Catching a Buzz: Encounter at Barnes & Noble

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Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin walking on the Moon
during the Apollo 11 mission. [NASA photo]

On July 15, 1996, I had a special birthday present: an opportunity to meet the second man to walk on the Moon. Buzz Aldrin was making an appearance at the Barnes and Noble superstore at 23rd and 6th, to promote his novel, Encounter with Tiber, which he co-wrote with science-fiction author John Barnes. A bit to my surprise, I found that the audience was packed not with space fanatics but autograph hounds. They chatted about prices paid for signatures of persons famous and notorious, and how to coax autographs out of reclusive semi-public figures. Then Buzz himself came out, looking chipper and distinguished in a blue suit. Before signing autographs, he gave a brief talk. A self-confessed futurist (he is Chairman of the National Space Society), he stressed how our society—politics, media, business—is focused on the present, often looking no farther than the next election, the next story, the next quarter, and giving little heed to seemingly less pressing, long-term enterprises (such as space exploration). He made the prediction (which is also incorporated in the novel) that in the long term, space exploration would largely be driven by tourism—once the next generation of space shuttles brings costs down by another order of magnitude, the first space tourists will go where no frequent flyer has gone before. The wealthy would pay for their seats outright, while the rest of us would try our luck in a lottery system to win passage into space.

After the talk, we got into a line and he signed our books. As I approached, I debated what I should say to him. “It’s a thrill and an honor to meet you…,” although true, seemed so, well, ordinary, so instead I asked the question that suddenly seemed most urgent. “Where do I sign up for one of these tourist flights into space?” I figured, if anyone knew, that he would be the one. But I guess he’s so used to the “…thrill and an honor…” approach that before I was halfway into my question, he said, “Thank you.” Then he realized his mistake, and listened to my question again, but alas he did not have a good answer for me. “Well, Pan Am is out of business…”

I have now read Encounter with Tiber, all 560 pages of it. It begs the question, how much did Aldrin really write? (John Barnes, his co-author, has had other works of his nominated for the two most prestigious science fiction awards, the Hugo and the Nebula.) A lot of the ideas, especially those dealing with space exploration of the near future, would seem to be largely Aldrin’s. (Included in the book are “cycler” spacecraft that use optimum launch windows to shuttle between Earth and Mars, an idea that Aldrin developed for NASA in the 1980s. He couldn’t resist giving himself credit for this; one of the cyclers in the book is named Aldrin—as is a high school also mentioned in the book.)

As is sometimes the case with “hard” science fiction (based on potentially plausible technology and real physical laws), the book often has trouble in trying to tell an entertaining, human (and sometimes alien) story without snowing the reader with technical details. Large sections of the first hundred pages (and other smaller sections throughout the book) read like a tech manual and dragged the story down. Sometimes the technological descriptions were necessary and important to the story; but often they were overexplained and turned this reader off.

The story revolves around the discovery, through a radio message, of a civilization that once inhabited the Alpha Centauri star system, and our attempts to discover this civilization’s fate. This mission takes astronauts back to the Moon, then to Mars, and eventually to Alpha Centauri itself. Much of the book is also composed of accounts by two of the Tiberians (the beings from Alpha Centauri) of their voyages to prehistoric Earth in an attempt to find a new home for citizens of their dying planet, which is facing the specter of periodic bombardment by a cloud of cosmic debris. Despite considerable cultural and anatomical differences (they each have many hearts and more than a few lungs, for example), the Tiberians seem rather human, sharing with us both strengths and failures. (This is perhaps inevitable—to make truly alien aliens that we can still relate to is one of science fiction’s greatest—and most difficult—challenges.) Much of the story has to do with strained relations between the two Tiberian races, the Shulathians and the Palathians, and the struggle of the starfarers, in a crew of mixed races, to try to set aside old prejudices. Aldrin also injects the issue of shortsightedness into the story. The citizens of the Tiberian homeworld, in the face of the fact that their world is doomed to be destroyed in a couple of centuries, vote to curtail and delay the construction of starships, the only thing that could save the species, in favor of more immediate pleasures—until unexpected difficulties they encounter at Earth cause them to think better of this.

Much of the book is entertaining, engrossing, and thought-provoking. Parts of it are boring or difficult (if it got too tedious, I had no qualms about jumping ahead a couple of paragraphs or pages, and didn’t feel I’d lost anything in doing so). But to read this vision of our future in space, by someone who walked where only Neil Armstrong had gone before and who has dedicated his life to keeping our eyes turned towards the stars, is a worthwhile and inspiring endeavor.

E-mail to tonyhoffman [at] earthlink [dot] net