November 24, 2005

Between the Strokes of Night by Charles Sheffield

spaceship above a planet with a galaxy in the distanceNancy Kress wrote a trilogy (Beggars in Spain (1991), Beggars and Choosers (1994), Beggars Ride (1996)) about what happened when the need to sleep was genetically engineered out of the human genome. In her books, one of the side effects of sleeplessness was drastically extended lifespan.

Sheffield's book, published in 1985, has sleep researchers discover a mode of human physiological function in which need for sleep is drastically reduced while lifespan is even more drastically increased.

It's so cool how effectively these SF tropes can be reused and reformed. Sheffield's book and Kress's trilogy really have very little in common except for the vague details outlined above.

First and foremost, Sheffield's mechanism is much less plausible. They find that by chilling the human body to near freezing (accompanied by some hand waving techie tech additional assistance), they reach a new slowed-down mode where they can operate in a way that seems normal to them but is slowed down 2000 times from "normal" function. I can think of a dozen reasons why this isn't very likely, but who cares.

What Sheffield does with the idea is to tell a story where interstellar travel with sub-lightspeed ships is plausible. You've got to choose your implausibility, you know?

He carves out an entertaining story exploring the implications of this change.

It's interesting that Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a story in her Changing Planes about a world where engineering away the need for sleep transformed the changed people into simple beasts with no trace of humanity. Was this a curmudgeonly commentary on the wishful thinking of Sheffield's and Kress's techno-utopian imagining?

Posted by jeffy at November 24, 2005 01:06 AM