RogerBW's Blog

Light Sails 09 November 2019

2019 collection of short science fiction stories featuring light sails.

I'm not sure where I found this, but it doesn't seem to have any formal existence as a published work. The contents were first published variously between 1960 and 1978; there are no introductions or front matter in the ePUB file; and checking ISFDB for the individual stories shows no anthology in common. The closest match would be the 1990 anthology Project Solar Sail, which I own in hardcopy, but that shares only two stories with this.

So: thanks, anonymous compiler.

The Lady Who Sailed the Soul, Cordwainer Smith, cheats a bit in its title (the spaceship is called The Soul) and suffers from forcing a straightforward time-dilation plot into its setting (why do the interstellar ship pilots have to be metabolically slowed so that they experience the forty-year voyage as lasting a month, especially when they're going to age the full forty years anyway and they might have to respond to emergencies?), but the writing is lovely.

Sail 25, Jack Vance, is basically a boot-camp story: the captain of the cadet cruise doesn't care and is expecting to die anyway, or so he portrays, so he leaves the cadets to fend for themselves while throwing in occasional sabotage. There's a technical problem with a cunning solution, but mostly this is about the people, and works well.

The Wind From the Sun, Arthur C. Clarke, suffers from the chronological arrangement of the anthology: in that other collection it's the first piece of fiction, because it's basically the one that says "gosh, solar sails would be really neat, oh and here incidentally is a story of how they could be used for fun" – and it was written after those other two that simply assumed solar sails and went on from there. As usual with Clarke characterisation is minimal, and it's mostly about engineering considerations of just how you might manage fifty million square feet of ultra-light sail.

Sunjammer, Poul Anderson, 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.

Suddenly we jump forward a decade to some much more New Wave stories; in The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn, Vonda N. McIntyre, an alien near-generation-ship is approaching its destination, while the only crewmember not to have been born on board contemplates the end of her life. If anything there's a bit too much material to fit here, with some very good stuff on alien biology and psychology overriding more practical considerations (does your ship really have enough resources to set off for another planet just because this one isn't ideal?). Yet again I wonder why I don't read more McIntyre, and why she's not more widely anthologised.

View From a Height, Joan D. Vinge, has an astronomer with a severely compromised immune system, who went out on the long-baseline observatory mission, but now back on Earth they've worked out a cure for her medical problem… this one didn't work as well for me, I think because Vinge assumed more sympathy with the narrator than I felt, so didn't wait long before delving into her mental collapse and self-reassembly. It all seems a bit too trite for the grand and glorious setting. Which I suppose may be the point.

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