Priscilla Hutchins, the young interstellar pilot who is just getting her license in the opening chapters of Starhawk, actually got her start in the 19th century when A. E. Housman heard troops marching by his home. No doubt, he realized, they were headed for the battles then raging in the Transvaal. He went outside to watch as the Redcoats passed.
And there came a moment when one of them turned and saw him. Their eyes locked. Housman felt an immediate kinship with the young man. But the world’s so large, he realized, that they were never likely to meet again.
What thoughts at heart have you and I
We cannot stop to tell;
But dead or living, drunk or dry,
Soldier, I wish you well.
Since I first read A Shropshire Lad during my college days, those lines had stayed with me. In the years that followed, we expanded our exploration of the universe. SETI got up and running, telescopes improved, and new technology came forward. I assumed that it would be just a matter of time before somebody out there said hello. Now we have a report that estimates the Milky Way has billions of Earth-sized planets orbiting within Goldilocks zones. Despite all that, so many years later, the silence remains unbroken.
So what has all this to do with Priscilla Hutchins? In a 1983 story, “Melville on Iapetus,” a Voyager, passing through the rings of Saturn, has discovered a statue on one of the moons. Several missions have made the flight to Iapetus by the time the story opens. The statue is not human, but clearly female, and it has been given the name Jennifer. So the narrative becomes simply an account of one more visit to this mysterious monument, which is described by Terri, the pilot.
“The thing was carved of rock and covered with ice. It stood serenely on that bleak, snow covered plain, a nightmare figure of curving claws, surreal eyes, and lean fluidity. The lips were parted, rounded, almost sexual. I wasn't sure why it was so disquieting. It was more than simply the talons, or the disproportionately long lower limbs. It was more even than the suggestion of philosophical ferocity stamped on those crystalline features. There was something --terrifying-- bound up in the tension between its suggestive geometry and the wide plain on which it stood.”
But it does not take her long to grasp why it is disquieting. The creature is alone. And there is a single set of footprints which match Jennifer’s feet. She’s looking directly at Saturn, which remains serenely in the sky over a nearby ridge. The planet never changes position, of course, because of tidal lock. The sculpture has been dated at about 20,000 B.C.
The visitor has left no other evidence of her passing. Terri, still feeling a desire to know who this was, why she constructed the statue in a place where no one was ever likely to see it, follows the prints, which lead to the top of the nearby ridge. Once there, it becomes evident that Jennifer stood for a time, looking out at the ringed planet, just as the statue does.
Terri continues the narration: “I was beginning to feel the cold, and it was a long way back to the shelter. I looked up (as she must have). Titan was there, with its thin envelope of methane; Rhea and Hyperion, and some of the smaller satellites: frozen, spinning rocks, like this one, immeasurably old, no more capable of supporting a thinking creature than the bloated gasbag they circle. Steinitz had argued for a benevolent cosmos. But Steinitz had never stood alone on that ridge. Only I have done that.
“And one other.
“The universe is a precarious, cold haven for anything that thinks. There are damned few of us, and it is a wide world, and long. I wondered who she was. Long since gone to dust, no doubt. But nevertheless, Jennifer, I wish you well.”
I’ve always been fascinated by a universe that seems empty. Usually, at speaking engagements, someone asks whether I believe in UFO’s. I normally respond that if somebody would park one in my driveway, allow me to kick the tires, and maybe tool around in it, then yes, I would join the believers. That sort of reply tends to annoy people. For reasons that I do not understand, we want desperately to find others out there that we can talk to. The notion that we might actually be alone in this vast universe is depressing. Even though we’d be a lot safer if it were the reality.
But it would leave us with the universe that Terri experiences.
Eventually I realized that I couldn’t let go of the concept. I wanted to take it further. But to manage the effect that I needed, I had to give my astronauts better technology. Specifically, an FTL capability.
Readers who know Priscilla from The Engines of God will recognize Terri’s story, because it is also Priscilla’s. They share the Iapetus experience. They live in a universe that is not completely devoid of intelligent life. But there is an unnerving reality: Civilizations do not live long.
Priscilla has been a major presence throughout the early years of interstellar exploration. But, because of the nature of the series, readers had never seen her at the beginning of her career. Until now.