1989’s Starfarers is the first volume in Vonda N. McIntyre’s Starfarers Quartet.
The near approach of a cosmic string1 offers humanity superluminal access to Tau Ceti. A light-sail spaceship can hitchhike on the string to explore the nearest star system. A consortium of nations builds the Starfarer as a traveling university, one that will send back dividends of new knowledge that will more than pay for its creation.
That is, if it is allowed to do what it is designed to do. Some of its government supporters have other notions of best use.
An autocratic empire, the Mideast Sweep, dominates a third of the globe, enforcing racial and sexual discrimination within its borders. Its rulers view the rest of the world with intense suspicion. The rest of the world returns the favour, none so avidly as the increasingly technophobic United States.
The US provided much of the funding for Starfarer. Newly elected American President Distler and his supporters believe that this makes the spaceship an American asset, to be used as best serves American needs. The US does not particularly need a starship. A heavily armed battle station in low Earth orbit, on the other hand.…
Canadian scientist Victoria Fraser MacKenzie is determined to see the Starfarer carry out its intended purpose. Government Accountability Office representative Griffith is equally determined to see the starship repurposed to defend America. Ranged on MacKenzie’s side is an international community of academics eager to set forth on their voyage of exploration. Griffith can only count on the American military and his own readiness to use force on the unarmed scientists.
Meanwhile, down on Earth, the US has attempted to conscript the divers, humans genetically engineered to live underwater, into military service. The divers flee to Canada. Major government embarrassment!
The American government decides to look tough and flex its muscles elsewhere; it moves to commandeer Starfarer, Victoria and her friends are faced with a choice: submit to US demands or steal the starship and escape into exile.
I’ll bet you can guess what they choose.
I believe this series grew out of panels at Oregon SF convention Orycon, in which McIntyre pontificated on an entirely imaginary Starfarers series. It was a joke, but McIntyre liked the idea and decided to make the series real.
I could have told McIntyre that while there were some pluses to this notion, it simply would not work as imagined. True, a self-sufficient starship is the way to go when heading out to another star system whose resources are entirely unknown. True, light sails don’t require fuel if there is a star nearby. But … even a scaled-down O’Neill habitat will mass a lot and take a lot of force to move. Even a very large light-sail would not be able to provide enough motive force to deliver more than a very modest acceleration. Starfarer will not be able to outrun military rockets using conventional propulsion; escape would be unlikely.
The setting is a 21st century as imagined in the 1980s. It features overpopulation and environmental degradation; climate change isn’t on the menu yet. Nor is the real-world fact that population growth has lost its momentum and we will be seeing shrinking populations in the next few centuries (if we survive the climate change and environmental degradation).
Deranged American governments flexing military muscle is, of course, a well to which authors may return for as long as there is an American government. Authors may also safely use morally superior Canadian protagonists, as Canadians will always be exemplars of reason and compassion. The Harper or Ford governments are temporary wobbles of no relevance to the greater truths of Canadian character. I must say that I highly approved of this aspect of McIntyre’s vision of the future.
Another thing I liked about the book: her depiction of families that diverge from the nuclear family model. There are polyamorous families, gay and lesbian families, etcetera. Not at all accepted when the book was published.
Technological quibbles aside, this works as volume one of what is clearly intended to be an ongoing series. A host of engaging characters are introduced, each with an individual agenda (the agendas conflict, of course, for extra drama). The plot is a bit deliberate at points, perhaps to make sure the reader understands what’s going on. The ending is, of course, both a minor triumph and a major cliff-hanger.
Starfarers is available here.
1: Cosmic strings are hypothetical defects in the structure of space time. I am not entirely certain why they would grant FTL but then, I don’t see why black holes would do the same, That didn’t stop Vinge and Haldeman from using black holes to move their characters around.