Visiting Tau Ceti

Tau Ceti is one of our nearest celestial neighbors, so it shouldn't be a huge surprise that it's a frequent destination for authors.

Visiting Tau Ceti

Happy Friday!

Short newsletter this week: I was in Pennsylvania for a chunk of the week, and I've suddenly found myself in the midst of a handful of deadlines that are coming up quickly, so most of my attention will be focused on that for the next couple of weeks.

It's been a bit of a slow week on top of that, so I'm reprinting a fun piece that I published a couple of years ago on The Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog: Visiting Tau Ceti.

Image: Andrew Liptak

Visiting Tau Ceti

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora, a generation ship makes its way to the titular new world, a moon orbiting one of the planets in Tau Ceti’s system. With this novel, Robinson is exploring new territory (what shape would a generation ship really be on by journey’s end?) and old: just 12 light years away, Tau Ceti is one of Earth’s closest neighbors, and it has been a frequent stop for science fiction authors.

Why do so many authors set books within this so-close-yet-so-far galactic locale? I asked several of them to explain Tau Ceti’s gravitational pull.

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin visits the star in her Hugo-winning political thought experiment, set on the moon and planet system of Urras and Anarres.

In some of my early SF stories or novels, I breezily mentioned the Cetians, or the Hairy Cetians. Tau Ceti being a fairly familiar star name, “Cetian” didn’t have to be explained as Those Who Come from the Tau Ceti Solar System.

She noted that she didn’t know many specifics about the star, except that it is relatively close to Earth, and it is similar to our own sun, and therefore more likely to have its own planetary system that would support life (life being key for most any story, let alone sci-fi).

Downbelow Station, by C.J. Cherryh
C.J. Cherryh took a different approach: in Downbelow Station, Tau Ceti is the home to Pell Station, which orbits Downbelow, one of the system’s planets. It’s part of a much larger human civilization that has pushed out into the galaxy, and met Downbelow’s native race, the Downers. She used Tau Ceti because it was close, but also because she was able to study the planet directly, using a computer to track its location in the night sky:

Star mapping has been one of my hobbies: back in the day of Atari computing, I used a 48K machine and a lot of disks and tractor feed paper to work out the three-dimensional position of every star in the sun’s neighborhood, up to 40 light years. I then converted this to a model, in sheets of glass with sticky dots, so I could see it in 3-d display (before computer modeling made this easier)—and I plotted the route we might take to the stars, by hopping some red dwarf systems and developing mining stations and trade, leading ultimately toward UV Ceti, but bypassing that rather dangerous star in favor of its much nicer near neighbor Tau Ceti, as Pell’s star, postulating planets.

I also used Ep. Eri. (Viking) as a major mining post, and certain other specific stars as part of my universe, then worked out the number of ships and schedule of ship calls it would take to make it work. This is the background of the Alliance-Union universe. I found that the stars existed in ‘threads,’ and that there were structures in the closeup diagram of position, and was later delighted to see galactic mapping turning up some of the same patterns (on a far grander scale) that I was curious about in my little Atari project. On that schedule of ships, it was some time before the development of FTL, and Tau Ceti is the closest star that bypasses what I made the Centauri stars—site of a first, but failed attempt at a star station.

A Gift From Earth, by Larry Niven
Larry Niven took on a similar approach: he “used a cube full of colored beads, with a printed guide, showing stars around Sol,” he said. “My nearest planets come from that.” The cube, created by Don Simpson, was a visual Niven used to write the book — part of his Known Space world — in which a colony planet named Plateau exists under harsh, authoritarian rule. The system also features in another book by Niven, The Legacy of Heorot (co-written by Steven Barnes and Jerry Pournelle), in which a generation ship heads to Avalon to found a new colony.

Why choose Tau Ceti? Location, location, location: “Tau Ceti is close to Sol, and it’s close to being a Sol type star,” he said.” For all of the time I’ve been writing about it, there’s been no reason to think it doesn’t have planets. That made it a righteous site for stories.”

Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson
Finally, in selecting Tau Ceti as a major setting in Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson drew on more recent knowledge about star system anatomy. As satellites such as Kepler have definitively proven that other planets exist in our galaxy, we’ve also been learning just how different (and strange) they can be.

I wanted to tell the story of a starship expedition to a nearby star, and Tau Ceti is one of the closest stars, and is known to have several planets orbiting it. These planets that we know of are too massive for comfortable human occupation, but I asked astronomer friends if there could be Earth-sized moons orbiting these ‘large Earth/small Neptune’ planets they have found, and they said that this would be quite possible, as we couldn’t distinguish such a moon mass from the bigger mass it was orbiting, given our instrumentation at this time. So I made up these Earth-sized moons of planets that are definitely there.

