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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Starship Century, ed. James & Gregory Benford

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Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon

Edited by James Benford & Gregory Benford

(Microwave Sciences, August 13, 2013, tpb, 334 pp.)



“Starships: Reaching for the Highest Bar” by James & Gregory Benford

“Our Only Chance” by Stephen Hawking
“Noah’s Ark Eggs and Warm-Blooded Plants” by Freeman Dyson
“To the Ends of the Universe” by Martin Rees
“Starships and the Fates of Humankind” by Peter Schwartz
“On the Way to Starflight: The Economics of Interstellar Breakout” by Robert Zubrin
“The Nuclear Rocket: Workhorse of the Solar System” by Geoffrey A. Landis
“Starship Pioneers” by Adam Crowl
“Sailships” by James Benford
“Starship Destinations” by Stephen Baxter & Ian Crawford
“Exotic Technologies for Interstellar Travel” by John Cramer
“Afterword” by Paul Davies
“Cathedrals” by Allen M. Steele
“Atmosphaera Incognita” by Neal Stephenson
“Coda: Atmosphaera Incognita” by Gregory Benford
“Knotweed and Gardenias” by Nancy Kress
“The Man Who Sold the Stars” by Gregory Benford
“Across the Dark, the Pioneers” by Geoffrey A. Landis
“Living Large” by Richard A. Lovett
“The Heavy Generation” by David Brin
“Star Call” by Stephen Baxter
“Tricentennial” by Joe Haldeman

Reviewed by Louis West

Starship Century, edited by James Benford & Gregory Benford, is a collection of articles and stories about the future possibilities of extended space exploration and all its concomitant problems. With the recent discovery of Earth-sized planets orbiting other star systems, interest in space has mushroomed. In particular, the 100 Year Starship Symposium that met in October 2011 (the University of California, San Diego Symposium) brought both scientists and SF writers together “to set a bar high enough and hard enough to seriously challenge the next generations” and to make sure that the vision doesn’t lack plans for execution. As the promo material succinctly phrases the purpose of the anthology:

Starship Century is an anthology by authors from both science and fiction writing backgrounds, illustrating some of the tech and ideology behind the illustrious goal of traveling to another star within the next century.”

This collection achieves a good balance between the practical and the hoped-for possible, because it’s not only about the Futurists, who forecast the probable, but also the Dreamers, (scientists and SF writers alike) who craft answers in anticipation of questions yet to be asked. But this dividing line is in constant flux. With multi-materials 3D & 4D printing, micro-gravity Fab Lab manufacturing, metamaterials development, plasmonic optics and all sorts of other new technologies banging at our door, the concept of “feasible” is ephemeral. Ultimately, though, it’s the Scientists and Engineers who actually birth the tech that puts form to the dreams, and opening this new frontier will take generations of mind-numbingly difficult work. Unless an FTL drive sneaks up on us and changes everything.


“Starships: Reaching for the Highest Bar,” by James & Gregory Benford, summarizes the enormous challenges facing humankind to build and crew interstellar ships and some of the current possibilities like fusion rockets and beamed energy sailships.

Stephen Hawking’s “Our Only Chance” is a short piece stating that long-term human survival can only be realized by expansion into space.

“Noah’s Ark Eggs and Warm-Blooded Plants,” by Freeman Dyson, draws parallels between the thousand year colonizing expansion of the Polynesians across the Pacific Ocean and humankind’s journey to the stars. This venture will proceed step by careful step, facing both biological and engineering challenges at each stage of expansion until, perhaps, only arks with human DNA can truly make the leap into deep space.

Martin Rees’ “To the Ends of the Universe” hypothesizes that “the first voyagers to the stars will not be human, and maybe not even organic.” The enormous distances and time-scales involved will require something different than today’s unaugmented human. And our purpose might be as simple as to spread human-like life throughout a potentially empty galaxy.

“Starships and the Fates of Humankind,” by Peter Schwartz, provides a hard-nosed feasibility analysis of “several different answers to the questions of whether we can get to the stars and, if so, who, why and how, and with what implications for life on Earth.” Accompanying this evaluation is a checklist of key uncertainties and possible scenarios that need to be considered. He concludes that there are many paths to conquering space, one (which I think the most feasible) being that it will be individual trillionaires who first pioneer interstellar flight, just like billionaire-owned companies may be the first to put humans on Mars.

Robert Zubrin’s “On the Way to Starflight: The Economics of Interstellar Breakout” presents a rigorous evaluation of the cost to build, launch and manage a starship and the concomitant implications for how big the human global economy would need to be in order to afford it. I found his case logical, but flawed, although not fatally. He didn’t appear to take into account the impact of inflation when comparing GDP and per capita income numbers across time. His conclusions, though, are reasonable, assuming humankind can master nuclear fusion and develop efficient means to mine D-He3 from the moon then the outer planets.

