“Aggravated Vehicular Genocide” Annotations

Warning: contains spoilers

Page numbers are for the version appearing in Among the Wild Cybers: Tales Beyond the Superhuman. The original page numbers from the November 1998 Analog are given in parentheses/italics.

Scene 1

p. 93 (p. 112)

The concept of interstellar ramjets was proposed by Robert Bussard in 1960 and has been featured heavily in science fiction for decades, notable examples including Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero and Larry Niven’s A World Out of Time. My awareness of it came largely from Niven and from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (with illustrations by future Star Trek art staffer and tech consultant Rick Sternbach, who worked with Bussard at one point and was later responsible for defining the red caps on the fronts of Starfleet warp nacelles as “Bussard collectors”).

The idea of “spiking” a ramjet with antimatter must be one I read about in the early 2000s, since it was not in the original story and was added for the 2004 revision published online. I was probably attempting to address the inefficiency problems discussed below.

The original Analog edition posited that Arachne reached 99% of lightspeed. I came to realize this was unlikely due to the friction from the interstellar medium.


Scene 2

p. 94 (p. 112)

Haim Silbermann was called Chaim Silbermann in the 1998 and 2004 editions. Both are equally valid transliterations of the Hebrew name חַיִּים, meaning “life.” At my editor’s recommendation, I changed the spelling to avoid visual confusion with the name “Chirrn.” I’ve been aware of that confusion for nearly 20 years now, but I was hesitant to make the change in earlier editions, probably because I didn’t realize that both spellings were pronounced the same.

When I first wrote this story, Xena: Warrior Princess was hugely popular, and I imagined that generations of parents would name their daughters Xena or variant spellings thereof, hence Zena Bhatiani. As it turned out, that show’s popularity has not endured as I expected it to.

As in my other stories in this universe, the convention is to italicize the name Arachne when referring to the ship, but not when referring to Arachne as a person.

In retrospect, I’m uncomfortable that I have dialogue from nameless, faceless crew members in this scene. My writing style was still fairly primitive at this stage.


Scene 3

p. 96 (p. 114)

The spelling of the name “Chirrn” was partially inspired by the name “Wirrn,” the insectoid villains in Doctor Who: “The Ark in Space” by Robert Holmes – only the second Doctor Who serial I ever saw, and still one of the best. The two names are pronounced differently, though. “Wirrn” is “Weer-un,” while “Chirrn” is more like “Cheern” with a rolled R sound.

The problem with retroactively annotating a 20-year-old story is that it’s sometimes difficult to reconstruct where I got a certain idea from. I’ve been trying to remember the source of the idea for a ramjet using lasers to clear its path. I’ve found that the book version of Cosmos (Random House, 1980) contains the following passage on p. 207:

When the ship reaches relativistic velocities, the hydrogen atoms will be moving with respect to the spaceship at close to the speed of light. If adequate precautions are not taken, the spaceship and its passengers will be fried by these induced cosmic rays. One proposed solution uses a laser to strip the electrons off the interstellar atoms and make them electrically charged while they are still some distance away, and an extremely strong magnetic field to deflect the charged atoms into the scoop and away from the rest of the spacecraft.

However, I recently realized that my thinking was influenced by a much earlier source: the 1968 Ballantine book The Making of Star Trek by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry, which I bought my first copy of at a Scholastic book fair (probably) while I was still in grade school. On p. 86, it reproduces a 1964 memo in which Roddenberry summarized the suggestions of the scientists he consulted in the development process of Star Trek. The memo includes the following passage:

Some kind of “meteoroid shield” or “meteoroid force field deflector” will be necessary in true spaceships. If not a force field, it may be a magnetic field which deflects cosmic dust or small meteoroids via an opposite charge. Or it might consist of a probing Laser beam which deflects and/or destroys dust and small particles from the path of the ship.

This, of course, was the idea that evolved into the Enterprise’s navigational deflector dish. But I must have combined it with Sagan’s suggestion of an ionizing laser (backed up by other, now-forgotten texts I read on the subject of ramjets) and worked out the idea that the same lasers could be used for both purposes by adjusting their focus. I had the specifics of this idea worked out by 1992, when I wrote the original spec novel that later inspired the premise of this story.


