Friday, December 19, 2008

IGMS presents: "The Absence of Stars" by Greg Siewert


Notes on “The Absence of Stars”

I’m not sure if I remember having the initial idea for “The Absence of Stars.” I definitely remember being fascinated by Stephen Hawking’s notion of microscopic black holes and the idea that a black hole is a function of the density of matter, not its total mass. I was also interested in black holes because although they have properties that border on the fringes of known physics, they can also be viewed as simple, massive objects and therefore, they can move around and orbit just like any other planet or asteroid.

As a relatively new writer, I’ve been doing my own versions of some familiar sub-genres. I’ve got a “demon escapes from hell” story, a “futuristic war-scape” story, and “The Absence of Stars” was my version of the well-tread “big thing is heading toward the earth” story. I have a laymen’s interest in relativistic physics and this novelette allowed me to air out some of my pet opinions and theories (yeah, they’re probably wrong—I’m a winemaker). It also allowed me to create a version of this scenario without some of the irritating clichés that I always see presented in films. You know that part of the movie where humanity has to struggle with the weighty decision of who should be evacuated to create a new society and who should remain on Earth? I don’t know why, but I find that really irritating. I took great joy in sidestepping the issue completely.

Another thing that bothers me in such movies is how unrealistic the technology always is. The government always has seems to have some secret rocket program that nobody knew about. Although my story is set in the future, it’s meant to exist in roughly the present day from a technology standpoint. As a fan of the US space program in general, and the International Space Station in particular, I was really excited to set a story on the ISS. I think the station became a character of its own. Speaking of characters, it was also very satisfying to craft the personalities of the astronauts as serious-minded scientists, and not the cartoonish super-heroes that I see in the movies. I’m sure that someone more knowledgeable then myself could poke all sorts of holes in my depiction of the station and the events of the story, but I can assure you that I tried to make it accurate and plausible wherever I could.

Since I mentioned plausibility: The speed of light is infinitely fast. If you’re looking for a fistfight, say that in front of a physics student. Light has been measured many times traveling at 300,000 Km per second. Say you’re standing under the night sky and you turn on your flashlight at the same time you start a stopwatch. Your flashlight is pointed at a planet ten light years away, where the light bounces off a mirror and comes back to you 20 years later. You stop your stopwatch, get out your calculator and figure the speed to be 300,000 Km per second. What’s the problem? Well, here’s the thing: My understanding of relativity is that if you repeated this experiment with the stopwatch riding on the beam of light (go with me on this) and waited for it to come back to you 20 years later, the stopwatch would still say zero; special relativity, being what it is. If velocity is distance over time then if you travel 20 light years (or any other distance) in zero seconds then your speed is infinite. Right? So how fast does light travel? Is it 300,000 Km/sec or is it infinitely fast? I suppose it depends on your point of view. At least I think it does, one day maybe I’ll get a real physics education and know for sure.

Enjoy the story,

Greg Siewert


Part One of Greg's story, "The Absence of Stars," is in issue 10 of Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, available now. Part Two will appear in issue 11, due out in February.


Gray Rinehart said...

Re: your footnote, Ed. Wasn't "The Tile Setters" Ami Chopine's story?

(Sorry, it's the wannabe editor in me coming out.)

Edmund R. Schubert said...

Edited. Thanks.