Other authors have also visited Tau Ceti—as early as 1949, L. Sprauge de Camp stopped by in The Queen of Zamba; authors such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Samuel R. Delany, Dan Simmons, and Arthur C. Clarke have also stopped by our nearest celestial neighbor. Most recently, Andy Weir visits the system in his latest novel, Project Hail Mary.

If humanity is ever going to reach the stars, Tau Ceti is likely to be the first we head toward: it’s no wonder so many sci-fi writers have already imagined the journey.

Subscription reminder: If you've valued this newsletter's updates, commentary, reviews, etc., please consider subscribing! There's a Slack channel! Come chat with your fellow readers!

Currently reading

One book that I've been flipping through this week is Secrets of the Force by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman: an oral history of Star Wars. There are a ton of Star Wars nonfiction books out there, but there's usually some interesting things in each of them. I'm looking at one chapter in particular, 'Isn't that special?: Wars after Jedi', which deals with the post-Return of the Jedi era, and the growth of the EU.

It covers some of the stuff that I've written about (See my longer, six-issue series about the development of the EU), but there are some interesting details that I didn't know about: Margaret Weis's Legacy of Doom was killed because Lucasfilm asked for too many rewrites, they scored an interview with Roger MacBride Allen (who I tried to track down and couldn't find at all a couple of years ago), and some quotes about how they centered continuity. It also confirms some of the things that I'd been writing about, like the importance of the West End Games works, the novelty of the cross-platform projects like Shadows of the Empire, and a couple of other things.

I started and finished Arkady Martine's A Desolation Called Peace, and like its predecessor, A Memory Called Empire, it's a sublime read about empires and how they're held together by language and memory. Where the first dealt with a tiny station's plight against the massive Teixcalaanli Empire, in which we find ambassador Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass helping the empire deal with a new and unexpected alien threat at the edge of space. It's a book that I'll likely have some more thoughts about down the road (looking at my recently-read list, I've got a handful of books that I should probably review — The Galaxy and the Ground Within, Hummingbird Salamander, A Master of Djinn, and now this one), but in short, it's an excellent sequel. You can read my review of A Memory Called Empire here.

On the to-read list: I'm currently working my way through Brian Staveley's latest, The Empire's Ruin, which I'm enjoying so far. I was a big fan of his prior novels, and it's excellent to return to the world.

Further reading

20 years of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. 2001 was an incredible year for genre films: you had projects like Harry Potter and Fellowship of the Ring hitting theaters, but there were a bunch of others that I have a real nostalgic love for, including Stephen Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, itself based on a Brian Aldiss short story. The Ringer has a good retrospective on the film's journey from short story to screen and how it's held up nicely in the last two decades.

Amblin + Netflix. I recently wrote a bit about Amblin and Netflix's deal for some new films (for paid subscribers), but a recent article in The Wall Street Journal caught my eye with an interesting observation: the site pointed out that Netflix has been working hard to build up its catalog of original content, and in the last year, it's churned out 133 original films. That's a lot, and it comes at a cost: most of those films have garnered lower ratings, and critically, Deadline points out, "consumers also seemed to lose interest in them faster than in movies made by major studios for theatrical release, turning them off more quickly."

Think back on the films you grew up watching — how they've stuck with you as you've rewatched them time and time again. Netflix has been playing a short-term game here, and it needs to pivot over to a longer-term mindset if it wants to compete with the Disneys and Warner Bros. that are out there.

By Grabthar's Hammer! This is old — from 2014 — but I recently rewatched Galaxy Quest after word broke that there's a TV series in the works, and came across this fun oral history conducted by MTV news about how the film came together.

Pandemic Cosplay. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, and it's something that I've written about for The Book recently. Over on The Washington Post, Lauren Orsini writes about how cosplayers have adapted to a year without conventions.

Snyder's Star Wars. For paid subscribers, I wrote a bit about the news that Netflix is snapping up a film from Zack Snyder, Rebel Moon, which originated from a Star Wars film that he had apparently been developing back in 2012-2013. The parts that make up Star Wars are pretty familiar, but putting them together right is harder than it looks.

That's all for this week. As noted, I've got a couple of deadlines (as well as a pair of kids who are out of daycare for a week, so I'm not planning too much in the way of postings this coming week.)

Have a good weekend,