Scene 4

p. 98 (p. 115)

Arachne’s attempted asteroid deflection technique was the method known as laser ablation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid_Laser_Ablation


Scene 6

p. 101 (p. 116-117)

If it seems backward for the medical examinations to precede the decontamination, keep in mind that, as mentioned, there is no real contamination risk, and the entire thing is basically security theater for the reassurance of the Chirrn, as well as an act of ritual humiliation for the humans.


Scene 7

p. 104 (p. 119)

In the previous two versions, the line “I am currently male” was followed up by “Cecilia decided not to touch that one.” Since then, I’ve become more aware of the reality of gender fluidity among humans, and so has society as a whole. It now seems unlikely that an educated 22nd-century person like Cecilia would be taken aback by the idea.

p. 105 (p. 119)

Despite how it sounds, the term “kangaroo court” for an unfair or rushed show trial is not Australian in origin, but arose in the United States in the early 1850s. It’s believed to refer to the court jumping to conclusions, or perhaps being in someone’s pocket.


Scene 8

p. 106 (p. 120)

The musings about the excesses of human lawyers in centuries past (inspired by my viewing of CourtTV in the 1990s) were originally Stephen’s, but I changed it to Cecilia here for the sake of a consistent point of view. The original story had a number of viewpoint shifts within scenes, another symptom of my inexperience.

Originally, Stephen began organizing the expedition in 2150, 26 years before the story’s present, and the launch was in 2152. Reducing Arachne’s top speed from 99% of lightspeed to 95.1% required pushing back the launch date.

Note that the dates Stephen gives (28 years after 2147) appear to put the story in 2175, not 2176 as I established in the appendix. 2176 is the date in the original Analog version and in the revised spec novel version, and in putting the appendix together, I forgot that I’d changed it to 2175 in the 2004 revision. It can still work if we assume the story is set relatively early in 2176 (I’ve gone with April in the novel) and his work on the project began late in 2147, so that he’s rounding off a few months.

p. 109 (p. 122)

In retrospect, all the technical talk about Fresnel lenses is a totally unnecessary self-indulgence. But back in the ‘90s, I thought Fresnel lenses were really cool and I was proud of the way I’d come up with to incorporate them into a ramship’s laser system. A Fresnel lens is a flat sheet with concentric sections of different thicknesses and curvatures, collectively functioning like a normal lens but with much less material and weight, which is beneficial for a starship. Lighthouse beacons generally use Fresnel lenses.

The laser configuration described in the story is based on the one from this 1992 sketch I did:

Ramjet laser sketch

(click to enlarge)

I made it reversible since, once the ship flipped around to thrust backward for deceleration, it would still need to ionize and draw in the interstellar medium ahead of it. In retrospect, it would’ve probably been simpler just to swivel the laser dish around.


Scene 9

p. 113 (p. 124-5)

The discussion of ramship inefficiency and drag was added for the 2004 revision. In the wake of the story’s publication, I learned that ramjets were a much more problematical technology than I’d thought. Even by the time I wrote the story, it had been determined that the drag was probably an insurmountable obstacle. The problems are discussed here at the amazing Atomic Rockets site: http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/slowerlight3.php#ramproblem

For the revision, I tried to fudge things as best I could, and indeed I nearly wrote out the ramjet idea altogether, with Haim’s revelation that Arachne is more of a magnetic sail ship that just uses its ramjets for extra speed and maneuvering. I also assumed that some future developments in engineering might provide some way to get around the drag problem. I imagined some sort of complex, spinning magnetic field that would redirect the drag forces into thrust in a manner analogous to a propeller, but I wisely avoided going into specifics. Still, it turns out that I may have been right after all—see the discussion further down on the Atomic Rockets page about a “Bussard Scramjet” solution.

The above Atomic Rockets page also discusses the Local Bubble and other regions of low gas density in local space, as discussed by Rillial. The term “Four Voids” for that cluster of bubbles comes from the expanded novel edition of this tale that I’ve been working on. Generally I’ve tried to preserve this version of AVG as closely as feasible to its original form, rather than updating it with elements from the novel, but in this case I decided to incorporate the Four Voids name because one of the Voids is referenced in “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing,” and I wanted to keep things consistent.

