New Light on the Drake Equation • 2001 • Near Future SF novella by Ian R. MacLeod


First sentence:  As he did on the first Wednesday of every month, after first finishing off the bottle of wine he’d fallen asleep with, then drinking three bleary fingers of absinthe, and with an extra slug for good measure, Tom Kelly drove down into S. Hilaire to collect his mail and provisions.

Synopsis: Tom has dedicated his whole life to the SETI project, trying to find signals of alien civilizations out there. He operates the last SETI station in 2058, and even those grants begin to fade away, as money is dedicated elsewhere. He became old, maybe frustrated but is still dedicated to his task, living now in the mountains of France, surrounded by people who just have to drink a vial of potent bioengineering nanotech to change their bodies, grow wings and fly, or learn new languages.

But seventy years old Tom is different, he didn’t change his body, still gets down the mountain to check his physical mail, listening, waiting. 

On this special Wednesday, he got so drunk that he’s got his days mixed up and it is actually Thursday. Sadly, he receives a mail from Aston University that they will withdraw funding for his SETI project, because no one believes in finding signs of extraterrestrial life anymore. 

Strangely, he meets Terr, a woman who he hasn’t seen for many years anymore but once loved fiercely. That was before the took those vials. 

“How can two people be so different, and so right for each other?”

Time to pull out the bottle of Santernay le Chenay 2058 he’s been saving for First Contact.

Review: The Drake Equation, formulated in 1961 by Frank Drake, tries to estimate how many communicating civilizations are in our galaxy. It is based on estimations about the number of stars formed per year, how many stars will have planets, how many can and have developed life, especially intelligent life, and how many can communicate. Depending on the analysis, the contemporary range is between far lower than 1 – meaning that we are alone in our galaxy – up to more than 15 million.

Since this novella has been published, a couple of updates have been stated, for example we now think that stars are orbited by planets as a rule, rather than the original estimate of less than 0.5, based on microlensing surveys in 2012. Calculations in 2010 indicate a star formation rate of about 1.5–3 stars per year which is also higher than the original 1/year. For the other numbers just dive into the Wikipedia page.  

High numbers led to Fermi’s question “Where is everybody?” which is covered in the recent book “If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens… Where is Everybody?: Fifty solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life“. 

MacLeod narrated an eulogy to the SETI project, a melancholic, regretful, and at the same time deeply humanistic one. Some twenty years after this novella, SETI is still up and running, especially with the $100mio funding of the followup project Breakthrough Listen, running for ten years since 2016. But who can say how funding would develop in the second half of our century, especially after a frustrating failure to prove that life existed on Mars, as in the novella?

As every good eulogy, this story is not only looking back but gives hope, maybe even a sense of wonder. Of course, the aliens are not out there but already here on Earth, in the form of transfigured humans.

Tom is a SF fan, and the author embedded lots of references to titles from the last millennium. What could be thought as a fanservice alienated me and didn’t help me to enjoy the narration. It felt like an obvious manipulation.

MacLeod embeds the technical SF piece into a social commentary and a personal story. He tried to push the emotional buttons but failed to reach me, that’s why I can’t rank it higher. I’d rather recommend his novella Breathmoss (review) or his novelette Visitor from Taured (review).

Meta: isfdb. I’ve read it in Dozois’s The Best of the Best Volume 2.

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1 Response to New Light on the Drake Equation • 2001 • Near Future SF novella by Ian R. MacLeod

  1. Pingback: #SciFiMonth Mission Log: week one

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