“The Nuclear Rocket: Workhorse of the Solar System,” by Geoffrey A. Landis, argues that the nuclear rocket would be the pickup truck for the solar system, the workhorse we need for hauling cargo across the system to resource hungry Earth. This is a carefully researched story that covers the efforts since the 1950s to build a nuclear rocket, the materials needed, the availability of water fuel throughout the solar system, and potential ship designs (along with pictures and schematics). The author’s concluding suggestion is that a bimodal nuclear rocket would be best: Use the direct heat of the nuclear core to drive a thermal rocket, when high-thrust is needed, then switch the core to generating electricity to drive a high-efficiency ion engine for the long-journey portions of a mission.

Adam Crowl’s “Starship Pioneers” provides a detailed treatise on the advances in rocket designs and ideas throughout the 20th century, then explores possible future options like fusion ramjets, laser-driven solar-sails, pellet-propulsion concepts and even antimatter pion rockets.

“Sailships,” by James Benford, proposes that the first starship will be a sail, then dives into relevant engineering, construction, propulsion, steering and development issues.

Stephen Baxter’s & Ian Crawford’s “Starship Destinations” looks at the rapidly increasing number and types of exoplanets within 50 light-years of Earth, how they are discovered, their various classifications and the design challenges for probes humankind might use to explore them.

“Exotic Technologies for Interstellar Travel,” by John Cramer, discusses three theoretical options. Space Drives depend upon unproven micro-time differentials between gravitational and inertial mass. Alcubierre’s Warp Drive, which uses warp bubbles to work around General Relativity’s constraint that light speed is a local speed limit, requires exotic matter with large quantities of negative mass-energy. Worm holes, although feasible per General Relativity theory, have enormous problems when it comes to producing, stabilizing and using them. Still, exotic matter technologies might make one or more of these options feasible at some point in the future.

Paul Davies’ “Afterword” proposes that humankind will have to master its understanding of our microbiomes and learn how to take them with us even to stand a chance of surviving out among the stars.


“Cathedrals,” by Allen M. Steele, is a fictional reflection on the development of FTL told via flashbacks to 1969 when Karen Cho’s great-great-grandfather first proposed a warp-field drive. More importantly, though, and reflective of much of the message of this entire collection, is that Karen’s ancestor also believed that interstellar exploration had to be viewed as a multi-generational project, just like Middle-Ages European cathedrals had been built. A sobering comparison.

Neal Stephenson’s “Atmosphaera Incognita” is near-future SF when the tech exists to build a tower 20 kilometers high, a first step into space by means other than expensive and temperamental ships. Carl is a billionaire genius with a vision that constantly outstrips everyone around him, even his closest friends and advisors. Emma has known Carl since childhood. Although she’s not an expert in any specific tech, she gets things done, and Carl constantly tasks her with more and more until she becomes his overall project manager. This story is her telling, about Carl, his vision, and how it drives humankind to view the frontier of space differently. The author also deftly interweaves the engineering, science, meteorology, economics and politics necessary to make this project work among the threads of the tale, making this a primer, of a kind. A solid, compelling story, especially since Carl dreams beyond his own capacity to understand: Buried within this massive tower, with its square mile of habitable work space at the top, is a ten meter diameter, perfectly straight 20-kilometer long vertical tube, just waiting for the right person with the right idea to find a use for it. Excellent.

“Coda: Atmosphaera Incognita,” by Gregory Benford, follows Emma in her years after Carl’s death and the completion of his tower. The tower’s central tube is now a magcat tunnel used to launch stratosphere slimship rockets and outer solar-system sailships. Today, Emma witnesses the launching of humankind’s first interstellar sailship and the realization of the full scope of Carl’s far-seeing dreams.

Nancy Kress’ “Knotweed and Gardenias” is a stark, cautionary tale that reminds us that humans are creatures of the Earth, and until we understand and can replicate all the conditions we need to survive, long space journeys will be lethal. Very thought-provoking and a bit scary, reminding us that we can’t always figure out all the dangers in advance.

Marianne is the chief psychologist on the interplanetary ship Javelin, and the crew has begun to emotionally disintegrate. The Chief Petty Officer already tried to cut open the hull before slicing off his left arm with his laser cutter. The Captain, having lost his calm, charismatic style of leadership, is barely able to hold the crew together, while others sink into deep depression. Worst, the algae that provides the crew's nutrition has slowed its division rate. Much more and the entire crop will fail, dooming them to death by starvation. Marianne has to battle her own growing insecurities as the crew scrambles to discover what it is that the ship designers missed that’s slowly killing them.

“The Man Who Sold the Stars,” by Gregory Benford (with a nod to Heinlein), is about Harold Mann, the first trillionaire to make it to the stars and who lives his life by the philosophy that “Man’s got to throw long in this life.” Harold started his first business at age ten, finished his MIT degree in astronautics by 16, and made his first million at 18 selling a smartapp to a company making Low Earth Orbit construction robots. Then he championed nuclear rockets to pursue asteroid and D-He3 mining, to bring high-value resources to Earth or into Earth orbit for various construction projects. He branches into fusion rockets and beamed power light-sail ships to access resources throughout the solar system. But his real goal still eludes him, until a long-shot research project of his discovers a brown dwarf star less than a light-year away with a potentially habitable planet.

