Posts Garden of Stars

Garden of Stars

From /r/WritingPrompts, a bizarre short story from a bizarre prompt about every different country having its own personal Sun. Surprisingly, this story includes a wholly relevant GK Chesterton poem.

This was originally written for /r/WritingPrompts: “[WP] Every country has their own sun (based on a belief by my friends’ mother)”.

Written as part of my ongoing quest to find a hypothetical scenario so contrived, so absurd, that GK Chesterton does not have an apropos quote for it. The search remains as fruitless as ever.

Garden of Stars

Part 1

For every tiny town or place
God made the stars especially;
Babies look up with owlish face
And see them tangled in a tree:
You saw a moon from Sussex Downs,
A Sussex moon, untravelled still,
I saw a moon that was the town’s,
The largest lamp on Campden Hill.

The Copernican revolution ended the day I graduated high school. Years later, of course, the respectable astronomers left would claim to have always known this was coming, and the physicists too, but I distinctly remember the utter surprise of that first day. I’d been planning on going into physics when I went to college - and I did, but it was a bit more of a roundabout route than I’d always planned. Let me explain.

There was this trend, for five hundred years, of taking Man further and further from the center of the universe, however dubious the assumptions and extrapolations got. First, the Sun no longer rotated around the Earth, and there was much rejoicing: no longer would Earth be the gravitational center of the universe, the sort of cosmic sewage drain we’d always thought it was. Then, orbits were no longer circular, and there was much rejoicing: those pompous planets with their perfect orbits and immaculate physics would have to obey the same sort of laws as the rest of us. Then it turned out that other stars were suns too (“always good to have a spare handy, I suppose”), then that nebulae were other galaxies (“err, isn’t that a trifle extravagant?”), that light was an unyielding, perfect constant that neither time nor space could budge (“is ‘relativity’ really the best word?”), and finally that nothing could even be measured with absolute precision (“well, yeah, you can only make the ruler so small, why do you need this ‘quantum’ business?”). We should have been seeing that we were building a house on sand, but just like building a house on sand, it’s easy to forget about the coming tide, and we got swept up in it until the whole thing got swept away.

So, in the end, it was Occam’s Razor that got me, and the whole profession I’d wanted to join. There was never any need for a trillion trillion stars in the sky, just to make some shiny pinpricks in the night. All you needed was a few hundred. Enough for the house of mirrors that was the universe to reflect them all, back and forth, and give the proper smudges and redshifts for the astronomers to misinterpret. You didn’t need the hundreds of planets that we thought we’d found. You just needed one planet, with a few hundred points of view. You didn’t need axial tilt to explain the seasons - all you needed was a little garden of stars, with some wilting and some blooming in a cycle, year by year. We had it all on Earth, every analouge we could ever have asked for, but some things are only obvious in hindsight.

But I was young, maybe a bit more childish than most of the established guys. My knowledge wasn’t quite rigid, solid enough to bend but flexible enough to not break upon a shock. And I was just young enough, in fact, to clap my hands with glee when the first men to land on Mars took a wrong turn on the way home, and planted an American flag on the American sun.

Part 2

And when the pedants bade us mark
What cold mechanic happenings
Must come, our souls said in the dark,
“Belike, but there are likelier things.”

It was nine years after Graduation, and upon getting my degree from professors who swore and drank rather more frequently than I’d thought physics professors would, I’d gotten a job in aerospace. Almost every country in the world wanted to start space programs now - in part because of financial interest, in part to make up for lost time - and so like every other physics student I knew the agencies had been banging down my door from my sophomore year. All the American agencies had been the obvious choice, of course, but something about the work culture just didn’t suit me despite the good pay. Oh, this heroic attitude about exploring and mapping space all seemed well and good once upon a time, when we were taking the first steps into a boundless universe, but now we’d been to most of the universe already, and going to the rest was just dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, tidying up and straightening out. America didn’t quite enjoy doing that sort of thing - but I was already in a country that did. Which is how I ended up on a space shuttle, flying towards a sun, carrying a precious payload of tea.

“…and on behalf of the United Kingdom Space Angency, good luck and Godspeed,” said the voice through our screen, and then there was blessed silence for a few moments before chatter from the rest of the party came in. There were four of us, in four separate ships; one from Cornwall, one from Sutherland, one from Wiltshire, and myself, launching from Unst. The rockets were small - the reworked physics was much more cozy and personal than the old - and we talked casually amongst ourselves, not worrying about checklists and timed mission stages as much as earlier launches used to.

