It’s interesting – to many of the Appendix N crowd, Anderson is probably best known for his fantasy epic the Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions. But if you do a little searching, he wrote a lot of scifi. Some of that is on display in his last Appendix N entry, the High Crusade, but genre was a lot less well-(or rigidly)-defined back then, and I’m not really sure I’d call that particular story scifi.
“The Burning Bridge,” which is a single short story from the collection Orbit Unlimited, presents us with the story of a fleet of colony ships on their way to the inhospitable-sounding world of Rustum, a planet with 1.5x Earth gravity, an alien ecology, and 20 light years of space separating it from the rest of humanity. The colonists, a group of people called Constitutionalists, are scientists and freedom-lovers (“archaists”) that have decided to leave Earth in light of its increasingly oppressive government.
Suddenly a message reaches the fleet – the government has decided not to proceed with its “educational decree,” the last straw that set the 3,000 travelers on their exodus. Now the fleet must decide whether to proceed on their mission or to return home to Earth.
Of course, there are complications. Perhaps the most pressing is the consideration of time. Because of the workings of space travel, in two months the ships will have reached the “Point of No Return,” whereupon stopping and reversing course will actually take longer than proceeding to Rustum before the ships and their crew return to Earth. And because of the relativity principle of lightspeed, each day they continue means weeks or months more will have passed for Earth.
Admiral Coffin’s first instinct is to complete his mission, but he must wrestle with his compunction to grant the colonists and crew a say in their ultimate fate, and the practicalities and possible consequences of doing such. For one thing, it would be logistically impossible to rouse each of the 3,000 passengers in order to hold a vote. Furthermore, can Earth’s message be trusted? And can the colonists themselves, granted this perhaps false hope of returning to the comforts of their old home, be trusted to make the best decision for themselves and for humanity?
I won’t reveal what ultimately happens, but I will say that certain elements remind me of Gordon Dickson’s Mission to Universe, which would be published four years after Orbit Unlimited.
Coffin himself is a somewhat interesting character in what he represents. His name reflects his morose persona and the mournful state of his existence. A Christian in a world of heathens and pagans, he mourns for his faith and the razing of his father’s church to make way for a Buddhist temple. An aging spaceman in a time when Earth seems to be turning inward and losing its interest in the stars, he mourns his dying career.
This wasn’t the best scifi I’ve ever read, and if ACTION is thing that really gets you going, this one isn’t for you. Still, there is plenty of conflict, and the world Anderson paints draws you in and makes you want to learn more about it. It’s a nice little read, and I imagine it’s even better in the context of being one part of a larger story.