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Authors: Gregory Benford

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BOOK: The Sunborn
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As
High Flyer
crossed the orbit of the Ringed World, Instigator sent to her brethren,

Aboard that machine, Julia took time to be alone.

She flicked on a wall screen. Far inward, Shanna’s ship flared bright yellow in the pervading dark. They had zand aboard, and Shanna was happily working to keep their habitat cold. Liquid helium pumps, a chemical wonderland of interlacing systems—they were busy, and happy, and, in Wiseguy-moderated conversations, learning. Grist for those thousand doctoral dissertations.

She had a sudden warm feeling for Shanna. How strange, but it felt…right. She indulged unashamedly in a bit of pop psychology. Some of their problems might have been personal, not spawned by who controlled the mission. After all, Shanna was the right age for the daughter she had never had; she, Julia, the mother Shanna had never known. No wonder they had fought, at first. She hoped their new, supportive relationship would be more enduring.

Proserpina
would reach the Earth-moon system about the time
High Flyer
made it to Mars, decelerating all the way. What happened to Instigator then, how to keep it safe near Mars, how to free Incursor—all problems for tomorrow. Whole corps of scientists Earthside were worrying through those riddles. They would think of something; of that, she was sure.

And she and Viktor would be back on Mars. Armed with new knowledge, ready to make more descents. She wondered what it would be like next time going down into Vent R.

Julia sat cross-legged and let her mind fly free.

She thought about what her own science might be like, after it had digested the lessons she had barely glimpsed out here. That task would occupy centuries. Mars Effect or no, she would not live to see the flowering of full understanding.

The evolutionary routes are many, she knew, wending through the howling wilderness of the maladaptive, on to their severely narrowed destinations. Biology abounded with convergent examples, destinations arrived at along very different paths. Fruiting bodies of slime molds and myxobacteria alike evolved multicelled advances. Warmbloodedness came forth several times, as did live birth and even penile tumescence. The eyes did indeed have it—as seen in the camera-like eyes of vertebrates and octopi, and the similar tiny perceptors of worms and jellyfish. Nature invented over and over again the mechanisms used by diverse organisms to hear, smell, echolocate, sense the prickle of electric and magnetic fields.

So for her it was not a huge leap to see the Beings and the Marsmat as parallel ways of first acquiring complex information and then sharpening the means to handle it better.

Since the Marsmat, biologists had suspected that waiting in the wings of the theater of consciousness there were other minds stirring, poised on the threshold of articulation. But they had never guessed that long before rude hominids sharpened flints, minds of utterly different strategies had met and merged beneath the drying plains of Mars.

Now a possibility brimmed ahead. The last smart species had learned to voyage between worlds and so had brought the three together. Was some joining of them possible? Evolution was ingenious.

Until now scientists felt a tension between a cosmic loneliness and a suspicion that there might be other minds, yes—but that they were unfathomably distant in a huge, echoing conceptual space. No more. Now the links were known, close by.

Julia sighed and tried to imagine where it might all lead.

Perhaps the Beings were members of the only truly galaxy-spanning culture. Outcroppings of organic life might be rare, while plasma was common—spewed out by stars, drifting in the black. Could this be why radio SETI had found so little? The Wiseguy program had arisen in response to the few weak signals, yes—maybe there were few organics to send.

Since the Proto had risen toward her, and it had dawned upon her what it was, she had been forced—yet again!—to rethink. About how life could evolve without the style of binary reproduction Earth’s life used.

And since then, another idea beckoned.

The Proto had been blown out in an immense solar storm, from the brute eruption of a magnetic arch. If nascent plasma beings are growing in the sun—at far higher plasma densities and different magnetic fields—could they not evolve there? Could a natural cooperation arise between the Beings of the Deep and solar plasma life? Or could there come some inconceivable conflict?

Plenty to think about here—of that, she was sure.

There was more to come. There always would be.

Afterword

Perhaps it’s time for an old-fashioned voyage of interplanetary discovery.
The Martian Race
was that, updated a bit, and this novel is a sequel to it. Some have felt that our backyard solar system is just too plain dull for much exciting fiction. I disagree.

In writing this novel I took the frame of outer solar system ideas from an earlier novella,
Iceborn,
coauthored with Paul Carter in the 1980s. Paul had written a novelette about exploring Pluto and came to me for advice on how to expand it; we ended up collaborating. (Indeed, the critic and novelist Brian Stableford pointed out to me that I may have collaborated on novels with more writers than anyone else, surely an odd distinction. Writing is a bit lonely, and my experience in science has accustomed me to working and writing papers with others. Perhaps science fiction inherits from science the propensity to merge talents and viewpoints; certainly there is little collaboration in mainstream fiction, which may be the poorer for it.) Paul also helped with ideas and prose, and created the Old One and other characters in this novel. I owe him a great debt.

In merging the outer solar system with the inner, I am following recent research. We now believe that our solar system formed in an active, violent region of the galaxy. Nearby giant stars hammered with intense ultraviolet light the accretion disk, from which planets formed. Supernovas sprayed the early planets and iceteroids with radioactive nuclei. The outer solar system was not just leftovers, failed worlds. Instead, it played a role in bombarding the early Earth with comets, and the young sun blew out colossal bursts of high-energy winds. The implications of this are just beginning to get worked out for astrobiology and other fields.

So I thought it would be enjoyable to make a true imaginative leap, conjuring up life far beyond the chemical avenues we know. I’ve left out some fairly arcane thinking along these lines, distilled from my own field of plasma physics—this is a novel, after all, not a doctoral thesis. But there are good physical reasons to imagine that molecules and dilute solutions are not the whole story of life in our universe.

There are many scientific sources for this novel’s background. Especially I want to thank Ken McNamara for the figure from his
Stromatolites.
The major inspiration for the first part of this novel was visiting the striking stromatolites of Shark Bay, Australia, in 2004.

For background on Gusev Crater on Mars, thanks to Nathalie Cabrol and Edmond Grin. Their early help convinced me that Gusev Crater was a likely landing site, so I chose it for
The Martian Race.
So convincing were they that they won the competition for landing sites, and the Spirit lander has had phenomenal success in Gusev since December 2003. Calculations about walking on Mars are from Adam Hawkey’s paper on human locomotion on Mars in
Journal of the British Interplanetary Society
57, pages 262-71, 2004. Joe Miller of USC provided scientific ideas about Martian life, with cogent criticisms of the biology and plot as well. Mark O. Martin of USC gave background on microbial biology. The “cartoon” of solar wind flow around Mars is from a paper in
Geophysical Research Letters
29, 37, 2002.

While much of the biosphere of Pluto is my own invention, the ideas about chemistry at very low temperatures flow from the late Robert Forward’s groundbreaking essay, “Alien Abodes Between Neptune and the Stars.”

I must thank those who gave great help in reading and criticizing the several drafts. Jaime Levine gave me the longest letter I have ever gotten about the manuscript, and even outlined the book. Sheila Finch provided telling insights into language and translation; her Lingster stories have many ingenious ideas about alien linguistics. Elisabeth Malartre found my many Homeric nods, as we politely term them. She was the unacknowledged coauthor of
The Martian Race
and took time to contribute strongly to plotting this sequel.

Is more to come? Another novel beckons, about the two decades between this and
The Martian Race.
Not right away, but we’ll see.

September 2004

BOOK: The Sunborn
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