Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Ghost Conductor of the Interstellar Express, by Brad R. Torgersen

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(Hard SF) Colonists found New Olympia too hot and dry, so a team of comet-catchers diverts comets into the planet. Caddy wants to be one; her brother was one of the best. But he has disappeared. (10,400 words; Time: 34m)

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ Not Recommended

"The Ghost Conductor of the Interstellar Express," by (edited by Dave Creek), appeared in (RSR review), published on by .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: Caddy succeeds in her dream of being a comet-catcher, and she even finds out what happened to her brother.

Con: It's impossible to believe that Earth would send a manned ship anywhere before a host of unmanned probes had gone there first.

The Interstellar express is rather hard to believe. Too much about it is just too convenient to the story. Peter got on but he can't get off. Why not? It erases computer memories but doesn't damage the computers, so people have nothing but faith to go on. The subway spoke to Peter in his dreams and to Caddy but not to Troy.

The dialogue is frequently unnatural. Among other things, the young people end up sounding much older than their years. When the narration focuses on people's thoughts and emotions, it is frequently awkward.

There are several scientific and engineering issues that are annoying, albeit not individually fatal:

The comet-catching business has stupefying energy requirements. Suppose you want to find long-period comets with apastron of 1000 AU and periastron of 50 AU and convert them to short-period comets with apastron of 50 AU and periastron of 1 AU. A little orbital mechanics tell us you'll need to find them at 50 AU and speed each one up by 5 kps. For a typical 5km-radius comet, that's going to take around seven times as much energy as the asteroid that extinguished the dinosaurs. (22,000 tons of antimatter should do it.) Even then you'll still have to wait 60 years for it to get to 1AU--where you'll need 125,000 additional tons of antimatter to slow it down. Arguably, this should be swallowed as part of the what-if, but it's a big thing to swallow.

The colony boat took 200 years to reach New Olympia, presumably at much less than light speed, since the colonists were in stasis the whole time. Therefore messages should take much less than 200 years one-way, but we're told that messages from Earth are 200 years old.

Communications between the base and the comet-catchers should experience speed-of-light lags of minutes to hours, but they're described as instantaneous.

Space is really, really big. There would be no need to clean up the mess is a comet came apart--the pieces would be spread over too much space.

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