Friday, April 13, 2007

Hugo Nominee: A Billion Eves

Suddenly every science had a fierce interest in the work. Large schools and small nations had to own rippers. Biologists retrieved microscopic samples of air and soil, each sample contaminated with bacteria and odd spores. Every species was new, but all shared the ingredients of earth-life: DNA coded for the same few amino acids that built families of proteins that were not too unlike those found inside people and crabgrass.
One of this year's Hugo-nominated novellas, "A Billion Eves" by Robert Reed, is based on the premise that a machine ("ripper") that can transport people (and objects) to parallel Earths has been developed. Pioneers - both volunteers and kidnapees - settle these other Earths that diverged from our own at vastly different points over the last few billion years. The result is human habitable worlds that are almost, but not quite, like our own. One young woman is willing to ask what effect we - and our livestock, food crops and pests - might have on these alien Earths.

Reed has a background in biology and it clearly shows in his fiction. It's not surprising to me that his favorite course was population biology (a field that combines genetics, evolution and ecology), as he explained in a 2003 interview with Science Fiction Weekly :
I took a few graduate courses in biology, and my favorite class, probably in my scholastic life, was called Population Biology. The professor was a gung-ho chap with a curious, relentless mind. When I walked into his class, my knowledge of natural selection was limited to a string of memorized facts and loosely related ideas. He showed me an Evolution that never sleeps—a relentless scythe tirelessly cutting its way through every population, every lineage. Then, afterwards, on my own, I read Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. With the help of those two apes, I created a rugged little toolbox that I can apply to my world-building business.

Read "A Billion Eves" for yourself at Asimov's Science Fiction. Then, if you want more, check out my previous post on Reed's "Dragons of Summer Gulch" and his many other stories available online.

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Anonymous said...

Lack of comments doesn't mean lack of readers!

It's hard to imagine people leaving for an empty world unless the one they're in is pretty awful. First generation could be OK -- good tools can last a lifetime -- but ten generations to coal-powered ships seems about right. Overpopulation is a problem, but there's also some minimum population to have enough specialists for an industrial economy. I'm guessing millions. With two surviving daughters per woman (no assumptions about marital systems) a million-fold increase takes ten generations. So the grandchildren of the first settlers would be lucky to have bronze age technology.

Peggy said...

Thanks anon :-)

I disagree on a couple of points. First off I think that there is a certain type of person who would indeed leave for an empty world, even if conditions weren't that dire. The first type has itchy feet and little need for the presence of other humans. I suspect many early explorers of earth were of this type. There is another kind that might think that this would be an opportunity to be a king instead of a peon without necessarily considering the long-term consequences. The first person to use the "ripper" in "A Billion Eves" is of this sort.

I also don't think you'd need millions for an industrial economy, if the original settlers know how the technology works and they pass that knowledge down to their children. It might take them a long time to build a factory's-worth of machines, but I think it would be faster than our own industrial revolution.

Ford Denison said...

One question is how many brains you need to really "know how the technology works." The people who design microchips don't know how to make the machines needed to manufacture them. Plant breeders usually specialize in one crop. And so on. If early settlers in the new world brought one blacksmith, they could have much of the same technology as back home (as long as they import iron), but that wouldn't be true today. I agree about the wackos, though.
Another thing: I don't think annual seed crops like wheat or rice would be any threat to alien worlds, and they might be essential to survival. These crops haven't invaded any natural ecosystems here, because we've bred out traits that let them survive in the wild (height, seed dormancy, etc.). Rats and weeds are another story.