A fast-paced tale that captures Harold’s quirky genius and humorous yet no-nonsense way of wrestling problems into submission. A lot of fun. Highly recommended.

Geoffrey A. Landis’ “Across the Dark, the Pioneers” is a short poem about the stages of humankind’s near future exploration of space.

“Living Large,” by Richard A. Lovett, is mostly fact in a fictional setting, drawing heavily upon existing knowledge about closed environmental systems and artificially-induced hibernation. The protagonist spins a rambling narrative about his upcoming 234 year journey on a hibernation starship going to settle Terra Nova. It touches upon his personal challenges in preparing for the trip and the various pragmatic issues faced by the planners. More a treatise than an SF story.

In David Brin’s “The Heavy Generation” Jason is a perennially curious “heavy,” a teen genetically engineered to handle the full gravity of the world they will soon colonize. The generation starship previously established two other colonies, and will establish more after this one. Consequently, the tall, low-G acclimatized ship’s crew generally views Jason and all the other H-Kids with disdain, calling them “dirters.” Except for Melissa, daughter of the ship’s Chief Scientist. Jason doesn’t trust that he and his kind are being taught enough, especially since none of the earlier colonies seemed to survive long. Fifty years later, Jason’s colony is thriving, and he and his wife, Melissa, are some of the key leaders. Now it’s the ship’s crew struggling to survive because their starship AI has shut down, leaving them stranded in a slowly failing vessel, or shuttling to the planet to endure a gravity they were never meant to handle. But Jason has reason to believe the AI has deliberately shut itself down, which, if true, changes everything about the colony’s long-term goals.

A good story. My only distraction, though, was the absence of scene breaks, forcing me to stop and figure out why the disconnect.

In “StarCall,” by Stephen Baxter, Paul is given a StarCall phone package by his father that allows him to call the AI on the deep space Sannah spacecraft, once every ten years, as it heads for Alpha Centauri. The story covers 70 years, seven calls, tracking changes in Paul and his life, the world as it struggles with global-warming driven sea rises, and the AI’s sense of purpose, especially once it learns that humans had long since abandoned any efforts to send another ship to follow-up on its pioneering research. Humans forgot that an AI may have a subconscious, a dark place that reacts badly to being rejected or marginalized.

In Joe Haldeman’s “Tricentennial,” 2075 Earth has detected evidence of an intelligent civilization around 61 Cygni, eleven light-years away, although humanity has yet to make sense of the confused jumble of messages being broadcast. Dr. Charlie Leventhal doesn’t want to just whisper back, like Earth had been doing for years, but to shout. That would require using 12 hours out of the North American power grid, and the global democracy would require his request to be put on a ballot for a vote. But, there’s another option—to deliver it in person, using Daedalus, an almost completed but abandoned almost-kilometer long starship. Some time ago, Earth had discovered a pair of black dwarfs orbiting the Sun 500 billion kilometers out, one matter, one anti-matter. The plan was to use abandoned H-bombs to fuel the starship to go to the black dwarf pair and collect degenerate matter and anti-matter. Then, instead of returning to Earth, use what they collected to fuel a total matter annihilation drive to go to the neighboring star system and back in nine years. [Fact alert: 61 Cygni is 11 light-years distant, and the ship drive is not FTL, so a round-trip would have to be over 22 years, not 9.] But plans often go awry, and this failure came in the form of a chunk of something smashing through the ship’s stern, leaving the crew unable to steer or shut off the 1-G drive. Twenty-five years later they passed 61 Cygni going 99% the speed of light and still accelerating, future unknown.

[“Tricentennial” was winner of the 1977 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, a Nebula nominee, and the only fiction reprint, all other stories being original to this volume.]

Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon is a wonderful compilation of current fact and fiction by some of the world's leading scientists, with the select fiction writers breathing life into the scenarios laid out in the thought-provoking articles. Illustrated by some of SF's most renowned artists, with its numerous accompanying photographs, b&w illustrations and graphics, this over-sized trade paperback—though some measure of technical jargon is to be necessarily found—is yet an exciting, easily understood, highly entertaining read for the interested lay person wishing to expand their horizons. A surefire conversation piece, it serves as an exemplary guidebook, a valuable roadmap on the uncharted road to interstellar travel and how it is within our eventual reach. Starship Century is an important work and not to be missed.

Proceeds from this book will be donated to research on interstellar travel.

Louis West. Sub-atomic physics, astronomy, biophysics, medical genetics and international finance all lurk in Louis’ background. He’s fond of hard SF, writes reviews for a variety of Speculative Fiction publications and volunteers at several New England SF&F conferences. As an Author-in-progress, his SF writing embraces both Nanopunk and Biopunk genres.