Castaways Between the Stars

Lifeboat Harry Harrison

Surviving against the odds. This edition published by Orbit Books, a division of MacDonald & Co 1991. Cover illustration by Peter Elson.

All forms of transport will have their problems from time to time, occasionally forcing travellers to disembark and wait for help, especially if the vehicle concerned undergoes some disaster.  Space travel will be no different, but the problem there, as with sea travel on Earth, will be that you can’t just do the equivalent of standing on the side of the road after an accident.  You need a lifeboat.

Any major sea-going vessel needs to be supplied with an adequate number of useable lifeboats.  In his 1965 book The Titanic and the Californian, Peter Padfield argued that inquiries after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, resulting in the death of over 1500 people, sought to cover up failures such as the vessel’s “derisory lifeboat accommodation” by transferring blame to the supposed failure of the nearby liner Californian to provide assistance at the time.  Scapegoats can often be easy cop-outs.

And anyone using a lifeboat will need someone competent to operate it and manage what happens onboard until rescue is on hand.  One of the most astonishing such journeys was that of 18 men, in an overloaded open boat captained by William Bligh, following the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789.  In her 2003 book The Bounty, Caroline Alexander describes how this voyage of over 3600 miles became the talk of London: “In all the centuries of the kingdom’s remarkable naval history, no feat of seamanship was deemed to surpass Bligh’s navigation and command of the Bounty’s 23-foot-long launch, and few feats of survival compared with his men’s forty-eight-day ordeal on starvation rations.”  Whatever one makes of the causes of the mutiny, that historic journey was impressive.

It will probably be much the same in the depths of space.  Adequate lifeboat provision – often referred to in the realms of science fiction as “escape pods” or something similar – and a crew competent to operate and command them will be essential.  But a major drawback for interstellar travellers may be that the distress calls that might have been quickly answered on Earth, and which seem to feature regularly in the Star Trek universe, may not work in practice due to that irritating restriction imposed by the speed of light.  Lifeboat occupants could be truly out on their own.

They could be waiting a long time.  In the well-known Alien films, Ripley’s escape shuttle from the doomed Nostromo provides a form of suspended animation enabling her to survive over fifty years before she is fortunately picked up by a deep space salvage team.  But a means of simply sleeping away the time before rescuers arrive might not always be available, or even technically feasible.

In their 1976 science fiction novel The Lifeship (published in the UK as Lifeboat), Harry Harrison and Gordon R Dickson describe a situation where things just seem to get worse and worse.  A saboteur’s bomb destroys an interstellar transport spacecraft and a small group escapes in a lifeboat – eight humans and two aliens, and those two aliens are the only ones who know how to pilot the vessel.

The leader of the human group sums it up: “We’re out here alone in space, surrounded by light-years of emptiness, and the lifeship is the only thing we have to give us a chance of ever making it to planetfall again.  If we ever get out of this alive, what we’ll have to thank will be the lifeship and the Captain…”  But in this future society, where humankind is utterly dependent on this alien race to provide the space travel that is vital to civilization, the aliens have a fanatical religious devotion to living in space, and their ultimate assurance of a glorious afterlife is to actually die in space.

Being in the hands of a “death-worshipping race” is hardly the best hope for survival but, as is so often true when fleeing a disaster in a lifeboat, one can’t pick and choose one’s fellow passengers.  And the message, in space as on Earth, must always be that where there’s life, there’s hope.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: Survival of the Ruthless | To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

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