“So, is everybody packed?”, asked Edward, our team lead. I sighed, knowing we were about thirty seconds away from repeat a debate we’d already had a dozen times, but also knowing that in the absence of a formal checklist we had to do something to check. Turning around and going back wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would certainly add time to the trip.

“I brought two blankets, a parasol, four pillows, some baskets, a game of graces, and an anticipation that it will be a gorgeous day.”, said Marianne, cheerfully. “Splendid,” replied Edward. I counted down a few more in my head.

We’d learned a lot since then about the nature of the solar system (which phrase now meant a system of stars, as it always should have), and one crucial thing we’d learned was that the character of the launch site and the character of the sun were closely related. The Americans couldn’t stay more than a few minutes on theirs without exceeding their safety margins - they’d launched from Cape Canaveral, after all, on a scorchingly hot day, and their command in Houston was almost as far south and even drier, where the sun was bright indeed. Most of the equatorial countries didn’t risk a manned landing on theirs at all, settling merely to send probes; it would have been terribly uncomfortable, and kind of fans and air conditioning you’d need would be downright cumbersome to lug along.

“I have the kettle, the water, cream, sugar, and all the cups and spoons and plates. Though I question why you brought a parasol, considering where we’re going.” This was Elinor, the third in our party, engaged but far from excited. We did our codenames a bit differently than the Americans did, and Elinor’s was particularly suiting.

“Why, I have always brought along a parasol if I anticipate being out in the sun,” responded Marianne, “and at least I wasn’t so gauche as to bring a full black tailcoat to an outdoor day party.”

“You wound me”, said Edward. “Of course I brought evening wear. We’re going to have our party at midnight - the sun will be exactly underfoot!” Ahh, and there we go. We’d all received a crash course in Regency-era fashion from Debrett’s, but that was rather like receiving a crash course in “Late 20th century fashion”; there was quite a bit more information and change and nuance than we had time to learn: hence inadvertently picking our codenames from entirely the wrong book. We knew we didn’t have every detail perfect, but that didn’t stop us from forming strong opinions about those details we did pick up and arguing endlessly about them.

“And how, praytell, can evening wear possibly be appropriate, in a party out-of-doors held in bright sunshine? I brought a bright sundress; if anything, a riding habit would be your best choice.” I tuned out at this, letting the familiar argument play on in the background. I almost wasn’t listening when it at long last turned back to the informal inventory. “Willoughby?”

“Er, yes, I have the roast chicken, bread, jam, salmagundy, and some Queen Currant Cakes for desert,” I said, my mind still a bit elsewhere.

“Then I believe we’re all set,” said Edward. “Ladies, gentleman, I’ll see you all in an hour.”

Our little flotilla, unhampered by the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation we’d always assumed was there, sped on through space, passing through the eddies and currents beyond the orbit of the Moon, and I leaned back and basked in the light of a hundred gentle suns.

Part 3

“Yea, Heaven is everywhere at home / The big blue cap that always fits”, I hummed to myself, half remembering an ancient song and trying to get in a better frame of mind. We’d arrived at the Sun a half hour earlier, commented politely on the nice weather, unloaded our supplies, donned our clothing of choice (I’d made my choice in the debate with a straw hat and riding breeches; surely the fact that we were outdoors mattered more than the time of day it was), and now all that was left was to find a suitable spot. We were in no particular hurry, of course; finding the spot was supposed to be half the fun.

It’d taken me about a month after graduation for the implications to really sink in, and for glee to turn to dread. And nine full years hadn’t been enough to get used to the notion that the universe was so much smaller than we’d realized. Oh, I’d believed it soon enough; there was proof to spare, and if I hadn’t believed any of it before, then leaving footprints with riding boots on the sun would surely have convinced me. But, even now, I hadn’t really accepted it.

“Marianne,” I asked, “How do you deal with it?”

“Deal with what?”

“How small the universe actually is, and just how little there is in it.”

She laughed, a beaming smile on her face. “It’s the biggest thing there is, so I don’t know what you could compare it against to call it ‘small’.”

