Sunday, February 11, 2018

Umbernight, by Carolyn Ives Gilman

★★★☆☆ Mixed

(SF Colony Adventure) The colonists on Dust usually hunker down for their years-long winter, especially when the companion star, Umber, blasts the surface with radiation, but a critical package from Earth needs to be retrieved now. (18,059 words; Time: 1h:00m)

Recommended By: πŸ†Locus+2 πŸ†Readers+0 πŸ†Sturgeon+2 πŸ“™NClarke+2 πŸ“™RHorton+2 πŸ‘GDozois.r+1 πŸ‘GTognetti+2 πŸ‘JMcGregor+2 πŸ‘STomaino+2 (Q&A)

"," by (edited by Neil Clarke), appeared in issue 137, published on .

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

Review: 2018.075 (A Word for Authors)

Pro: The strongest thing about this story is the almost non-stop tension and excitement. That and the vivid descriptions of the deadly but beautiful creatures of Umbernight.

The story had a strong anti-rational, anti-science message, moderated a bit by the recognition that the notion of “rationality” taught at the habitat wasn’t quite what the term was supposed to mean. By that, and the fact that true irrationality (e.g. Seabird’s fear of ghosts) gets no sympathy here.

At several points on the journey, the narrator and her companions do or say things that remind us that most of being human isn’t about rationality. Whether it’s Amal playing the mandolin, or everyone deciding to keep the dog, or even just their determination to bury or at least memorialize their dead, the story is dominated by human factors that are not subject to reason.

Con: The largest reason I can’t recommend this story is that although it has the form of a hard SF story, the science in it is awful. For starters, a planet orbiting a G-type star would have a year about the same as Earth’s year. If it had a thirty-year period, it would be as cold as Saturn. A pulsar (or whatever Umber is) wouldn’t vary its radiation output based on what season it was on Dust. The idea of a leaf that magically changes the frequency of light without scattering it is hard to believe. etc.

It’s also impossible to believe that the ancestors on Earth sent a load of paper books. Anything worth having would have been digitized and brought in the original ship. The ending of the story is crushingly sad because all those brave young people died for nothing, and that's very unsatisfying.

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3 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. A minor quibble about the science comment. A "G-type" star doesn't have to be a main sequence star. You could get a star like 40 Aquarii that is still in the G class but much brighter. But yeah, invisible creatures that don't show up unless you have a convenient tree leaf to look through, that's a bit too fanciful.

    1. Or Capella, for that matter; you're absolutely correct. When I first wrote it up, I briefly thought about saying "main-sequence G star" and then going on to point out that a non-main-sequence G star wouldn't have a habitable planet. (Assuming you think Dust really is habitable.) Or maybe, more to the point, however you feel about the original launch team missing the fact that the star had a pulsar companion, there is no way they would have missed realizing that the star was not a main-sequence dwarf!

      But I simplified it.

  2. It's funny, it wasn't the nonsensical astronomy that kept kicking me out of the story, despite being an astrophysicist: I mostly try to keep that part of my brain switched off when reading SF, otherwise there's very little SF I wouldn't toss aside. It was the ridiculous biology. The entire native ecosystem of Dust appears to consist of active predators (even the plants). What possibly fuels that growth and activity? There are certainly terrestrial examples of ecosystems that stay dormant for many years, waiting for rain, for example, but they're nothing like this. It's like the Stephen King novella, "The Mist" (which I enjoyed) - the environment is just ludicrously lethal. And I mean, come on: there's one organism that seems to exist solely to turn people into carbon statues.