ONCE SPACE PROBES started sending back unexpected findings about the other planets in the Solar System, science fiction/fantasy (SFF) writers had to adjust their storylines to the new reality. One of those writers gave us the following story about—well, let's be charitable and call them the unintended consequences brought about by . . .
"The Hole Man."
By Larry Niven (born 1938).
Illustration by Jack Gaughan (1930-85; HERE).
First appearance: Analog, January 1974.
Reprints page (HERE).
Short story (13 pages).
Online at The Luminist Archives (HERE; it will be necessary to download the entire issue as a PDF; go down to text page 93).
(Note: Text is faded but legible.)
"It doesn't matter if a weapon is deliberately crafted for murder or a naturally-occurring phenomenon. What matters is its effect."
It's remarkable—you could even say shocking—how a thing that's otherwise normally harmless can be so deadly . . . .
~ Andrew Lear:
". . . the man with the black hole between his ears."
~ Captain Childrey:
". . . looked startled. He slapped his right thigh and brought the hand away bloody."
~ The unnamed narrator:
"That was probably the most unique murder weapon in history."
References and resources:
- "Mariner probes": The first ones to explore worlds other than Earth's moon:
"The Mariner program consisted of ten exploration probes launched between 1962 and 1973. The spacecraft were designed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to investigate the planets Mars, Venus, and Mercury" (Historic Spacecraft HERE; also see Wikipedia HERE).
- "Sirbonis Palus": A Martian feature that has been declared obsolete; the "palus" refers to a bog:
"Serbonian Bog (Greek: Σιρβωνίδος λίμνη, romanized: Sirbōnidos limnē, Latin: Sirbonis Lacus, Arabic: مستنقع سربون, romanized: Mastaboqwah Serbon) was an area of wetland in a lagoon lying between the eastern Nile Delta, the Isthmus of Suez, Mount Casius, and the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt, with Lake Sirbonis at its center. The lagoon still exists, and is the second-largest in Egypt. The bog is used as a metaphor in English for an inextricable situation" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "Dyson spheres": A nifty idea, attainable in two or three hundred years:
"A Dyson sphere is a hypothetical megastructure that completely encompasses a star and captures a large percentage of its power output. The concept is a thought experiment that attempts to explain how a spacefaring civilization would meet its energy requirements once those requirements exceed what can be generated from the home planet's resources alone. Only a tiny fraction of a star's energy emissions reaches the surface of any orbiting planet. Building structures encircling a star would enable a civilization to harvest far more energy" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "Project Ozma": Nice try, but no joy:
"Project Ozma was a SETI experiment started in 1960 by Cornell University astronomer Frank Drake, at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Green Bank at Green Bank, West Virginia. The object of the experiment was to search for signs of life in distant planetary systems through interstellar radio waves. The program was named after Princess Ozma, ruler of the fictional land of Oz, inspired by L. Frank Baum's supposed communication with Oz by radio to learn of the events in the books taking place after The Emerald City of Oz" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "landing in Mare Cimmerium": A Martian feature that's undergone a name change:
"Terra Cimmeria is a large Martian region, centered at 34.7°S 145°E and covering 5,400 km (3,400 mi) at its broadest extent. It covers latitudes 15 N to 75 S and longitudes 170 to 260 W. It lies in the Eridania quadrangle. Terra Cimmeria is one part of the heavily cratered, southern highland region of the planet. The Spirit rover landed near the area" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "locked in by tides": It explains why we can see practically none of the Moon's backside:
"Tidal locking (also called gravitational locking, captured rotation and spin–orbit locking), in the best-known case, occurs when an orbiting astronomical body always has the same face toward the object it is orbiting. This is known as synchronous rotation: the tidally locked body takes just as long to rotate around its own axis as it does to revolve around its partner" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "other giant organic molecules suitable for genetic coding": Maybe, maybe not:
"Hypothetical types of biochemistry are forms of biochemistry agreed to be scientifically viable but not proven to exist at this time. The kinds of living organisms currently known on Earth all use carbon compounds for basic structural and metabolic functions, water as a solvent, and DNA or RNA to define and control their form. If life exists on other planets or moons it may be chemically similar, though it is also possible that there are organisms with quite different chemistries – for instance, involving other classes of carbon compounds, compounds of another element, or another solvent in place of water" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "Angstrom": Very, very, very tiny:
