Encounters with Alpha Centauri

We welcome Stephen Baxter to the Gollancz blog with a guest post about Buzz Aldrin’s book, Encounter with Tiber.

As Ultima is the second book, after Proxima, in my duology largely set in the Alpha Centauri system, I decided it was appropriate to take a look back at an earlier sf saga of alien life in that system, written by the second man to walk on the Moon.

I saw Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin in the flesh just once, when he attended LACon, the 1996 worldcon in Los Angeles, to promote his new book, Encounter with Tiber, written in collaboration with well-established genre author John Barnes (Hodder & Stoughton, 1996). It was the best-attended programme item I saw, and remarkably moving; Aldrin received a standing ovation just for being there.

Encounter with Tiber is a science fiction novel: a long, multi-millennial epic of alien contact. It comes with formidable trappings: diagrams of starships and orbits to Mars, lists of experts consulted, even a foreword by Arthur C Clarke. But the book’s primary function, as Buzz admitted in LA, was to articulate his visions of near-future human spaceflight. Buzz wanted to set out for us one scheme, at least, of where we could go from here: step by step from the present, by feasible stages, to what he called the ‘warp drive stuff’ that will take us to the stars.

On Aldrin’s most famous day, of course, he followed Neil Armstrong out of a lunar lander to become the second human to walk on the surface of a new world. It was the pinnacle of a fine career as aviator and astronaut. It is less well known that Aldrin’s core expertise was in orbital mechanics, in which he holds a research degree – the other astronauts called him ‘Dr Rendezvous’ – and he saved the Gemini 12 mission when he manually plotted rendezvous trajectories following a computer failure.

But Aldrin’s life after Apollo’s splashdown was not easy. He suffered the Moonwalker’s double whammy of intense public scrutiny and the end of his astronaut career. This very private man bravely went public in a confessional autobiography, admitting he suffered alcoholism and was hospitalised for depression.

But in the 1980s he found solace by returning to orbital mechanics, and he began to develop the schemes for returning to space and reaching the Moon and Mars he set out in Encounter with Tiber. In fact, the novel was just one effort in Aldrin’s lifelong campaign for space – for example he was chairman of the National Space Society.

As for the novel itself, the story proper begins in the year 2002, with a prophetic space shuttle crash (Columbia fell in 2003). And, in a rather unlikely fashion, the accident changes the world. The resulting Presidential Commission uses the opportunity to put together a visionary and achievable long-term plan for expansion in space. This is all based on Aldrin’s own favoured concepts, such as wrapping an airplane around a Ukrainian Zenit rocket, and using empty fuel tanks for space construction. Meanwhile, a Branson-like entrepreneur bootstraps funding for space with another Aldrin scheme based on space tourism, lotteries and public subscriptions. This is enjoyable stuff, though you have to withstand a lot of Aldrin lectures: ‘Prior to computers, most many-body problems in orbital mechanics – that is, problems that involved more than two bodies attracting each other gravitationally – were not soluble by any means available …’ (p72).

As we move out from the Earth, space-based scientists pick up a signal from intelligent life in the Alpha Centauri system, a starfaring species known as ‘Tiberians’. The signal, directed at Tiberian colonists rather than humans, indicates that ‘Encyclopaedias’ – information-laden artefacts – are waiting to be picked up in the solar system. These are placed, conveniently enough, on the Moon and Mars, and so Aldrin is able to set out further future visions: of a return to the Moon, and his ‘Mars Cycler’, for instance, a space station which would ferry endlessly between Earth and Mars. As the Encyclopaedias are opened up, through flashbacks we follow the misadventures of Tiberians who journeyed to Sol millennia ago in search of a new home, as their old world was in danger of demolition by space debris. The Tiberians sought to pose as gods and dominate the humans, but – in a neat inversion of our usual assumptions about such encounters – this went horribly wrong, and the Tiberians were themselves overcome and enslaved. In the end, after a failed attempt to terraform Mars, the stranded Tiberians moved on to the stars, and their brief presence kick-started human technological expansion.

Aldrin admitted he was not a big sf reader. Nevertheless Encounter with Tiber offers echoes of the novels which shaped his thinking. The influence of Arthur C Clarke and of Carl Sagan’s Contact (1985) are pretty plain. The alien relic on the Moon is a device familiar from 2001. The idea of the Tiberians kick-starting human progress probably comes from von Daniken, which Buzz referred to as an inspiration. Encounter with Tiber is science fiction as written by someone who has only read the sort of sf which reaches outside the regular audience.

As you read the book you hunt for fragments of insight into how it must feel to be a human being who has walked on the Moon. And there is some reward. Aldrin himself exists in this future history: there is an ‘Aldrin Elementary’ school, and a Mars Cycler spacecraft called ‘Aldrin’, and so on. A section heading reminds us that the first words actually spoken after Eagle touched the Moon were not Armstrong’s ‘one small step’ but Aldrin’s report of a ‘contact light’. Most interesting is the story of the astronauts’ attempt to retrieve the lunar Encyclopaedia. Uniquely, this is a story of the Moon as told by someone who has been there: ‘For the first time, what he had dreamed of since he was a small boy had happened: his boots were planted on the soil of another world, and when he looked up he saw, not home, but only stars. He might have been anywhere in the universe at that moment, for every galaxy must be full of small, stony worlds …’ (p123). These are insights evidently polished smooth by three decades of reflection and retelling, but they are memorable nonetheless.

In 1996, Aldrin in person was a big, supple man, fit and tanned. His speaking style and phrasing were clumsy, his words illustrated by sweeping gestures of one free hand, his face flat and severe. He had become an iconic figure of our age – a stranded Moonwalker, bypassed by history. And yet, 27 years after Apollo, here he was in front of us in LA, aged 66, struggling to make this ‘one last big effort’ to communicate his vision to the general public. Encounter with Tiber is far from a perfect book – but it does indeed have a vision. Without Verne’s vision, there would have been no von Braun. Perhaps we need books like this, periodically updating our vision of the future, and our hopes.

Stephen Baxter’s Proxima is available now from Gollancz in paperback and eBook, and Ultima is out in trade paperback and eBook from 27th November 2014.