I now believe it was simplistic of me to assume that Earth’s environmental problems were the result of overpopulation. That’s long been a common assumption, but the fact is, modern farming produces more than enough food to sustain everyone in the world; it’s political agendas, greed, corruption, and racism that keep it from getting to the people who need it. And the goal of freeing more of the Earth’s surface from human occupation, and thus allowing the ecosystem to recover, could be achieved by moving the bulk of the population into cities—a process that’s already underway but would have to be managed properly for best results. This is the “Half Earth” plan proposed by EO Wilson, nicely summarized by Kim Stanley Robinson in a March 20, 2018 essay in The Guardian. I depicted something along similar lines in my story “No Dominion,” set in an alternate, more Earthbound future from the one in which AVG occurs.


Scene 11

p. 116 (p. 127)

I don’t remember where I came across the phrase that a captain is responsible for their own ship’s wake, but I was definitely struck by the idea when I heard it, and was eager to incorporate it into this story. I also used the phrase in Star Trek: Rise of the Federation—Uncertain Logic.

p. 117 (p. 127)

AVG was my first published use of the shorthand “Solsys” for “Sol system,” which I’ve used consistently in this universe. However, I apparently coined the term in a 1991 story that I never sold. That story was set in the 24th century, so I was probably assuming the term had become elided over time, but I’ve since retroactively established its use as early as Only Superhuman in 2107.


Scene 12

p. 119 (p. 128)

Cecilia is, of course, alluding to Shylock from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, who was forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity as part of the “happy ending” of that play.

p. 121 (p. 130)

Miguel Alcubierre’s theoretical “warp drive” metric was developed in 1994 and has been a subject of discussion and research among theoretical physicists ever since, though mainly as an abstract problem in the mathematics of General Relativity. The original paper and various followup papers are available on Marcelo B. Ribiero’s Warp Drive page at http://www.if.ufrj.br/~mbr/warp/. The “negative energy problem” is the apparent need to use a form of exotic matter possessing the impossible property of negative energy in order to prevent the warp bubble from collapsing. The “horizon problem” is perhaps best explained by how Silbermann’s question was phrased in the original Analog version: “How do you get around the light compression in the forward warp, see anything in front of you?”


Reader response

Back when this story came out, reader correspondence was still handled by physical mail, and Analog editor Stanley Schmidt forwarded me several reader letters about “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide.” I had expected different readers to have different reactions to the morally ambiguous situation and the difficult questions it raised, but I was surprised by some of the reactions I got from readers who didn’t seem to understand what I’d been going for. Here’s a scan of the “Brass Tacks” letters page from the April 1999 Analog, featuring a letter from reader Douglas Shaver and my response:

Analog Apr 99 reader response

(click to enlarge)

Shaver called the story “a good work of science fiction,” but took sharp objection to what he saw as “a story in which… extreme risk aversion was apparently vindicated.” He took the Chirrn’s objection to be “that we had failed to reduce the probability of an accident to zero” and that “the Chirrn themselves would never have become spacefaring” with such absolute standards. In my response, I tried to clarify what I’d intended:

Responsibility doesn’t mean that you take no risks; that’s avoiding responsibility.  It does mean, though, that you hold yourself accountable for risks that go badly.  As Stephen said, a captain is responsible for her ship’s wake.  That means not only doing all she can to avoid damage, but also accepting liability for whatever damage is done anyway.

Perhaps the issue is how “responsibility” is defined.  Is it blame, something that’s imposed on you from without and only applies when you’re provably in the wrong?  Or is it something you demand of yourself with regard to your own actions, choices and relationships with other beings?

The other issue is the difference between necessary and unnecessary risks.  The Chirrn position was that, since humans had viable alternatives to ramjets and to planetary living, the very use of a ramjet was an unnecessary risk, no matter how comparatively safe it was made.  If someone were sued for property damage because they drove to the store in a tank — even though they followed proper tank protocols to the letter — what would be a fair verdict?

The question of prejudice goes both ways.  Did the Chirrn’s prejudice against planet-dwelling result in an unjust verdict?  Or did the Humans’ prejudice in favor of planet-dwelling result in the use of a needlessly dangerous technology?

