The Sails of Tau Ceti

by Michael McCollum
Reviewed date: 2017 Sep 11
Rating: 4
261 pages
cover art

Starhopper, which is to be humanity's first interstellar probe, is close to completion when the project is abruptly assigned a new mission: travel beyond Pluto and intercept an incoming alien spacecraft. Although Starhopper was to be unmanned, the new mission necessitates a jury-rigged redesign: an interplanetary corvette is bolted onto Starhopper, and a skeleton crew of four is sent out to make first contact.

Rendezvous With Real Live Ramans
When Starhopper makes contact with the alien spacecraft, the crew is surprised to be greeted in English by the aliens. The Phelans, it seems, are refugees from Tau Ceti, a main-sequence star that went nova a few centuries prior. They have traveled toward Earth in their starship Far Horizons seeking a new home. They have studied Earth radio transmissions and made every attempt to learn human language and culture, in the hopes that mankind will feel a kinship, and grant them permission to colonize, say, a large uninhabited tract of central Australia.

A tall order. Starhopper engineer Tory Bronson knows that humanity is still xenophobic at heart, and that the public is unlikely to accept a colony of a hundred thousand fur-covered, six-legged aliens plunking themselves down in the Outback.

An Offer She Can't Refuse
Faslorn, the Phelan captain, takes Tory aside and explains the stakes. Tau Ceti did not go nova by accident; the Phelans themselves set it off--accidentally, of course, but they could do it again. And Far Horizons is not a lone starship with a few survivors, it is the advance scout for a fleet of thousands of ships. The Phelans need a home not for a hundred thousand refugees, but for three billion. If Earth won't accommodate them, they'll blow up the sun and use the nova to power their light sails as they sail away to another star in search of a home.

Tory can't tell anyone this; it will cause panic. Seeing no other option, Tory agrees to help the Phelans get permission to resettle on Earth. The Phelans hope that by the time Earth becomes aware of the existence of the rest of the fleet, they will have gotten used to the aliens living in Australia and maybe it won't be a big deal that there are three billion of them instead of 100,000.

Whipping the Votes
Tory and the Phelans run a fantastic PR campaign, culminating in a tense vote in the system council about whether to grant the Phelans permission to settle in Australia. This is genuinely exhilarating, in a way that I didn't think fictional legislative deliberation could be. It reminded me of the tense moments in the U.S. Senate earlier this year, when Mitch McConnell thought he had the votes to pass Obamacare repeal, and kept the vote open until the wee hours of the morning, but John Maverick "I Have Brain Cancer But Still Care About the American People or At Least About Embarrassing Donald Trump" McCain voted no and killed the bill. Heady stuff. (And very much not like the Galactic Senate in the Star Wars prequels, which was boring as mud.)

Moments before the vote, the opposition announces they've discovered the fleet of Phelan starships. The outrage is universal. Tory is nearly lynched. But she knows she can't give up: if the Phelans can't make a home on Earth, they'll blow up the sun. In a calculated risk, Tory reveals the truth to a select few politicians. Now the choice is theirs: welcome the Phelans, or mankind dies in a fiery nova.

An Acceptable Compromise
Now that they are sufficiently motivated, the politicians of Earth reach an agreement that satisfies the Phelans and that can be crammed down the throats of the human public. Phelans will be permitted colonies in Australia, Antarctica, and the Arabian desert. A few token Phelan refugees will settle on Mars and Luna. The bulk of the three billion Phelans will remain aboard their spinning cylindrical starships, placed into orbit around Earth where they can be easily resupplied and repaired as needed.

Earth for the Earthicans
The Sails of Tau Ceti is a gripping book. I found myself torn, though. On the one hand, I was rooting for the Phelans, both because I wanted their race to survive, and because humanity's survival depended on it as well. On the other hand, I kept remembering they are the bad guys; we warlike humans may have nuked a couple of our own cities, ethnically cleansed a few millions, and purged some millions more, but the Phelans blew up their own star and killed billions. Those aren't the kind of neighbors you invite to share your world, even if all they want is the dusty Australian Outback. (Besides, doesn't that Outback already kind of belong to somebody? Oh nevermind, turns out Australia has always be uninhabited except for a few Europeans who settled around the coastal areas.)

The entire Phelan culture (at least as presented toward Earth) was based on deception, and they were both able and willing to murder an entire species--ten billion individuals--to ensure their own survival. It was a monstrous threat. Even Tory seemed unable to grasp the enormity of it; she justified the Phelans' behavior as the only option given their circumstances, an option that anybody in their situation would take. That's not true, though: the moral thing would be for the Phelans to accept their own extinction, rather than exterminate humanity, if it came to that.

But of course it never had to come to that. The solution was there all along, and I saw it coming a long way off: the Phelans never needed to resettle three billion. They'd lived in those spacecraft for centuries already. All they needed was to park them in Earth orbit and live there permanently, trading their technology and information for raw materials needed to repair and resupply their habitats. And hey, in the end, that's what they ended up doing.

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