Science Fiction Round 69: I Don’t Know What This Is, But It Made A Squelching Sound
Biology is not my thing. I mean, I studied physics because it was basically the not-biology major, so I could avoid all the living, growing, squishy, gooey things.
I recently read Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion, and the biopunk aspects were fascinating all by themselves. For… multiple definitions of fascinating. A content warning for various flavors of bio-horror is in order.
I will now discuss the book, and also apply cold, hard physics to the scary, squishy stuff. Wish me luck.
Lesbians in Space
The book is pretty well described by the combination of the official title and the fan-adopted title “Lesbians in Space.”
Aside from the genders of the involved parties, the big picture pieces of the plot is similar to many soap opera standards — abusive parent, vicious tyrant, marriage to further political schemes, a lover betrayed loves and moves on. The relationships between characters, while bitterly broken in many respects, are well-portrayed.
Unusual to space opera, however, there are no men.
None. Zero. Zip. This isn’t explained or remarked upon — it simply is. Based on the (often intensely horrific) events in the story, it looks like reproduction generally occurs by parthenogenesis.
And the fact that (most) women don’t bear human children at all is an important plot point.
I Won’t Watch The Movie
I have a much higher tolerance for squick-inducing material in text than in movies. Perhaps because I can (usually) turn down the high-definition head movie when I get to the really gross parts.
There are some things I simply won’t read (note: I tend to skip over almost all explicit sex scenes), and the body horror that shows up in Hurley’s work is right on the edge of that.
It’s well written, that’s for sure, but basically everything is squishy. There’s a scene where intestines torn from a human corpse are used to repair a small transport vehicle, and that’s one of the less horrifying events. The recyclers and their level of the world-ship is… not something I want to think about too deeply.
It has enough intensity that I’d actually put it in the same league as the web serial Worm for terror and nightmare potential. (Though, in my opinion, Worm tortures its protagonists even more than The Stars Are Legion does. And I do mean literally torture.)
Do Not Read if bio-horror, lots of blood and gore, or parthenogenic pregnancy and delivery of very not human things are likely to bother you. The writing isn’t particularly graphic, but there’s enough left unsaid for the inspired imagination to fill in the blanks.
Me? The book is good, but if there’s a movie, I’ll have to pass.
Time To Be A Pretentious Physicist
And now, I attempt to dissect the world building.
Literally, in this case. All throughout the book, we get various descriptions of the world-ships. They are basically giant biotech generation ships (the IN SPACE is implied).
We can infer the following from the story:
- The worldships are self-gravitating in all levels in which humans live, including the bottom level and the outermost level.
- It takes a woman recovering from serious injury and a spry older woman between one and two weeks to circumnavigate the lowest level, which has hazardous terrain (and Meatmoth, OMG).
- There is no description of a noticeable difference in gravitational strength between the bottom level and the top level.
- The worldships have sufficient gravity, or some high-technology, which causes a “healthy” world-ship to maintain a thin, not-quite-breathable-enough atmosphere.
- There are many (hundreds? thousands?) of worldships. We only encounter those in the Outer Rim of the Legion, and the Mokshi (which moved out from the Core).
- Worldships normally follow regular, predictable orbits around the star in the Core.
- Worldships are close enough to each other that they can be seen as disks, and not points, by unaided (but possibly enhanced) human vision.
- Worldships are close enough to each other than it is possible to travel past many of them over the course of hours using a space-capable vehicle. (I don’t think it’s longer than this, as no one describes sleeping or needing to use the restroom en route.)
- Said space-capable vehicles do not accelerate so rapidly as to greatly discomfort their drivers, and do not attain such high velocities that being flung off of one of them into the tentacles on a worldship’s surface is immediately fatal.
- The star in the Core is implied to be artificial, and a dense cloud of some kind partially obscures it from observers in the Outer Rim.
There are a few obvious conclusions that can be drawn from these facts. First, the Legion is not stable. An obscuration of the central star implies the presence of a significant amount of dust and debris in the system. If the worldships are small, that debris can provide enough drag to draw them down into the Core — and the central star. If the worldships are large, their mutual gravity will draw them together in the sort of billiards interactions that were common in our early solar system. (See: Giant Impact.)
Either of these instabilities can be countered by expending fuel, and may not lead to catastrophic issues immediately, but over the very long implied lifetime of the Legion, it would surely come up at some point.
Regardless, exactly what happens depends on the answers to a few critical questions: How big are the worldships? How far apart are they? How big is the Legion’s star? How close are the worldships to the star?
