First contact: Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg (1980)

How do I even begin to talk about Dragon’s Egg?

Dragon's Egg by Robert L. Forward

Cover when I first read Dragon’s Egg

This book was a real game changer for me. Dragon’s Egg by Robert L. Forward was probably the first hard science-fiction book I ever read. I came across it when I was 11 or 12, and it hugely expanded my conception of what science-fiction could be. As Forward was a physicist, his novels are filled with credible scientific inferences of what technology would be used for space travel, as well as interesting hypotheses of what life might look like on worlds much different than our own.

Published in 1980, the world that Dragon’s Egg focuses on is not a planet at all, but a neutron star, Dragon’s Egg, in the star constellation Draco. The life that evolves on that star is hyper accelerated in comparison with the pace at which humans move due to exposure to the extremely high gravity. Forward explores the evolution of this life with an attention to the impact of the neutron star on the alien cheela. In addition, he outlines the beliefs and culture of the cheela with the care of an anthropologist. In both ways, he manages to hit the nail on the head and the result is a three-dimensional, believable alien species.

The novel follows the evolution of the cheela, from the initial molecules that form the first stages of life on the planet, to their eventual emergence as a spacefaring race. This all happens very quickly: the cheela go from a primitive, tribal state to spacetravel in the span of one month as the observing human race can only watch and marvel.1

For me, this novel is notable in its hard science fiction, as well as the reversal of the first contact dynamic. When the humans first appear in the skies above Dragon’s Egg, the cheela see the spacecraft as a new star in the sky and eventually develop a religion based around the new star. Initially, the humans are set up as literal gods for the cheela. They are the dominant figure in the first contact relationship, with the cheela clear primitives.

But due to the accelerated development of the cheela, the two races become equals, sharing scientific articles and information. Yet this exchange is mostly one-sided as any message the humans transmit to the cheela arrives very slowly due to their perception of time, while any message the cheela send arrives instantaneously to a human’s perspective. They are unable to hold any sort of meaningful dialogue because of this vast difference between their two species.

Dragon's Egg by Robert L. Forward

Current edition’s cover

When face-to-face contact is finally achieved, the reversal of the first contact relationship is complete. The cheela have made scientific advances beyond the humans’ own understanding, and the aliens decide that further contact and exchange of technology and science would negatively impact the human species’ development. They gift humanity with a few scientific discoveries and then the cheela terminate the relationship.

In the reversal of the first contact relationship, with the cheela becoming the dominant, more advanced species, is the cheela’s utilization of a logic not unlike Star Trek‘s Prime Directive, not yet fully developed in the Star Trek universe at the time of Dragon’s Egg‘s publication.2 The cheela recognize the danger posed by technology given to a species not ready for such information. For science-fiction, this is a sign of maturity in a species, of which the overbearing example is Star Trek‘s Prime Directive. And with the use of this logic the cheela become the unlikely protectors of humans.

1. Dragon’s Egg was most likely the inspiration for the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Blink of an Eye.
2. The Prime Directive was not well-defined until Star Trek: The Next Generation, which premiered in 1987.

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