Home Again and Feeling Right
By James Follett
James Follett’s 1981 Earthsearch: A Ten-Part Adventure Serial in Time and Space is a ten-part science fiction adventure serial, first broadcast by BBC Radio 4.
Faced with the probability that the Sun would render the Solar System unlivable sometime in the next million years, humanity invested tremendous sums in Challenger and its sister generation explorer ships. Alas, Challenger’s search is disappointing. The second-generation crew decides to return to Earth.
Barely has the decision been announced, and the crew celebrating their impending return to Earth, when the Great Meteor Strike kills every human on board.
Almost every human.
Four babies survive: Telson (played by Sean Arnold), Sharna (Amanda Murray), Darv (Haydn Wood), and Astra (Kathryn Hurlbutt). Raised by androids under the command of artificial intelligences ANcillary Guardian of Environment and Life AKA Angel One (Sonia Fraser) and Angel Two (Gordon Reid) they form the new crew of Challenger.
Having come of age in the eyes of their mentors, the crew is permitted to follow the original plan and return to Earth. They can only speculate what has changed in the more than a century since the mission first left Earth. Many surprises await!
As far as the crew knows, the Great Meteor Strike was a tragic mishap, a rare meteor happening to encounter the ship during routine upkeep of its anti-meteor defenses. This is a white lie: Angels One and Two, having fallen prey to megalomania (an inherent flaw in their sort of AI), deliberately engineered the mishap to rid themselves of a crew that had been becoming increasingly hard to control.
Now the four remaining humans, having been raised by the AIs, are seen as thoroughly domesticated. Angel One and Angel Two believe it is safe to return to an Earth they are certain will have collapsed into barbarism. There they will rule as gods.
The trip back to Challenger’s origin is uneventful. They arrive to discover a Solar System much as they left it … except the Earth is nowhere to be seen. Only its moon remains to mark where the Earth once orbited.
The Great Meteor Strike did more damage than the malevolent AIs anticipated. Much knowledge was lost, including any understanding of relativity. Over a hundred years passed for the ship. Over a million years passed for the planet that had dispatched them. Half a million years ago, humanity tired of waiting for news from Challenger and moved the Earth to a friendlier star.
The crew quickly discover that their lost kin appear to have been prone to profound paranoia about aliens. A lunar computer not only refuses to provide directions to Earth. It does its best to kill the humans on the grounds that they might be aliens or controlled by aliens.
Having escaped the lunar computer, the crew begin searching the Solar System for clues. Relics of the Soleric Empire abound! As do small human communities, the descendants of those who did not choose to leave with the planet. All are keenly interested in the Challenger’s crew … but only as resources to be exploited or threats to be eliminated.
This serial does not make a strong case for rule by power-mad, unethical computers. Also, the story ends with a twist I won’t spoil, except to say it’s a hoary one, and one I wish had vanished from SF long before this serial.
The Challenger’s peak velocity seems to be about ninety percent the speed of light. The relativistic effects are somewhat overstated so that the author can maroon the crew a million years into the future. Unfortunately, having done so, Follett then goes on to demonstrate he’s unclear about just what would have changed in the course of a million years.
A million years before our own time, anatomically modern humans did not exist (although many other close relatives did). Technology was limited to stone, wood, and fire. Hominins were rare. The changes in the last million years of human history have been dramatic. One might expect the next million years be equally far-ranging. Well … no.
Follett’s Soleric Empire appears to have been a marvel of stagnation. Planet-moving technology aside (which the story never explains), no significant technological or social progress has been made1. Indeed, the language itself has been frozen in aspic; the crew has no trouble making themselves understood.
Many of my objections would vanish if Follett had set his tale a thousand years into the future. Ah well.
I am convinced that the world-building was designed to be plot friendly. Each episode presents the characters with a new danger. As the episodes are only half an hour long, there’s not much time to explain any great linguistic or technological changes2. Hence there are no changes. The series hews to what one might call the Doctor Who principle, which is that there are no alien races or temporally distant civilizations which a British person cannot easily understand in a few minutes3.
The characters are types, each of them addressing a specific plot need. Telson is the cautious leader, Sharma is the scientifically minded one, Darv the rebellious visionary, and Astra provides counter-productive emotional outbursts. Angel One and Angel Two are amoral would-be world-conquers, who have great confidence in their abilities … not realizing that they inadvertently lobotomized themselves with the Great Meteor Strike.
I remembered Earthsearch as better than it was, probably because the main Canadian competition to Earthsearch was Johnny Chase: Secret Agent of Space. Among Johnny Chase’s virtues: making the competition look better. Nevertheless, once I put petty world-building obsessions aside, Earthsearch moved along nicely, bundled in convenient packages that last just as long as most of my current bus trips and errands.
I didn’t see the Earthsearch serial available for purchase at the usual suspects. No doubt a judicious search might turn up an archive or two.
1: The Empire remnants did get around to disposing of their own versions of Angel One and Two … about a thousand years ago. Which means they put up with AIs prone to megalomania for 999,000 years after the Challenger left.
2: Of course, if the listeners were told just what changes had taken place on Earth, if the human and AI crew of the Challenger had been given the same info, the crew would likely have been able to avoid the danger of the week. Which would have been replaced by a long infodump.
3: It’s possible that there’s a hard technological limit past which it is hard to progress and that the Challenger’s creators had reached it by the time they launched the ship. That would not explain the linguistic stagnation.