Would-be colonists beaten by faster ship
August 18, 2010 7:12 AM   Subscribe

Help me remember a science fiction story: colonists beaten to objective by faster earth ship.

I just read this enjoyable short story by Caleb Scharf. But I got a strong sense of déjà vu. I'm sure I've read another story where the colonists arrived at their destination star after millennia of interstellar travel, only to find that a more modern Earth ship beat them to it and have a well-established colony already.

I'm only asking because it's niggling at me. I don't mean to criticise or detract from Scharf's story at all. (I highly recommend his blog.)
posted by snarfois to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
FWIW, I remember a similar story from when I was a kid, indicating maybe it's Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke?
posted by carter at 7:16 AM on August 18, 2010

Yes, definitely remember reading this in a "Best Of Science Fiction 19XX" collection. My Google-fu is weak here, but try adding "generation ship" to your searches.
posted by griphus at 7:21 AM on August 18, 2010

I've read it too. The only thing I can offer is that it was in a compilation (as griphus indicates) published in the eighties.
posted by aramaic at 7:26 AM on August 18, 2010

The Songs of Distant Earth - AC Clarke
posted by otto42 at 7:26 AM on August 18, 2010

The Wait Calculation was invented specifically to avoid this sort of problem.
posted by theodolite at 7:48 AM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "The Shoulders of Giants" by Robert J. Sawyer. Hat tip to ubernostrum from a while back.
posted by anti social order at 8:00 AM on August 18, 2010

It's not a terribly rare trope. I'm 90% David Brin had a short story along those lines, Zelazny made mention of it way back in the 60s as well.
posted by edgeways at 8:08 AM on August 18, 2010

Clarke's book is about humans transplanted by embryo who are later met by a colony ship, but there isn't anything about being beaten -- the later arrivals also left Earth later (just before the Sun blew up). I can't speak to snarfois's memory here, but it doesn't match the description.

The basic idea has been toyed with a number of times (most notably, perhaps, when the Klingons [improbably] run across Pioneer 10 in distant space and blow it to smithereens). Or when Ripley is found by salvagers at the beginning of Aliens. Or when Khan is found by the Enterprise on board a drifting DY-100. Etc.

I can't think of a good example off the top of my head that's close to the description, but there might be a few answers that fit, is all.
posted by dhartung at 8:08 AM on August 18, 2010

Could you be thinking of "Far Centaurus" by A. E. Van Vogt?
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 8:20 AM on August 18, 2010

I was coming here to say what anti social order said. I read that when it was posted on the Blue by ubernostrum and it definitely fits the criteria you describe. Maybe you also read it then and are remembering it from that time?
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 8:21 AM on August 18, 2010

Best answer: "The Shoulders of Giants" was podcast on Escape Pod a while back. Check it out here if you fancy.
posted by Lorc at 8:48 AM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

As edgeways noted, this happened to the main character in Zalazny's Isle of the Dead.
posted by fings at 8:59 AM on August 18, 2010

I would have bet on "Far Centaurus." It's the classic movie of which Sawyer's story is a half-assed remake.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:01 AM on August 18, 2010

Response by poster: That's it, "The Shoulders of Giants" on Escape Pod is what triggered my dejavumeter. I listened to it in 2007 sometime. Don't think I've actually read any of the others mentioned here, but I'm not surprised it's a popular trope. Thanks all!
posted by snarfois at 9:03 AM on August 18, 2010

There's definitely an old surprise-ending short story with a generation ship arriving at its destination to find a celebration waiting for them thrown by inhabitants who'd long ago settled by FTL. I'll try looking for it further later.
posted by Zed at 9:29 AM on August 18, 2010

I don't have the books at hand, but I'm pretty sure this device was used in at least one of Joe Haldeman's Forever novels.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 9:33 AM on August 18, 2010

This also happens in Alastair Reynolds' Chasm City.
posted by BobbyVan at 10:29 AM on August 18, 2010

TVTropes (you know the drill -- click at your own time-sink risk) has an article on Generation Ships with this comment:
Occasionally, the generation ship will arrive to discover that someone developed an FTL drive while they were en route and the world they were going to colonise already has a few million people on it.

It links to Science Marches On, but that's actually a collection of real-world instances of obsolete sf references, and didn't help with this question.

Futurists occasionally call this the "starship paradox" because it implies that a given civilization will probably keep waiting to begin interstellar exploration/colonization until the tech reaches a point where newer ships will not inevitably get there sooner than older ships. There's a similar trope about even robotic missions being unlikely until the travel time falls within the lifetime career of a human scientist.
posted by dhartung at 1:20 PM on August 18, 2010

It's also mentioned in several of David Weber's Honor Harrington books, but I don't recall it being a major plot point.
posted by Bruce H. at 9:11 PM on August 18, 2010

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