Space Hibernation: Five Stories Featuring Sleeper Ships

Space is way, way big. Bigger than you can imagine. Compared to the size of the Milky Way (which is only our local galaxy, one of 225 billion), even very fast ships are likely to be comparatively slow. Among the options open to travellers who do not want to invest large fractions of their conscious lives getting from A to B: hibernation. Given the correct technology, travellers can just take a chill pill and sleep the dark light years away.

How well this works in practice depends on a number of factors, such as the degree to which metabolism is slowed in hibernation, the frequency of lost luggage scenarios involving sleepers, and of course, the need by authors for dramatic scenarios. Consider these five works featuring hibernation.

 

The Winds of Gath by E. C. Tubb (1967)

Determined to find his lost home world, Dumarest of Earth travels from world to world. Itinerate labourers like Dumarest must travel by the cheapest method available: cold sleep, AKA “Low Passage.” True, the odds of waking from Low Passage are only five in six, assuming the traveller is well-fed and healthy, but it is a risk Dumarest and his companions accept.

Surviving yet another gamble with Low, Dumarest is confronted by yet another Low reality: there is no protection or warning for the traveller should the starship captain alter destination in flight. Rather than waking on prosperous Broome, Dumarest is stuck on tide-locked Gath. Gath is not prosperous and escape may prove quite difficult. If escape is possible at all.

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Traveller by Marc Miller (1977)

Not a novel (though there’s a game manual, not to mention abundant support material), but an SF roleplaying game. Traveller drew on many works, one of which was E. C. Tubb’s Dumarest of Terra series (with which readers may be familiar with from the previous entry, if not from having read any Dumarest novels). Many player characters were given a retirement benefit that included tickets entitling them to one or more Low Passage trips. These trips, true to their Dumarest inspiration, were both inexpensive and had a one in six change of killing the passenger.

Dumarest, of course, was the protagonist of a long running series and thus protected by Tubb’s need to keep his lead alive. This was not true for Traveller characters—unsurprising for an RPG where characters could die while being generated.

This may explain why it is I don’t recall any player character in any of the campaigns I was in ever actually using their Low Passages. I do recall the lengthy campaign in which our increasingly depressed ship’s doctor failed to revive any of the ship’s non-player character Low passengers.

One wonders about the mindset of a company offering retirement benefits that have the same odds of killing the retiree as does Russian roulette…

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The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke

Faced with certain doom in the form of an impending nova and lacking any practical means of sending people to other star systems, humanity did what it always does. It found a practical solution using the means at hand—in this case dispatching seedships to gestate colonists at the destination—before awaiting their demise with the dispassionate calm and grace characteristic of humans keenly aware of impending mortality.

Some centuries later, the colony world Thalassa is astounded to learn their cousins on Earth did not settle for inevitable death. At very nearly the last moment, Earth cracked the problem of zero-point energy. ZPE-powered starships coupled with cold sleep meant legions of Terrestrials could be dispatched to non-exploding star systems. A mishap en route forces the starship Magellan to make an unscheduled stop at Thalassa. What will Terrestrials and Thalassans make of each other?

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An Oath of Dogs by Wendy N. Wagner (2017)

The Songheuser company was gracious enough to offer recovering trauma victim Kate Standish a job in Canaan Lake, on the life-bearing moon Huginn. The trip to Huginn took a year. No problem for Kate or her dog; they spent the year sleeping while the starship made its way from Earth to Huginn. As 2020 showed, a year is not such a long time to spend in suspended animation.

It was, however, sufficient time for Duncan Chambers, Kate’s intended boss on Huginn, to vanish, leaving Kate as Canaan Lake’s new communications manager. Songheuser is focused on the bottom line; they aren’t at all interested in what happened to Duncan Chambers. Kate, on the other hand, is very interested. Her curiosity draws her into the complex affairs of a world about which she was insufficiently briefed.

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Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

Mitigating climate change on Earth is fine for the little people and their government representatives. The one percent, on the other hand, can simply up sticks and head for Tau Ceti’s pristine world. It may take the Andrews-Zubrin sail ship a century to reach paradise. No problem for the rich, who will sleep the decades away. Running the Dormire is a task left to nobodies, crew successively cloned as need demands.

Twenty-five years into the voyage, Maria Arena’s latest clone wakes. On escaping from her clone pod, she is confronted with a series of disquieting revelations: her predecessor was murdered, along with the rest of the crew. A new set of clones have been activated; like Maria, they are all missing twenty-five years of memories that did not get recorded and passed on. Which is why it remains unclear exactly WHY the Dormire is off-course. Or why someone has reprogrammed the food replicators to produce only poisonous hemlock. Most concerning? Since the ship is three light-years from the nearest human community, the architect of the Dormire’s misfortune must have been on the Dormire…and may still be on board.

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No doubt you have your own favourites. Feel free to mention them in the comments below.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.

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