Still, some readers just couldn’t accept a scenario where the humans’ agenda didn’t prevail, and saw it less as a story about taking responsibility for one’s mistakes and more as a story about hostile aliens taking humans captive. One letter-writer offered the rather paranoid scenario that the Chirrn had brought their destruction on themselves—that Lesshchi may have intentionally intercepted Arachne in order to destroy it, perhaps to keep them from discovering the Chirrn homeworld on Gamma Leporis V, and failed to anticipate its defensive abilities. This was, of course, untrue, as “Among the Wild Cybers of Cybele” would later establish. Not to mention that if they had wanted to destroy a ship hurtling through space at nearly the speed of light, they would’ve been pretty stupid to put themselves directly in front of it. Not to mention that they’d probably use a ship like Rillial’s to do it, rather than put their actual country in harm’s way.

Another letter-writer accused “Stephen Quisling” of turning his back on humanity by taking responsibility, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if the sequel depicted humanity waging an “interstellar war” on the Chirrn. The unpublished reply letter I sent to Stan Schmidt contained the following:

As for the possibility of Chirrn/Human war, don’t hold your breath.  Only forty Humans in the universe know that the Chirrn even exist; and the Chirrn would prefer to keep it that way, wishing to avoid unnecessary interaction with planet-dwellers.  Besides, it’d be like a war between Sumeria and Starfleet — so uneven a contest as to be a very sad joke.


I never had full annotations for this story on my original homepage, but I did have the following supplementary page of in-universe information, supplementing the 2004 revision of the story.

Magnetic sails: A magnetic “sail” is actually a coil or web of superconductor, accelerated by a charged-particle beam fired from the system of origin. The particles are placed in a coherent Bose-Einstein state analogous to the coherent photons in a laser beam, and are thus able to travel farther without dissipating, and accelerate the sailship rapidly to high velocities. To withstand the high acceleration, the crewmembers are immersed in a dense oxygenated fluid. At an acceleration of 20-25g, reaching a cruising velocity of 0.9c requires approximately two weeks; therefore the crew is generally in hibernation during this stage (see below). A network of “space lanes” can be created by building beam projectors in multiple systems, allowing regular travel between worlds.

Ramjets: The superconductor web can also function as a Bussard ramjet, collecting interstellar hydrogen for fuel to accelerate a ship beyond what particle-beam acceleration can achieve, or to decelerate it toward a system with no extant particle-beam generators. This is a problematical technology, once almost abandoned as impractical. The energy demands were believed to be vast, and to become vaster as velocity increased. The ramjet field collects interstellar hydrogen from a vast conical area ahead of the ship, drawing it inward to be fused at the center. The faster the ship travels, the faster the hydrogen atoms must be drawn in to the axis, requiring more and more energy. Also, ionizing the hydrogen, charging it so the magnetic field can draw it in, requires vastly powerful lasers. In addition, the ramfield creates a drag against the interstellar medium, resisting acceleration.

Late 21st-century Human engineers developed solutions to these problems, however. One solution was to make the ships extremely light. A ramship is essentially a vast web of superconducting fullerene cable, the strongest fiber physically possible. The web is rotated to give it rigidity through tension rather than compression, requiring far less mass (in the same way that it takes far less material to suspend a bridge from cables than to support it with massive pylons). The rotation creates a dynamo effect in the superconducting web, helping generate power for the ramfield and the lasers. The energy demands of the lasers actually decrease with increasing velocity, since their beams are blueshifted to higher energy levels. The beams must in fact be shifted downward in frequency and power in order to remain at the proper ionization frequency in the hydrogen’s frame of reference. The rotating field is also shaped to redirect the drag of the interstellar medium into thrust, somewhat analogously to a propeller.

The collected hydrogen is heated to extreme temperature by annihilation with small amounts of antimatter, and thus attains enormous exhaust velocity, beyond what a fusion reaction could produce. However, the maximum velocity of any rocket is equal to the velocity of its exhaust; at this point, the velocities cancel and the exhaust is merely left stationary in space, imparting no further acceleration. To exceed even this velocity, the reaction mix is shifted to pure proton-antiproton annihilation, producing meson exhaust expelled at over 90 percent of lightspeed.