"The angstrom is a metric unit of length equal to 10−10 m; that is, one ten-billionth of a metre, 0.1 nanometre, or 100 picometres. Its symbol is Å, a letter of the Swedish alphabet" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "the Big Bang": It's quite popular (but then so is twerking):
"The Big Bang theory is the prevailing cosmological model explaining the existence of the observable universe from the earliest known periods through its subsequent large-scale evolution" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "quantum black hole": Just like the angstrom, size-wise:
"Micro black holes, also called quantum mechanical black holes or mini black holes, are hypothetical tiny black holes, for which quantum mechanical effects play an important role. The concept that black holes may exist that are smaller than stellar mass was introduced in 1971 by Stephen Hawking" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "neutronium": It makes steel look like gossamer:
"Neutronium (sometimes shortened to neutrium, also referred to as neutrite) is a hypothetical substance composed purely of neutrons. Science fiction and popular literature have used the term 'neutronium' to refer to an imaginary highly dense phase of matter composed primarily of neutrons, with properties useful to the story" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "the Martian desert scene": The mere concept of a desert has many evocative associations that authors have exploited from time immemorial:
"Before, and certainly after, the results sent back by the Viking landers, some science fiction set on Mars portrayed it as a desert planet" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "the Percival Lowell": Named for the American polymath who almost single-handedly started the Mars craze:
"Percival Lawrence Lowell (1855–1916) was an American businessman, author, mathematician, and astronomer who fueled speculation that there were canals on Mars. He founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and formed the beginning of the effort that led to the discovery of Pluto 14 years after his death" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "gravity radiation": A fairly new idea in the long history of physics:
"Gravitational waves are disturbances in the curvature of spacetime, generated by accelerated masses, that propagate as waves outward from their source at the speed of light. They were proposed by Henri Poincaré in 1905 and subsequently predicted in 1916 by Albert Einstein on the basis of his general theory of relativity. Gravitational waves transport energy as gravitational radiation, a form of radiant energy similar to electromagnetic radiation" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "pulsars—rotating neutron stars": Don't go there:
"A pulsar (from pulsating radio source) is a highly magnetized rotating compact star (usually neutron stars but also white dwarfs) that emits beams of electromagnetic radiation out of its magnetic poles" (Wikipedia HERE).
"A neutron star is the collapsed core of a massive supergiant star, which had a total mass of between 10 and 25 solar masses, possibly more if the star was especially metal-rich. Except for black holes, and some hypothetical objects (e.g. white holes, quark stars, and strange stars), neutron stars are the smallest and densest currently known class of stellar objects" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "mascons": They're lumpy:
"In astronomy and astrophysics, a mass concentration (or mascon) is a region of a planet or moon's crust that contains a large positive gravitational anomaly" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "One day Mars will be gone": It all depends on what "day" you choose:
"Ultimately, the Solar System is stable in that none of the planets are likely to collide with each other or be ejected from the system in the next few billion years. Beyond this, within five billion years or so Mars's [orbital] eccentricity may grow to around 0.2, such that it lies on an Earth-crossing orbit, leading to a potential collision" (Wikipedia HERE).
- Much like Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov contrived an ingenious high-tech method of murder (or was it murder?) in his story "The Billiard Ball," featured (HERE).
- Laurence van Cott Niven, with his degree in mathematics, is one of a select few of genuine giants in the sub-field of hard science fiction; see Wikipedia (HERE), the SFE (HERE), The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (HERE), the ISFDb (HERE), and the IMDb (HERE; 7 credits). His webpage is (HERE).
- We last communed with Larry Niven a couple of years ago concerning his murder mystery "The Alibi Machine" (HERE).