Sail 25

As we come to the end of summer, my convention season has shifted into full swing. This weekend finds me in Phoenix, Arizona at CoKoCon. If you’re in town, I hope you’ll drop by. It’s a great event. You can find more information about the convention at http://cokocon.org/. A week ago, I was at Bubonicon, celebrating its 50th anniversary and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. To get ready for the event, I decided to read some Golden Age SF. One of the stories I encountered was an early story about solar sailing called “Sail 25” by Jack Vance.

“Sail 25” was originally published in 1962 in Amazing Stories under the title “Gateway to Strangeness.” It was retitled for Vance’s collection Dust of Far Suns. I read it in the anthology The Seven Deadly Sins and Cardinal Virtues of Science Fiction edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh. It tells the story of a group of cadets who must make a voyage on a solar sail space craft under the watchful eye of a notorious instructor named Henry Bolt. Those who survive Bolt’s training expeditions often go on to the top ranks of the space service.

This may sound as though Bolt is a rigorous taskmaster. In fact, he seems completely the opposite. He all but ignores the cadets while he sits in his cabin getting drunk on whiskey he smuggled aboard in a box labeled “radio parts.” He only appears to give them demerits for talking out of turn or showing signs of hopelessness. At one point in the journey, the mechanical computer—which felt like it would be more at home in a steampunk story than a science fiction tale—malfunctions and the cadets go sailing past Mars. Their only hope is to repair the computer before they also go past Jupiter. They do repair the computer, but make a mistake in the gear alignment, so they pass Jupiter after all. At this point, they have to keep their wits about them to find a way back home.

I’ve been interested in solar sails since I first heard about them in the 1980s and I’ve been following more recent solar sail projects such as the Planetary Society’s Lightsail 2 experiment with great interest. I was impressed to see how much this early story about solar sailing got right about the process. Admittedly, the sail proves very easy to deploy and it sometimes behaves a bit more like a sail on Earth than a thin sheet of reflective material under little gravitational influence. Still, Vance correctly talks about the sail as being pushed by light and correctly talks about the sheer size required for such a craft while at the same time requiring as small a mass as possible.

Aspects of the story remind me of my own novel, The Solar Sea. Vance talks about needing a crew who can perform calculations themselves without reliance on a computer. In fact, as I mentioned before, the “computer” is really more a mechanical adding machine than a modern electronic computer, but I like how the character of Henry Bolt insists the characters know how to fix it. Like The Solar Sea, Vance’s characters sail past Mars and Jupiter and attempt to use the gravity to help them navigate. In my book, I actually let my characters have a chance to explore. Both stories bring our characters to a point where things appear to be hopeless. I can’t say much more without risking minor spoilers. While the stories have similar elements, they’re also quite different. Vance’s story is about the journey and my story is more about the destinations. It’s just that our characters use similar modes of transportation and take a similar route.

If you want to voyage through the solar system with my characters, you can pick up a copy of The Solar Sea in print at:

You can pick up the ebook at:

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