From the narrative descriptions, we can start making a few approximate guesses.
Let’s start with the worldships. We know that they’re biological masterpieces grown around a metal framework. But, how big is the core? It takes our protagonists a week or two to circumnavigate the lowest level, but they aren’t going too fast due to injuries and terrain. So, let’s assume that they’re going about one mile per 15 minutes, for about eight hours a day, for twenty days, to be generous. (I loaned someone the book, so I don’t have the exact details in front of me just now.) That will get you a distance of 640 miles. That implies that the worldship’s inner core has a diameter of about 204 miles (or about 326 km).
Coincidentally, this is about the same diameter as the asteroid Interamnia, which is actually the fifth largest asteroid in the asteroid belt (at least by diameter, and probably also by mass). Its mass is likely around 4×10^19 kg, which gives it a density between that of water and rock. It’s probably a porous block with plenty of carbon in it. Given that mass and its diameter, the gravitational acceleration at its surface is about 0.1 m/s^2 on the surface… which is about 0.01 g, or 1% of the gravity at Earth’s surface.
That’s not much gravity.
From the description, there’s enough gravity that simply jumping upwards won’t get the protagonists out of the bottom level, the fall from the upper levels is actually dangerous, and no one can leap over the piles of corpses in a single bound. Let’s assume we’ve got at least Martian gravity down there, which is 3.7 m/s^2 or about 0.38g. That’s enough to be able to hold onto a thin atmosphere and for walking to not be overly ridiculous.
To get that much gravity, we need the center of the worldship to have a mass of about 1.5×10^21 kg. That’s about 50 times more massive than Interamnia. It implies that the core has a density of about 81,000 kg/m^3, or 81 g/cm^3. Water has a density of 1 g/cm^3; rock is around 3 g/cm^2, depending on the rock; metals will be around 5 g/cm^3 and higher. Earth’s mean density is around 5.5 g/cm^2, since it has a lot of metal in the core which is also compressed by gravity.
Uranium, a very dense metal, has a density of just under 19 g/cm^3, which isn’t enough — but you wouldn’t want to make a dwarf planet out of that anyway. Osmium, the densest metal that Wikipedia bothers to list, only comes in at 22.6 g/cm^3. So, ordinary materials aren’t going to cut it.
81 g/cm^3? I’m not sure what could get you there exactly, in any pure form. White dwarf degenerate matter and neutronium are both way too dense to be the sole component. But there aren’t really any ordinary matter solutions to get you there. I’m left proposing that the core of the worldships is partially a small core of some kind of degenerate matter, and the rest is support structure keeping that degenerate matter… degenerate. Given the slowly dying nature of many of the worldships, being wrapped around degenerate matter also has some poetic appeal.
Leaving that problem aside, the core of our worldship has a mass around 10^21 kg, just a little bit bigger than the mass of Ceres. This is firmly in the realm of dwarf planets. I can safely assume that the thickness of the inhabitable levels is at most kilometers, given the lack of change in pressure and gravity from top to bottom.
This makes our worldships both small enough to coexist for a long time in similar orbits (see: Ceres, asteroid belt), while large enough to not suffer too excessively from drag in the debris disk. However, this all depends on what you consider to be a “long time.” Over even relatively short periods in the real asteroid belt, it’s possible for asteroids to interact via gravity little by little. Some will, eventually, be kicked out — or kicked in. Collisions are rare, but also possible.
The will be worse for the worldships. They’re more massive, and therefore pull on each other more heavily. They’re more likely to disrupt each others’ orbits. How bad this gets — or how quickly orbital problems arise — depends on another critical factor:
How big is the artificial sun?
We have several constraints to satisfy — including a short relative distance between worldships, in terms of effort to fly between them; a wide enough habitable zone for the distinction of the “Outer” Legion to make sense; and possibly a debris disk or dusk cloud obscuring the central star from the outer worldships.
I could do a bunch of math at this point, but I’ll skip that for now and suggest that we’re probably looking at a small-ish star, significantly smaller than our Sun, so the worldships could be closer to it and to each other. That also makes it easier to make the darn thing artificially — whatever that means.
And, since we’re talking about a broad habitable range and a small star, I’ll just put a link here to the Wikipedia page about TRAPPIST-1. In short, those conditions aren’t too difficult to imaging satisfying.
Although I really do wonder where they left the star factory.
I just realized… essentially all of the biotech that exists in the worldships comes from people giving birth.
Who gives birth to the ammo for the cephalopod guns???