The Fermi paradox asks why, if aliens exist, they haven’t contacted us yet. While a vast number of explanations have been given, one of the most charming is invented and explored in this story.
It is the far future. Joshua has lived for ten thousand years and has slept in suspended animation for many times as long. (When a woman meets him, “I freely admit that in that first instant I did not recognize her, though we had thrice been married over these slow waityears.”) He is the grandson of the first man who, back in the twenty-second century, flew beyond Pluto’s orbit and smashed into a crystal sphere that had encapsulated the whole solar system.
Further expeditions find more crystal spheres throughout the galaxy. In fact, it turns out there is a crystal sphere surrounding every solar system that contains potentially habitable planets. These spheres cannot be broken from the outside. A planet inside a sphere is thus protected from the rest of the galaxy, a safe environment in which life might arise. Only when life has achieved sufficient sentiency and technology to break its own sphere does it gain the potential to run into other intelligent life.
Despite this, humanity has roamed the galaxy and has found no other intelligence. It’s only when a broken sphere is discovered, and Joshua is sent to investigate, that the truth is found to be more complicated.
I admit to some frustration on rereading this story and finding it littered with compound words (of which ‘waityears’ is only one) that feel like a forced attempt at future linguistics. On the other hand, I’d completely forgotten the final twist, which gives a new spin on the premise. And, while I’m still not quite sure how the crystal spheres are meant to work physically, they’re a beautiful idea.
The Crystal Spheres by David Brin
Availability: print only
Word count: 7,400
Awards: Hugo Award winner, Analog Award winner
First published: Analog magazine, January 1984
Where to find it: The New Hugo Winners, edited by Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg, 1991, Baen
The River of Time, collection, 1994, Bantam Spectra
The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of the 20th Century, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, 1998, NewStar Publishing