Mission to Universe by Gordon R. Dickson

Untitled 8.jpg Gordon R. Dickson is one of those legends that gets spoken of solemnly and with great respect. Together with Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, H. Beam Piper, Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell, as well as many others he helped to forge science fiction from the bedrock of literature. Much of what we know about science today was brand new back then and a lot of it wasn’t even widely accepted. Many of Einstein’s theories he didn’t believe himself and there was a great deal of discussion in scientific circles about the reality of quantum mechanics.

I’m not entirely sure that any of that was ever resolved but we kind of just accept it now because it’s the best explanation we have.

Much of what these writers created was based on that bleeding edge of physics and mathematical theory as they understood it at the time. Now it seems silly or outdated but when it was written it felt every bit as prophetic as some of our modern science fiction does.

Four years before man landed on the moon Gordon R. Dickson wrote Mission to Universe.

In 1927, in Copenhagen, Werner Heisenberg developed his Uncertainty Principle. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle simply states that the change in position of a particle times the change in its momentum is never smaller than a fixed fraction of Planck’s constant. Or, basically, we can’t know both the momentum and position with exactness at any given moment.

This was an essential discovery in defining quantum state phenomena. When particles, such as electrons, gain and lose energy they change from one quantum state to another, with no time in between states.

Expanding this idea to a mass significantly larger than 9.11 times ten to the minus thirty one kilograms is not very practical. Planck’s constant is so small that the region of error becomes completely negligible.

However, if we could apply Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to larger objects such as, say a spacecraft, then perhaps we could also make that spacecraft change quantum states by exerting a very large magnetic field. Then when it returns to it’s natural quantum state it will be elsewhere. (This doesn’t work, by the way, there is a lot more going on than this simplified model of quantum physics implies, but it works for the story.)

Doctor Benjamin Shore, newly commissioned General, has succeeded in designing and building the first phase ship, a ship capable of traveling any distance in a single instant – and the president of the United States orders him to keep it on the ground. With all the countries on the Earth pointing nuclear weapons at each other the powers-that-be fear that any kind of rocket launch will set off nuclear Armageddon.

Determined to find new planets on which the human race can colonize in order to ease the tensions caused by overpopulation General Shore forges orders from the President and takes his crew into space, phasing straight from ground into orbit.

They depart for the core of the galaxy, hoping that the greater density of stars will provide a significantly improved probability of finding a habitable planet.

As you might guess, things don’t go well. Some people get killed and alien planets are just that, alien and completely unpredictable.

One of Gordon R. Dickson’s skills has always been his flawed and believable characters. General Shore is no exception. He is reclusive, socially inept, cynical and chauvinistic. He tries to leave the women behind and then gets offended when one of the other officers allows one of them to help him do some mechanical work. (This is an aspect of the character and not the author, as other books by Dickson do not treat women this way). He does not connect with people and so feels completely alone. He also thinks that everybody else is stupid, or at least not as smart as himself.

He sets himself up as the General of this group of scientists, picked to go to space only because they were the people around at the time when he forged the papers. He rules them ruthlessly, usually to their benefit, training them to act instantly to his commands and to see him as a commander and not as a friend. He doesn’t bemoan this duty, nor does he relish it. It is simply what is necessary.

The science mostly makes sense. Aliens use a Faraday cage to trap the phase ship. The phase ship itself, while able to travel instantly takes several weeks of preparation calculations. Everything must be taken into effect, the movement of the galaxy, the movement of the stars and planets in the galaxy. If the coordinates are calculated wrong then the ship could reappear inside of a star or in the gravity well of a planet.

The story is full of twists in usual Gordon R. Dickson style. Things that seem familiar turn out to be strange and things are not what they seem or are expected to be. Gordon R. Dickson was a master of his craft and he continually carved brilliant stories based on the science of his time. I have never read any Gordon R. Dickson that I didn’t enjoy. I’ve also only found a few of his books that I thought were riveting (Forever Man, Soldier Ask Not). This is not one of them but highly recommended anyway.

On a side note, this book was dedicated to Lester del Rey.



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