Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Big, Dumb, but Eminently Loveable

Science fiction loves its big, dumb objects.  Although almost always macguffins, the best are mysterious, creepy and mind-blowingly awesome.  They epitomise SF’s sensawunda at its best and I love them.  So, to celebrate them, below the fold, in no particular order, are some of my favourite.  Where I’ve read and reviewed books that refer to some of these objects, I’ve linked to my review on GoodReads.

Warning: there may be some spoilers ahead.

Dyson Sphere

I think I first encountered the idea of a Dyson sphere in the Star Trek:TNG episode ‘Relics’, when the Enterprise encountered one. The idea of dismantling a solar system and using the constituent components to build a shell around a whole star, to enclose all the energy output by that star and create a mind-bogglingly huge living area within is, well, mind-boggling. Although the idea is loosely derived from ideas by the physicist Freeman Dyson, he dislikes the concept as it is usually described in SF as being the least plausible version of what he described. After Star Trek, the next big impact that Dyson spheres made on me were in Stephan Baxter’s sequel to Wells’ The Time Machine, The Time Ships. Here, the time traveller’s previous journey had changed history so the Morlocks never devolved into the cannibalistic monsters we saw, but became highly intelligent and enclosed the sun in a Dyson sphere. This same book also has the marvellously creepy image of the stars in the sky going out, one by one, as they the galaxy is colonised and each star is slowly enclosed in a Dyson sphere.


Take a Dyson sphere, cut out a slice through the middle and you’re left with a Ringworld. A strip of matter, maybe a thousand miles wide, encircling a star. Larry Niven came up with the idea in the eponymous novel, a book which had better ideas than implementation, in my opinion, although I never read any of the sequels that revisited his Ringworld.  One thing that I will always remember though is the picture that we build up, following the explorers of the Ringworld, of a very high-technology civilisation that fell, and fell so far that it may never rise again. Haunting.

The Excession

In the late, lamented Iain M. Banks novel of the same name, the Excession is an object that defies the science of even the Culture’s Minds, and thus it becomes something very desirable.  What I love about this BDO is its very inscrutability.  It just sits there doing nothing, and thus drives the Minds a little crazy, setting off all sorts of machinations.  It’s a deus ex machina in the best sense, as it drives the plot forward without actually being an active player.

The Golden Ships

This one is a little obscure.  One of the stories in Cordwainer Smith’s ‘Instrumentality of Mankind’ universe, collected in The Rediscovery of Man is called Golden the Ship Was-Oh! Oh! Oh! The hero of this story pilots a great golden starship, miles in diameter, in a war between the Instrumentality and a totalitarian government that is trying to conquer the galaxy.  I don’t want to say more to avoid spoiling the story, but there is a lovely image presented in the story of this giant spaceship dancing delicately amongst the fighters sent against it, like a jet amongst a flock of starlings, yet always dodging, never being hit.

The Monolith

Yes, the original monolith, TMA-1 on the Moon, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, wasn’t very big, but its siblings out at Saturn/Jupiter were big enough to swallow a small spaceship and later, to compress Jupiter enough to ignite it.  Come to that, they’re not dumb either, being intelligent enough to be make judgements on sentient races.  But I’m including them anyway, because of the marvellous sense of enigma that surrounds them, such as the suggestion that the ratio of their dimensions (measured as 1:4:9 in the books) goes beyond three dimensions and the interference in Human history to bring true sentience to our ancestors.


Diaspar is the name of Mankind’s last city in Arthur C. Clarke’s magnificent The City and the Stars.  It has stood for a thousand million years and will stand, protected by its ‘eternity circuits’, until the sun swallows up the Earth.  It is a giant womb, protecting and nurturing the last remnant of Humanity left on Earth, or so the legends say, as the city is closed and nobody has ventured outside in millennia.  The City and the Stars made a huge impression on me when I first read it, and Diaspar was a major part of that.  The mythology that Clarke creates with Diaspar, its society and inhabitants in such a short space of time really makes it come alive for me.


Take one planet, wind a river all around it and place every Human who ever lived on the banks, bringing them back to life every time they die, and with food being supplied by some unknown means three times a day. Now that is one hell of a mystery. Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld books take this intriguing concept and play it out, with a number of historical figures teaming up to try and solve the mystery of the River.  To be honest, they lose steam as they go on, the first two being the best, and the eventual reveal of what the Riverworld is is perhaps a damp squib, but as a concept, I still find it very powerful.  The deliberate terraforming of the Riverworld to form this mighty world-spanning river valley is a fantastic image and although its creators turn out to be less godlike than they appeared, the world itself never disappoints.

The Way

Take one large asteroid (say the size of Juno), hollow it out into seven chambers, fill six of them with advanced technology and make the seventh one go on forever.  You’ve now got Thistledown (the asteroid) and The Way, a pocket universe a few kilometres in diameter but infinitely long, which acts as a gateway to other universes that branch off it.  Do I really need to justify this as awesome?  Any of the individual components that I just described would make a brilliant setting for a story in and of themselves, putting them all together (as Greg Bear’s Eon did) is rather mind-blowing.

Sector General

Sector Twelve General Hospital is a gigantic multi-species hospital in space whose staff aim to heal any species of the galactic federation, as well as any other species that they find in need of help.  Full of improbable creatures (the doctors no less so than the patients), Sector General truly is a marvel, deserving its place in this list.  It first appeared in a series of stories by Northern Irish author James White, the first collection being Hospital Station and became quickly beloved.  There’s even a place for an in-joke in the four letter species categorisation system that the hospital uses, referencing the Glasgow SF group ‘Friends of Kilgore Trout’.  The hospital caters for the usual oxygen breathers, but also for aquatic life forms, high- and low-gravity creatures and those that exist on the direct absorption of radiation.  While it’s not as big as some of the structures on this list, the vision of its author is grand and wide, making it deserving of a place.  That vision is of a peaceful galaxy, where doctors are the heroes, not military men and where the galaxy comes together in the name of peace and healing.  That’s something I can get behind any day.

So that’s my list.  It’s mostly drawn from literature, with some straying into film.  What have I missed?  What would you include on your list, or what do you think that I’ve included that doesn’t belong there?


Raj says:

From Judith on the LJ feed:

You’ve got several of my favourites there, especially Diaspar.

Is Rama big enough to count?

Raj says:

From Iain on Twitter:

Checked for presence of Excession, was not disappointed. You pass… this time…

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