Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, published 1974, won the British Science Fiction Award for the best novel of 1975. This is the kind of novel I grew up with, science fiction with a pioneering spirit – there is a story here but it’s the scientific vision, the imagining of humanity’s future and potential, that has place of honour.
Bob Shaw certainly tells a good story, using escape and pursuit to sustain tension in the story as elements of science fiction are introduced. He used this approach also in Night Walk where the main character escapes from a prison, blind but with special glasses that let him see through the eyes of nearby animals. (I read that originally about thirty years ago, but although I forgot title and author long ago I was able to remember enough details of the plot to track it down last year.)
As a science fiction novel, Orbitsville has a far grander vision. Future Earth is horrendously overpopulated, and despite years of searching the stars only one other planet has been found suitable for colonisation. This dystopian Earth is ruled over by the tyrannical Elizabeth who is all-too-satisfied with the status quo.
Flickerwing captain Vance Garamond is on the run. He and his family must move quickly to stay one step ahead of Elizabeth’s wrath. Can they escape Earth and reach the safety of outer space? And even if they do, what then?
Such is the setup. The opening act. And it’s all a pretext, because the real story is Orbitsville, a Dyson sphere made by unknown aliens millennia ago. Imagine a sphere centred at the sun and large enough to contain even the Earth as it follows its annual path. A sphere whose inside is terraformed with gentle rolling hills and fair meadows by shimmering lakes, and babbling brooks that cut through seemingly endless forests. In terms of usable, habitable area, Orbitsville is equivalent to 625 million Earths (estimates vary).
One of the major themes is the inability of the human mind to truly comprehend the scale of this world. At one point, Vance flies 2.16 million kilometres. (Compare this with the distance from the Earth to the Moon, which is only 384.4 thousand kilometres.) During this journey he sees only a tiny fraction of Orbitsville, and yet is overwhelmed by the mind-numbing immensity of it.
If Orbitsville were equivalent to 6 Earths, the population of Earth would fill it easily and comfortably. If it were 60 Earths, we would spread out and luxuriate in the wealth of space. If it were 600 Earths…
If it were 600 million Earths, it would barely notice we were there.
In terms of scale, the only real comparison is Larry Niven’s Ringworld (published 1970, sequel The Ringworld Engineers published 1979, and three more in the series later) which, obviously, is a ring about the sun rather than a sphere.
In the Ringworld series, a lot more thought has been put into the engineering of the world, from razor-sharp nano-filaments to high-temperature superconducting fabrics. The idea of a meteorite punching through the thin super-plastic shell and distorting it into a huge conical mountain is a truly astonishing idea.
The wide and varied range of aliens breathe life and colour into the creation too. It’s at least twenty years since I read the first two Ringworld books but I still remember chuckling over a bandersnatch and marvelling at flowers with mirror-petals that are used to reflect sunlight at potential threats – fields of these flowers acting in concert create a huge Fresnel lens capable of tracking and incinerating an aircraft.
Shaw’s Orbitsville suffers in comparison, having too much reliance on mysterious force fields and impossible materials, and his aliens make little impression. And, yet, both story and vision satisfy. If you enjoy the exploration of grand ideas, it’s a rare find and a joy to read.