Book review: Visitor, by John Triptych

This is a sci-fi journey inspired by one astronomical event and probably by several books on the same theme which preceded it.

The event was the first observation of a demonstrable interstellar object. Back in 2017, at Haleakalā Observatory in Hawaii, the object Oumuamua (Hawaiian meaning: “a messenger from afar arriving first”) was identified as being of interstellar origin. Specifically, although the 57,000 mph tumbling mass was noticed only after it swung around the sun, its trajectory placed it has having come from the vicinity of the star Vega, 147 trillion miles from our planet.

Apart from originating outside the Solar System, Oumuamua differed in three other ways from other observed large, travelling space objects: (1) it had length to width proportions of 10/1, (2) it expelled no dust or vapour gasses, as would a comet; and (3) after it cornered around the sun it accelerated away without any observed form of propulsion or having its inertia acted upon by any known law of physics. Let’s say that again. Without having all the information, the data we had collected showed that this object was not only unique (so far) but that it had defied the laws of physics and motion. The thing is, the laws Sir Isaac Newton discovered hold true not only on Earth but also predict and match the observable movement of Saturn’s moons, for example. They work everywhere and yet, strangely, apparently, not on this interstellar object.

Some scientists, those brave and disciplined enough to be led by the evidence and stand up to peer pressure from those who think astrophysicists should avoid the subject no matter what the evidence is, interpreted the observational and measured data as strong enough that we should consider the hypothesis that the object might have been constructed or be a natural object appropriated and engineered by an intelligent form of extra-terrestrial life. The most publicly visible proponent of this theory is Prof. Loeb of Harvard University — see: Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, by Avi Loeb.

“See first, think later, then test. But always see first. Otherwise you will only see what you were expecting. Most scientists forget that” — Douglas Adams. Loeb didn’t forget correct process, which makes him a good scientist.

The executive summary is that we don’t have all the data to prove or disprove the alien hypothesis for Oumuamua. The object we need to gather the defining data from has flown out of reach, on its way out of our system, so designing an experiment to test that hypothesis (e.g. provoke a reaction) is now a missed chance. This novel, Visitor, looks at the scenario of what we would do if given a second chance, i.e. if another object with the same characteristics followed exactly the same trajectory through our system on its way to slingshot around the sun and we had time to prepare missions to land on it.

Star Trek IV uses the same ‘around the sun’ plot device to achieve a different aim, time travel, although going backwards in time at nearly the speed of light wouldn’t work (relative time would slow to almost a stop). In Star Trek, they use propulsion from an engine to achieve this acceleration. Oumuamua was observed accelerating without any evidence of an engine, so either it had a discreet propellant of some kind or there’s some sort of new physics at work here. Both alternatives are equally stunning.

The other thing I want to mention is the previous literature on this subject: Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke (1973), Eon, by Greg Bear (copyrighted in 1985 but published in 1987), and The Cosmic Bullet, by Andrew C. Broderick (2017). Two of those titles preceded Oumuamua and one was published in the year it arrived, so there was a science fiction trend of predicting an object of this kind would arrive several decades before it did. Having read all four books now, I can tell you that Greg Bear’s (which also explores the scenario of twisting dimensional space and time to serve intelligent life) and Clarke’s (which is the superior description of suspected alien structures fantasy) were on a higher rung of the imaginative, poetic and literary ladder than Triptych’s (race between modern billionaires) and Broderick’s (a race between scrap metal merchants) novels. Just like the four authors who wrote versions of Faust, I suppose they can’t all be Goethe. Consolation goes to Marlowe’s, which was much shorter. [For the pedants, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley translated Goethe’s, so weren’t authors].

Visitor, by John Triptych, has an interesting plot, internationally differentiated characters and explores the fascinating idea of ‘what if we had a second chance to explore an interstellar object?’

The idea of checking out the very first inter-planetary object seen has been explored before, but that’s fine if the writer does something slightly new with it. I liked his concept of the Chinese butterfly spaceship very much but felt more could be done with the imagery. I thought it was quite a mature decision to portray alien life in the way it was done here and also for using the dandelion seed on the river approach to spreading your species, not to have a crew of silly humanoid aliens with ridiculously long lifespans and then having to invent an unlikely food source for them. That kept the fantasy closer to reality and made it easier for the reader to accept. However, I didn’t notice any great lines to quote (no playing with language) and the description was at the functional level rather than the mind-expanding and artistic. It is a good plot making an entertaining and engaging experience for the reader, so you probably won’t want to drop out of this, but I also encourage you to read the other three novels on the subject and see if you agree with my impression that this scores about a three and a third points out of five, honourably edged out by a couple of the others.