Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ken MacLeod's "Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" (short story, space opera): Underdog becomes the empire maker

Readable story, but I would not have missed it had I never seen this.

Most of the stuff is familiar rehashed, sometimes in nonsensical ways. And there are a lot of complicated sounding but incomprehensible sentences.

Download full text or MP3.

Story summary.

Story is set in a future where earth no longer has liquid water & is effectively a dead world. Humans are spread to many worlds, & naming earth is taboo (I could not figure out why) - it is referred to as "Moon's primary"!

Unnamed narrator is a young man forced on a mission by circumstances that can only be called imaginative. He was chasing a woman in some space habitat ("Long Station One"), & she was one of the wives in the harem of local lord ("Tycoon"). He now must pay fines so huge going on this mission is the only way he can escape.

Anyway - the mission. There is a human civilization in orbit around a star called Wolf 359 somewhere. It once comprised of a lot of artificial habitats in orbit around that star, & the civilization was administered by a limited liability company rather than a government.

Company crashed a decade earlier, & nothing has since been heard from this civilization. Civil Worlds, the dominant human galaxy-spanning government, would like to know what happened. Narrator goes there to investigate.

He finds no space habitats, only a single nearly terrestrial planet ("New Earth") that should not have been there, & local humans living in primitive conditions. Here he will learn that after the fall of local administration, some fanatics came up with the solution of "starting social evolution all over again: to build a new planet in the image of the old home planet, and settle it with people whose genes had been reset to the default human baseline."

So they made the planet in the image of earth - note they were competent enough to have made the planet from orbital debris, so they could go back to primitive conditions!!!

AI controlling the ship narrator traveled in has concluded that these locals living in stone age conditions pose a major threat to rest of humans spanning the galaxy, & must be exterminated!! Message has gone out to home world; attacks will come in 37 years!

But our hero, the narrator, has other plans. He plays king maker, makes a powerful local king, uses his ship's AI to build factories, & then space habitats where these people will now move from this silly earth-like planet!! He will also make them build a pile of weapons.

When the attacks come, locals are not only unharmed, but in a position to retaliate. They quickly subdue rest of humanity, & are now the seat of this space empire!

Oh - and there is a curious mode of interstellar travel. Via a catapult ("Long Tube"), conceptually of the kind seen in Heinlein's "Moon is a Harsh Mistress", & Clarke's "Maelstrom II" & a subplot of his "Islands in the Sky". But those were simple ones - to launch payload from moon to earth. These are to launch payload, including live (under hibernation) payload, for interstellar distances at speeds relative which 10% of the speed of light looks puny!!! Payload accelerated electromagnetically "at 30g" in a tube 180 times the distance of earth from Sun - 27 billion km long!!! I prefer old school space stories, thank you - at least Heinlein & Clarke knew what they were talking about.


  1. Rusty speculates if "Wolf 359" in title is linked to "real planet Wolf 562 c" discovered last year?

Collected in.

  1. David Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer (Ed)'s "Year's Best SF 13" (2008).

Fact sheet.

"Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?", short story, review
First published: Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan (Eds)' "The New Space Opera", HarperCollins/Eos, 2007.
Rating: B
Nominated for Hugo Awards 2008 in short story category.