Saturday, May 30, 2009

8 minutes: an implausible concept

I heard of a science fiction story contest, called "8 minutes" ( The premise is this:

"The Earth is 8 light minutes away from the Sun. Something has happened to the Sun. Maybe it's gone nova, been transformed, been replaced or stolen or...? But in 8 minutes everything will change for life on Earth."

I like to write theme-based stories. A theme suggests an idea and gets my creative juices flowing. As the story progresses, it often deviates from the theme, until there's very little of the original idea left in it. I don't mind that because I don't treat themes rigorously. To me they serve merely like grains of sand around which a pearl crystallizes. (Not that I would compare my stories to pearls. :-)) Of course, deviating from the theme wouldn't do if I wanted to submit a story to a theme-based anthology, but I don't do that either.

I was especially intrigued by the 8-minutes contest, because it's based on an idea that's not very meaningful at the surface. Since the light travels 8 minutes from Sun to Earth, anything that happens in or to the Sun, will only be discovered 8 minutes later on Earth. You can't really write a thriller here, unless it was made of one sentence. "They didn't know what hit them." You can't reuse any of the old formulae. In the face of global panic, there will be no square-jawed hero who steps up in the 11th hour -- make that the 7th minute -:-) and saves the Earth. For one, there will be no global panic. Nobody, including the hero, will know what will happen to the world. So the plot would have to be about people going about their daily lives not knowing that the disaster will strike. Not exactly a typical plot for a genre story. Though on the other hand, there is this small, but notable meme in science fiction, people living ordinary lives while all hell is breaking loose. It's not one of my favorites, though.

The only other possibility is that somehow humans were notified of the disaster ahead of time. In that case 8 minutes are not meaningful. They probably had many more than 8 minutes to prepare -- or to stick their heads in the sand, as the case may be. Either scenario is not compliant with the theme.

That said, I've come up with an idea for a story that bypasses the obstacle inherent in the concept, and meets the parameters of the contest. Time will tell if I'll succeed. Like I said, my stories often veer away from the original theme and thus become ineligible for the submission. What's worse, I'm thinking this could only work as a comical story -- and I'm the person who on several occasions has proudly admitted not having a sense of humor. That spells success right here. :-) In any case, I'll probably miss the deadline for the contest (I write at a glacial pace) and the point will be moot.

UPDATE1: I've been told Larry Niven has done this theme very well in "Inconstant Moon". I'll have to check it out.

UPDATE2: Checked it out. Some things in the Wikipedia synopsis of this story made me ponder:

"However the narrator surmises that the Sun has gone nova, the day side of the Earth is already destroyed [...]." Wait, he thinks it's possible that the day side of the Earth is destroyed, but nobody has heard it on television or radio? Well, maybe in the year 1971 it was typical for the news to travel with a huge delay, I don't know. It just seems weird.

More importantly, if the Moon is glowing bright, then the sunlight from the "accident" has already reached the Moon -- and the Moon is only a light-second or so away from Earth, is it not? So there is no 8-minute buffer built in here. That said, the idea of Larry Niven's story is definitely similar to that of "8 minutes", only more workable.

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