Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Stephen Baxter's "Sheena 5": When humans seeded an alien race

Pretty much every assumption in this very readable story is way too far fetched. And still, what a fantastic story.

I found key messages of the story are easy to identify with - or may be I am biased:

  1. Living on the frontier leads to more competent species.
  2. Fast turnaround in a process produces better results.
Download full story text here.

Story summary.
Sometime about a third of the way through twenty-first century, world is a nasty place. Science & technology is pretty much dead. Militaries are strong. Petty conflicts over resources are common.

Dan Ystebo of NASA has managed to sell a rather fantastic & far fetched story to Senator Maura Della for fixing the world's problems. A little asteroid, Reinmuth (code 2018JW), will be moved to earth's orbit, & used for mining things that are anyway in abundant supply on earth! This will be done by building structures on asteroid that will act like rockets to move asteroid to earth orbit - as in many other stories.

But the really far fetched twist is - no humans will go there. A squid will have her mind genetically enhanced to make her smart, & to make her communicate with humans - particularly Dan! She will go in her tiny water habitat that will be part of the ship. No need to bother getting her back safely - since squids' natural life is only 2 years (I haven't verified it from other sources).

Sheena 5 is the squid that will go. Apparently, 5th in the line of engineered squid. Since she can never leave her water habitat, she will control an army of small robots that will actually do the construction job aboard the asteroid.

What no one foresaw was: she got pregnant just before the trip. Since she is smart, she gave birth in space in a way that hid the fact from mission control for too long. Now her craft is on asteroid, the rocket is fitted to asteroid & pushing it towards earth, but she has too many babies in her too small a habitat!

Turns out 4 of her babies are very smart; rest are typical dumb squids. Dumber ones will get eaten by their smarter siblings. But soon, the life support starts getting overstretched.

That is when Sheena 6, one of the smarter kids, makes Dan educate her on how to use local resources & her robots to extend the habitat. Expansion is done, & all is well for the moment.

Dan's lab is taken over by military, people lose interest in Project Bootstrap - the one that would have brought asteroid, Dan moves out. Years pass - less than a decade, I think.

Then, one fine day, someone manning Hubble II telescope decides to have a peek. And all hell breaks loose.

Not only have the squids made their little asteroid wholly habited, they have ships all over Sol! Reinmuth is headed to earth, & humans are afraid. Near end, we will see hints of the doom of humanity - as nuclear attack against Reinmuth fails, & it's entering earth's atmosphere. Sheena 46 appears to be in charge.

Fact sheet.
"Sheena 5", short story, review
First published: Analog, May 2000
Rating: A

See also.
  1. Arthur Clarke's "The Next Tenants": In the wake of WWII, a man has lost hope in future of humanity. And is helping termites become sentient.
This story is included in the following anthologies.
  1. David Hartwell (Ed)'s "Year's Best SF 6".