by Carolyn Ives Gilman
When Carolyn Ives Gilman pondered the difficulties of space travel in large vessels, she eventually considered the seafaring skills and nimble crafts of Polynesian sailors, which helped provide inspiration for her latest story, “The Tinker and the Timestream” in our [March/April issue, on sale now!].
Ordinarily, I am not very good at writing stories in response to a prompt, but “The Tinker and the Timestream” (March-April Analog) is different. It originated in a challenge.
I belong to a writer’s group with several Analog writers, including Bob Chase, Bud Sparhawk, and John Hemry (who writes as Jack Campbell). A while ago, John threw out a speculation: Navigation in space, he proposed, would not be as easy as simply saying, “Lay in a course for Arcturus, Mr. Sulu.” In fact, John had written an article in the November 2000 Analog detailing all the difficulties of navigating in space. The stars, which form fixed reference points from here on Earth, are anything but fixed when traveling out among them. Perhaps, he speculated, space navigation would be easier using the techniques of Polynesian sailors.
Now, this was intriguing to me. In my previous job at the National Museum of the American Indian, I knew a curator who specialized in Pacific Islander cultures. He had actually gone out with a group of sailors to learn their techniques. Talking to him, I found that ancient Polynesian sailors performed the most astonishing feats of long-distance travel across the Pacific in outrigger canoes. They were able to cross thousands of miles of open ocean, seemingly devoid of landmarks, and precisely arrive at tiny islands like Hawai’i and Easter Island. In an era of Hawai’ian history before Europeans arrived, these feats of navigation had occurred regularly enough that there was a vigorous trade between Hawai’i and eastern Polynesia. But how did they do it?
Not by using European methods, that is clear. When Captain James Cook became the first European to arrive at Hawai’i in 1778, he was using methods of astronomical navigation developed over centuries of observation of the heavens. He used advanced technologies like sexants for measuring the angle of the sun and moon, and the critical marine chronometer—a clock so regular he could measure east-west travel by noting the difference between the local time and Greenwich time. He also had an astronomical ephemeris, a book that predicted the timing of various astronomical events (such as eclipses, planetary conjunctions or the positions of Jupiter’s moons) for various dates in the future. By measuring those events when they occurred, he could do the triangulation to pin down where he was.
Polynesian sailors had no sextant, chronometer, or ephemeris. But their methods were also based on centuries of observation. What they observed was not so much the stars, as the sea. It turns out that the Pacific, which we see as featureless, was full of landmarks (or perhaps I should say “seamarks”) to them. They learned what currents, prevailing winds, and clouds told them. They observed the behavior of birds in their flyways and marine animals migrating, mating, and hunting in particular areas. They knew how waves behave, and what conclusions to draw from the flotsam on the surface. Of course they used the stars, but supplemented that information with many other sorts of data.
We see space the way we see the Pacific: empty and featureless. But when you think of it, space also has currents, winds, clouds, waves, and flotsam—just on a larger scale in distance and time.
The curator I worked with told how the first step in training a canoe navigator was to throw them into the sea and ask them to float. This method gave a canoeist a whole-body, multi-sensory feel for the sea. Voyagers became so attuned to the rhythms, sounds, and smells that they could observe them even subconsciously. On one long journey, the captain of the canoe my friend was in roused up from a fast sleep when he sensed a change in the rhythm of the waves that no one else had noticed. The canoe was like an extension of his senses.
But can all of this be extrapolated into space? We see space the way we see the Pacific: empty and featureless. But when you think of it, space also has currents, winds, clouds, waves, and flotsam—just on a larger scale in distance and time. It seemed to me that John Hemry’s speculation might well be true, but demonstrating it in a story was another matter.
First, I would need a different kind of spaceship. Science fiction writers of European heritage tend to extrapolate European-style technology into the future. We see lots of spacefarers plying the skies in big, metal vessels like World War II battleships. There are not a lot of spaceships akin to outrigger canoes. Traveling long distances, science fictional spaceships don’t tend to engage with the space environment around them. Some lumber along for generations, sealed away from the vacuum and sustaining life inside. Others leave our space and its inconvenient rules altogether by diving through wormholes or into other dimensions. What I needed was a spaceship that could travel very fast but still stay in the universe we know.
This called for a rethink. Fortunately, I had just been reading a mind-blowing little book called The Order of Time, by Carlo Rovelli, a theoretical physicist. It reverses the usual perspective on cosmology by foregrounding time. It made me think, have we been going at this all wrong by approaching space travel with the matter-focused physics of Earth? What about a culture whose technology focused on manipulating time? I could work with that.
To have my spacetime ship, it turned out I had to go all the way back to the Big Bang and re-explain the universe a different way, but science fiction writers are allowed to do that. In fact, this kind of romping speculation is what science fiction is all about. And, frankly, I find nothing more improbable about my time-bubble ship than there is about sending an aircraft carrier through a wormhole. Of course, building a better mousetrap (or spaceship) does not make a story. For that, I needed a flaring star, a marooned colony, and some grievously mismatched characters. I just hope everyone enjoys reading the final result as much as I enjoyed writing it.