The journey is not without peril for the crew, due to the extreme velocity of any incoming particles and the extreme blueshift of approaching radiation. When not being used to collect fuel, the ramfield deflects hydrogen around the ship. The ionizing lasers, generally dispersed into wide conic beams, can be focussed to vaporize larger approaching obstacles. There are generally several widely separated crew compartments, so that any disastrous impact which occurs will not kill the entire crew.

Typical ramship velocity is in the vicinity of 90 percent of lightspeed, though higher velocities can be attained for longer journeys. The Arachne expedition launched toward Gamma Leporis V in 2149 reportedly attained a record value of 95.1 percent. However, its haste led to disaster, and such high velocities are generally frowned upon by interstellar civilization.

Radiation shielding: One of the greatest hazards of spaceflight is exposure to ionizing radiation. This danger is even greater in interstellar space, once a vessel leaves the magnetic field of a star, which provides protection from the bulk of cosmic radiation. The problem is that shielding adds mass to the ship, impeding its engine efficiency; and interstellar craft in particular must be as light as possible.

The solution comes from programmable matter, also known as smart matter or wellstone. Smart matter is an intricate semiconductor matrix of “quantum dots,” potential wells which confine single electrons, forcing them to behave like the electrons in atomic orbitals. Since electron orbitals define an atom’s chemical, electrical and other behavior, this quantum matrix can be configured to emulate the behavior of any element, even ones beyond the existing periodic table, while retaining the original mass of the semiconductor. Smart matter has many uses: it can produce versatile energy-collecting surfaces and distribution systems; it serves as a basis for quantum computers and advanced sensor systems; it can produce materials of variable strength and resiliency or variable appearance and texture, adjustable on demand. But one of its first uses was the creation of lightweight radiation shielding simulating the energy-absorptive properties of much denser elements. This shielding has the added advantage of being able to convert this radiation into usable energy for the ship, further increasing its efficiency.

[Update 5/3/2019: I’ve recently learned that there’s a simpler technology for providing lightweight radiation shielding using composite metal foams: https://news.ncsu.edu/2015/07/rabiei-foam-rays-2015 It works roughly as well as much denser materials at absorbing radiation, and is also bullet-resistant, so it could provide meteoroid protection as well.]

Hibernation: In long journeys, it is necessary to employ hibernation techniques to conserve resources. The old concept of cryogenic suspension, “freezing” live persons and “thawing” them at the destination, is impractical. Biological functions, and particularly sapient brain activity, cannot simply be shut down and restarted.

The hibernation process, sometimes called cryosleep, does involve lowering the body temperature to slow metabolic processes, but not to the point of freezing. Further metabolic suspension is achieved through chemical means, and the body is immersed in a preserving nutrient gel. Tissue damage is minimized through nanomaintenance. Aging is slowed, but not stopped. The technique would be less effective on pre-Molecular Era humans, in whom aging progressed more rapidly.

The brain remains active at a low level, resulting in a dreamlike state. The monitoring cybersystem can interact with the mind in this state through stimulation of the sensory inputs, creating a virtual-reality experience. The cyber can mediate between brains, allowing interaction. Upon awakening, crewmembers retain little or no memory of their activity in this state, sparing them the embarrassment of remembering what they did in their shared dreams when judgment and inhibition were not fully engaged.



Solsys to Gamma Leporis: Arachne expedition (lost)
Dist: 29.3 ly
Launch: June 2150

Objective Shipboard
Stage 1: Particle-beam acceleration (20g) to c. 0.9c: 13 dy 11 dy
Stage 2: Ramjet acceleration (0.75g) to 0.92c: 9 dy 4 dy
Stage 3: Low-efficiency photon accel. to 0.95c — avg. 0.94c: c. 11330 dy c. 3865 dy
Stage 4: Ramjet deceleration (0.75g) to 0.5c (0.128 ly): 212 dy 111 dy
Stage 5: Particle-beam deceleration (20g) to system insertion: 9 dy 8 dy
Total: 31.7 years 11 years

Arrival: February 2182


Stage 3: Photon accel. to 0.95c — avg 0.935c; interrupted 24.1 ly: c. 9415 dy c. 3340 dy
Gravitic deceleration by Chirrn capture field (c. 14,000g): c. 35 minutes c. 20 minutes
Total: 25.8 years 9.2 years

Voyage ends: April 2176

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