the threshold velocity it created its own portable universe in which different rules applied, and it appeared that the great universal constant was not the speed of light. [quote]

Presumably “appreciable” is in there to deal with questions about particle accelerators. How exactly Shaw felt the Hubble expansion fit into this scheme is unclear.

4: Granted, the second, Terry Carrless, set of Ace Specials.


  • Gideon Marcus

    Thank you for this, James. I, too, was a big fan of Shaw in the day... and this book (I thought the sequel terrible). It's been decades now. We'll see how I feel about Shaw second time through...

  • Mike G.

    I believe Zahn's _Spinneret_ also featured a BDO with an interesting motivation behind it.

  • Gideon Marcus

    Then there's the platform in Moffitt's Second Genesis. I'd give good money if someone could draw what that thing actually looked like. I've read it a dozen times and still can't visualize it.

  • JVjr

    Urm, 29 % of Earth's surface is land (and about a tenth of that is Antarctica). How exactly do you get in note 1 from the total area ratio 625 million to eight time that number? In the very first occurence you have just "habitable land as a billion Earths".

  • James Davis Nicoll

    I credit an elementary math error on Shaw's part and me not double-checking his math.

    • Paul D.

      If he can have a universe where pi = 3, he's certainly allowed to change the laws of arithmetic in another one.

  • pi = 3? Shudder. How that would mess up arithmetic and geometry, I cannot imagine. Or worse, I can. Though perhaps it was a typo , and he was in the world of Fontaine and p-adic Hodge theory. Which would be ...

  • Viktor

    Tony Rothman's "The World is Round" is a bdo too. I read it in my Golden Age.

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