The American sun could only be reached through that kind of valiant effort, by men well aware that they were making history; the British had produced men like Robert Falcoln Scott and Ernest Shackleton, but such expeditions had ended a long time ago, and the character of the nation had changed a bit, become a bit more mature and a bit less flamboyant, and our sun changed with it. The English sun was closer, and cooler, and so UKSA realized that it could potentially be reached casually, by a small group out for a stroll and a nice lunch. A day trip, so to speak. So here we all were.

“I suppose I could compare it to what we thought it was,” said I. “What was Ptolmey’s phrase, comparing the size of the Earth to the crystal sphere? That’s the ratio between what is and what could have been.”

“‘A point to the heavens’, I believe was his term,” said Elinor, a bit primly. “But Ptolmey could not have imagined the wealth of suns we have, so if you’re lamenting what might have been it hardly seems fair to quote him.”

“And Hubble had more suns but put most of them too far away to be useful,” added Edward. “No matter which model you pick, the part of the universe we can actually reach is larger than we’d ever suspected.”

I acknowledged this, but something was still eating at me. The Coepernican revolution had taken away man’s place at the center of the universe, but given man in return a much bigger universe to play with. We’d accepted that bargain. It had seemed more than fair. And having it taken back still stung. It was like living in a universe-sized coffin. It was just too small. The stars were reflections, and the galaxies reflections of reflections, light bouncing back and forth like a funnel of funhouse mirrors with a point of infinity at the center. And the mirror effect wasn’t limited to just outside the solar system, either - the Moon’s light was the reflection of hundreds of suns, and the Earth’s light the same way, and the suns themselves - as we learned - reflected in some way the parts of Earth whose light they reached. Coepernicus was wrong. In the end, there was only us.

“But we’ve eaten up all our seed corn, haven’t we? We’re born too late to explore the Earth, and at just the right time to explore the stars. But what about our children, and theirs? What will they have to explore?”

“Why, they’ll explore the stars as well!” said Marianne. “Have you never climbed a tree just to see the view? and when you did, did you care if anyone had ever climbed that particular tree before you did?”

“No, but then I grew up in a spot with trees. I imagine it’s less exciting to explore a city block of apartments where every one’s the same. And that’s what this garden will be, someday.”

Edward shook his head. “I got into the elevator room of an apartment building once, and I got to see the ancient XP computer with all the elevator positions going up and down throughout the building. Could have controlled them, too, had I really wanted, or started talking to the people inside. Only avoided getting caught by the skin of my teeth. Fond memory.”

“But there has to come a point,” I argued, still feeling disagreeable, “where all the interesting stuff is gone, where everything really is the same. When you have a boundless universe that you can never reach the end of, that could never happen. But it can now. That’s why it feels so claustrophobic.”

“And tell me,” replied Marianne, “do you think this all feels the same? Do you think there’s nothing interesting here?”

I opened my mouth to say that of course it’s all the same, it’s all uniform, it’s the Sun…and then closed it again when I realized that it was different. There was a patch in front of us that was darker than the rest, and as we stepped on it a sudden flash of memory hit me.

I was five years old, and my father had just finished building a huge reflector telescope in our garage, a project that had been going on for my entire remembered life. Breaking out the telescope was a monumentous occasion, and when he fixed a huge solar filter to the end of it and told me to look in, I wasn’t even worried about staring into the sun in daylight. For the first time in my life, I saw the Sun - our Sun, the one that shines in Britain alone. I saw hints of the texture of the sun, the slight corona around it when we blocked out the disc proper, and I saw the giant sunspots, the ones that we thought were bigger than the Earth itself, dotting the Sun like little fish swimming through a pond. I knew I loved astronomy when I looked through that telescope that day.

For a moment, I remembered that day in vivid detail. For a moment, I was there, back home, five years old and insatiably curious. I suppose that’s what a revolution is all about - coming full circle. I’d gone into space and come home the long way round. And that meant that home was plenty big enough for me.

“You know, I think you’re right. And right here - where we’re standing, right now - seems like a great spot to me.”

“Splendid,” said Marianne. “So, who’s for tea?”

Far from your sunny uplands set
I saw the dream; the streets I trod,
The lit straight streets shot out and met
The starry streets that point to God;
The legend of an epic hour
A child I dreamed, and dream it still,
Under the great grey water-tower
That strikes the stars on Campden Hill.

– GK Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

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