RogerBW's Blog

Project Solar Sail, Arthur C. Clarke and David Brin 21 November 2019

1990 collection of SF stories and speculation about solar sails.

Now here's a thing that doesn't happen much any more, at least in my life: a fundraising anthology. This book was published to benefit the World Space Foundation in its attempt to fly a demonstration light-sail craft.

Introduction: Sailing the Void, Isaac Asimov, introduces the basics (the difference between photon and charged-particle "winds") and then gets out of the way.

The Wind From the Sun, Arthur C. Clarke, sits better here than in that other collection; aimed at the reader who doesn't already know this stuff, its explanations feel as though they're a bit closer to the mark.

To Sail Beyond the Sun (A Luminous Collage), Ray Bradbury and Jonathan V. Post, is to my mind over-long, but I rarely get on with SF poetry anyway.

The Canvas of the Night, K. Eric Drexler, is wild speculation about what could be done with lightsails, with a big dose of libertarian frontierism.

Project Apollo with its first "Moonwalk" was a triumph so great that it seemed to be what "the space program" was all about, yet the triumph was not followed up. The voyage of Columbus opened a frontier by sailing to new lands in a reusable ship. Apollo virtually closed a frontier by surveying a wasteland in a machine built at great expense and then thrown away.

…and do you know why, Eric? Because the USSR had lost the race to the moon, and was far enough behind that it didn't think it could plausibly beat the USA to the next target, that obviously being a manned landing on Mars. And the instant the pressure was off, the USA stopped spending all that money on the glamour stuff.

Ice Pilot, David Brin, is a puzzle-story dressed up as a senatorial inquiry. Given the obviousness of the solution, one wonders why the perpetrator was brought back to Earth rather than just asked why he'd done an apparently foolish thing. But this is one of three original stories here.

A Solar Privateer, Jonathan Eberhart, is old-fashioned AABB rhyme with a rhythm to it, but most importantly is just four stanzas long. It's rather fun.

Sunjammer, Poul Anderson, still works here. In case you've got here by search rather than by serial reading: it has an explosive cargo and a solar flare warning, and heroic engineering to deal with the problem… but, while the characterisation is light, it is at least present, and one gets some idea that at least these people might come off duty and get drunk rather than simply being put back in their box until the next game.

A Rebel Technology Comes Alive, Chauncey Uphoff and Jonathan V. Post, starts from a basis of "spaceships ought to be cheap so that we can go out pioneering", and goes on to the proposal for a light-sail race in 1992 (including forecasting some drawbacks should it go wrong or fizzle).

Argosies of Magic Sails—Excerpts from "Locksley Hall", Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is just that. Not sure there's much point to it.

Ion Propulsion: The Solar Sail's Competition for Access to the Solar System, Bryan Palaszewski, feels like a grudging invitation by the editors; Palaszewski is clearly more interested in ion thrusters, but has to make nice about solar sails to be included here.

The Grand Tour, Charles Sheffield, is the main reason I re-read this collection, because it has a beautiful conceit: a race in cislunar space with human-powered spacecraft, operating ion drives powered by Wimshurst generators spun up by human riders. I'm not particularly convinced by some of the specifics of the technology, but it's fun. (It's also nothing to do with solar sails.)

Lightsail, Scott E. Green, is more poetry that does nothing for me.

Rescue at L-5, Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason, has the orbital stations above a post-nuclear-war Earth trying to survive… but one of them has utterly implausible biotech, "sail-creatures" developed for no obvious purpose, but when exposed to vacuum they conveniently turn into one-crew lightsail craft. Er, OK. Of the three original stories in this book, this is the only one to have been republished… in a 2011 ebook of three Anderson and Beason collaborations.

Lightsails to the Stars, Robert L. Forward and Joel Davis, proposes laser-launched interstellar probes. This may have been where I first heard about Starwisp and its variants, in particular the annular-sail braking proposal.

The Fourth Profession, Larry Niven, is the concomitant story: on the one hand it's the story of a bartender who's taken alien training pills that work by implanting memories, but on the other it's an exploration of the technicalities of running an interstellar trading ship with lightsails (key point: no repeat business). There are the usual sexist assumptions but much of this one works well, except the bit where the aliens apparently don't know what their own pills can do.

Goodnight, Children, Joe Clifford Faust, is entirely unlike anything else I've read by him; the people are actually pleasant. But this is mostly an updating of Father Christmas for children on Mars, which, fair enough. (The last of the original stories for this anthology.)

Solar Sails in an Interplanetary Economy, Robert L. Staehle and Louis Friedman, looks again at things that could be done (while never actually mentioning amounts of money), with an obviously wedged-in section on environmental protection to get the Charles A. Lindbergh Fund money, and calls for more donations.

Things are definitely looking up. Even without the Columbus Regatta (though we hope it flies) and operating on a shoestring, we believe we should be able to fly a test sail soon enough that every person who bought this book will be able to point up into the night sky and say, "I helped make that happen."

So what happened? Clearly the WSF didn't get to fly their sail and the Quincentennial Race never took place; presumably they didn't get enough money. It does occur to me that much of the private space launch capacity was relying on military contracts that faded away with the collapse of the USSR, and rather than open their launchers to cheaper payloads they just quietly went bust. But while the WSF still technically exists today, it appears to be under completely different management ("Dr. Richard Shope has over 45 years of experience as a writer, mime artist, educator and entrepreneur"), and is now about "championing science creativity" in young people. Neither Staehle nor the WSF even has a Wikipedia page.

But there have been, by my reckoning, just three launches of spacecraft that have actually got far enough to deploy a lightsail and be propelled by it, two in 2010 and one in 2019. It's a neat idea, but in order to make it work we really need more reliable (and cheaper) ground-to-orbit systems first.

For actual stories, the other anthology is rather better. I also find it mildly interesting that, among all the people Brin knew in the SF community, only two quite minor names were prepared to donate original stories. (I'm assuming they were asked to put any royalties to the fundraising cause.)

See also:
Light Sails

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