Recently an acquaintance of mine asked the hive mind for examples of short stories that featured the time-dilating effect of traveling near the speed of light. Ideally the story would also feature one element where that rule is broken.
I immediately forgot the “short story” requirement and recommended Time for the Stars, a Young Adult novel by Robert Heinlein. It is exactly about that; it even takes a break for a lecture on time dilation, complete with the equation I call the “Einstein fudge factor” carefully typeset in the narrative.
I happen to have recently been reunited with a copy of that novel, one I received as part of a box set one fine Christmas morning in the early 1970’s. There were a couple of things I particularly remembered about that story, so I decided to give it a read once more after all these years.
The part of the story that Heinlein got the most pleasure from, I believe, is an organization called the Long Range Foundation, or LRF. They were endowed to pursue pie-in-the-sky research with no hope of commercial reward in any reasonable time frame. The kind of research that corporations and event governments can’t justify.
It turns out, however, that taking the long view can be embarrassingly profitable over decades and even centuries, and the LRF is constantly looking for deeper holes to dump their giant piles of cash into. One of those holes is interstellar travel. (They are already gushing cash from developing technology to allow travel all over the solar system.)
So they build a bunch of giant spaceships to go out and explore nearby star systems. They don’t actually expect any of those ships to ever make it back home, so they need a way for them to keep in touch. Which brings us to another one of their projects.
Pat and Tom are twins, the youngest children of a family over the quota for number of children (the Earth is staggering under the weight of five billion occupants). The LRF offers them a bit of cash to participate in a study. While they think they are cheating on a test, they are actually confirming that they are psychically linked.
This linkage is not bound by relativity and does not diminish with distance. The LRF gathers up all the psychic-twin pairs it can and loads up their giant spaceships (called Torch Ships) with half of each pair, several teams per ship. Now, even should the spaceships never return to the home world, the information they gather will.
The dynamic between the brothers is interesting, as they jockey for which will see the stars and which will stay home. One of the moments in the book that stuck with me all these years was when the ship’s doctor points out that Tom really doesn’t like his brother at all.
So Tom’s Torch Ship, the Lewis and Clark (or Elsie for short) flies away, and the time shift between the ship and Earth gradually accelerates. Communication is more and more difficult as the brains of the pair work at different speeds. Finally there is a period of isolation — a few weeks on the ship, and many years back home. Not all the psychic pairs can reconnect after such a long break, and a lot happens on Earth during that time each jump.
Meanwhile, science is trying to recreate itself to allow the concept of simultaneity, which relativity pretty thoroughly ruled out. It’s quite a long range sort of project.
Decades pass on Earth, months and then years pass on the ship.
Small Spoiler: Disasters happen, friends die — including the people in charge of helping everyone get along— and morale among the survivors becomes very low.
Occasionally, especially during disasters, I had to smile at the casual 1950’s-era sexism, and while the crew is racially diverse without making a big deal about it, there is a Wise Old Negro. I hadn’t noticed that stuff last time I read the story. Also, there was a bit of recklessness on the part of the crew when it came to exploring strange worlds. Plague sucks.
Big Spoiler: The most striking thing about the story is how it ends. Once physics introduced the concept of “irrelevance” — the idea that some things were not bound by relativity but existed outside that framework — work began to harness that phenomenon. After one particularly bad disaster, the Elsie is orbiting a planet and is told to stand by and wait for a rendezvous. A faster-than-light ship arrives shortly thereafter, straight from Earth. The install a device on Elsie and say that they will be returning to Earth. This is met with great joy among the remaining crew.
“When will we get there?” Tom asks.
“I thought we’d wait until after lunch, if that’s all right,” is the answer. Or something like that. Push a button, you’re home again. No fuss.
They return to Earth little more than a curiosity, Rip Van Winkles rendered suddenly and absolutely obsolete. Already faster-than-light ships have far eclipsed what had taken the Torch ships decades to accomplish. That the new technology could not have happened without their sacrifice is not much of a solace. And women, apparently, no longer wear hats, which was unthinkable when Tom left Earth.
There is a happy ending, at least for Tom; others of the crew have highly specialized skills that just don’t matter anymore. At least they have a few decades of back pay that’s been earning interest all this time. After all, legend has it that Einstein said compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.
Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or these silly shoes), I get a kickback.