Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Dyson Sphere

Star Trek: The Next Generation #50
Dyson Sphere by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski
Published April 1999
Read July 15th 2019

Previous book (TNG Numbered): #49: The Q Continuum, Book 3: Q-Strike
Previous book (Published Order): Star Trek: Insurrection

Next book (TNG Numbered): #51: Double Helix, Book 1: Infection

Mass-market paperback: | |
E-book (Kindle): | |

Spoilers ahead for Dyson Sphere

From the back cover:
Two hundred million kilometers across, with a surface area that exceeds that of a quarter-billion worlds, the Dyson sphere is one of the most astounding discoveries the Federation has ever made. Now the U.S.S. Enterprise has returned to explore the awesome mysteries of the sphere. Intrigued by what is possibly the greatest archaeological treasure of all time, Captain Jean-Luc Picard hopes to discover the origin of humanoid life throughout the galaxy--or perhaps the ultimate secret of the Borg. 
But when a neutron star approaches on a collision course with the sphere, a mission of discovery becomes a desperate race against time. The many sentient species inhabiting the sphere face extinction--can even the Starship Enterprise save them all?

My thoughts:

The massive Dyson Sphere introduced in the TNG episode "Relics" is a true marvel of engineering. In fact, that is a massive understatement. The Dyson sphere as shown would be an absolutely incredible work of a civilization millions of years ahead of us with resources nearing infinite. It's a shame that the episode (one of my favorites) does not do this structure justice. The mere existence of the Dyson sphere would be an incredible coup to the science of the Federation. The surface area of the interior of such a sphere with a radius of 1 AU (astronomical unit - the average distance from Earth to the sun) would be 2.8 x 1017 km2, or about 550 million times the surface area of Earth. While our heroes in "Relics" are somewhat in awe of the sphere, I feel like they are significantly less impressed than they should be.

The Dyson sphere discovered in TNG's "Relics" would be unimaginably immense, and the interior surface seen in this shot represents the tiniest fraction of the total area of the inside of the sphere.

This is one area in which this novel, Dyson Sphere, improves upon the source material. Reading this book, I got a much better sense of the immensity of the sphere, and the sheer audacity of its creators, whoever they may be. The stellar region surrounding the sphere is described as having been completely stripped clean, which accounts for the immense resources that would have to be used to create a Dyson sphere.

Captain Dalen and her crew are descendants of the Horta discovered in TOS's "The Devil in the Dark," seen here.

Joining the crew of the Enterprise is a science vessel, the U.S.S. Darwin, crewed entirely by Horta. I loved this idea, and the character of Captain Dalen is fascinating. The concept of Horta in Starfleet is not unique to this novel, but the authors do some interesting things with the characters.

Unfortunately, Dyson Sphere falls down on a number of levels. What is there is very interesting indeed: the exploration of the interior of the sphere, the inevitable lifeforms discovered there, and the threat of a neutron star on a collision course with the sphere, which it reacts to in an unexpected way. However, the narrative is very disjointed, jumping from situation to situation, and leaving numerous plot threads hanging and unexplored. The book is full of fascinating concepts, but ultimately that's all it is: new and interesting concepts piled upon one another, with no real feeling of resolution.

Sadly, the reasons for this might have been quite out of the control of the authors. According to one of the authors, Charles Pellegrino, following Paramount's approval of the manuscript for Dyson Sphere, the editor made a number of very questionable changes to the novel. Allegedly, this editor removed a significant amount of the information about the characters, and even entire chapters from the book. This is according to Pellegrino, commenting on another reader's review on Goodreads. How much of that contributed to my dissatisfaction in parts of this novel is unknown, but it goes a long way toward explaining why much of the story feels so disjointed.

The Dyson sphere, an unimaginably immense structure, was much better represented in this novel than in its original appearance on TNG.

Another aspect that bothered me was the tendency of the characters, Picard in particular, to make grandiose assumptions or hypotheses about the nature of the Dyson sphere and the predicament it finds itself in. Picard theorizes that the Borg might have something to do with the Dyson sphere, and that the neutron star was launched towards it by a species who is at war with the builders. Both of these suppositions come with zero evidence, but are mere musings. Interesting thoughts, yes, but usually Star Trek does a better job of building a semi-solid scientific basis for its theories.

Final thoughts:
While Dyson Sphere impressed me with the ideas that it contained, it is unfortunately marred by a lack of cohesion in the plot. Sadly, this would seem to be due to forces beyond the control of the authors, as there have been reports of some strange editorial decisions with regards to this novel. Still, it was an enjoyable read with some audacious science fiction concepts that are a lot of fun to explore. 

On the possibility of a real-life Dyson sphere:

Popular Mechanics has a pretty great article about Dyson spheres and Dyson swarms, and why the former is completely unfeasible (at least at our, and Star Trek's, current level of technology and understanding). 

My next read:

Next up: Star Trek: Titan: Sword of Damocles by Geoffrey Thorne!

1 comment:

  1. Maybe the heroes are less impressed with the Dyson Sphere because they can already make a Dyson Swarm (heck, WE in real life can create a Dyson Swarm easily enough in a mere decade due to exponential building construction that would be executed by autonomous bots and use Mercury and asteroids for raw materials).

    In fact, the Federation shouldn't be impressed with the Dyson Sphere at all given that they should have the ability to build it themselves (what - build thrusters into each super-sized solar collector that acts as a multi-networked starbase platform that has replicators, sensors and transporters all connected toghether - and voila, you can have a self-replicating Swarm connect itself into a massive interconnected sphere).

    The materials themselves don't need to be Neutronium... just super hard/flexible metamaterials (which the Federation CAN build in abundance using replicators by converting energy into matter).

    You don't need millions of years more advanced technology to build a Dyson sphere...
    Dyson Swarm is imminently more practical and was doable since the 1990-ies.

    The writers had little to no understanding of exponential developments in science and technology (by all accounts, the Federation should have been FAR more advanced by the 24th century because of that).

    But the Borg having a connection to the Dyson SPhere never made any sense.
    Why bother?
    Furthermore, since the Sphere contained Neutronium, you'd think the Borg ships and stations would be made from the same material.

    But no.