Slow Train to Arcturus (2008) is a standalone SF novel. The story is set in the mid-future over five centuries from now. The ship/habitat was launched in 2153, but the interception by Miran aliens took place in deep space about four centuries later.
In this novel, the Mirans detect an alien spacecraft approaching their sun at a velocity of 0.3 lightspeed. Checking their archives, they discover two centuries of data on the alien vessel. They decide to investigate the object more closely.
Mirans are generally claustrophobic and hate crowds. Since the spaceship is small and crowded, the crew were chosen for their relative comfort in such conditions. Moreover, Mirans start life as males and eventually transform to sessile females. Since they are larger and more experienced than the males, the females rule Miran society. All the crew are taking drugs to remain male.
The Mirans rendezvous with the alien vessel after a voyage of six years and over a distance of 1.8 lightyears from their home sun. Most of the crew were in drugged suspension for the trip. As they neared the alien vessel, the sleeping crew are awakened.
Kretz is the xenobiologist and engineer in the crew. Nobody thinks that a biologist will be necessary since the alien vessel is obviously a probe. Yet Kretz is among the crew because they can't go back to get anything they forgot.
Selna is the ship physician. He is close to changeover to a female. The drugs are just barely keeping him male.
Zawn is the archaeologist and leader of the crew. He should have a field day with the alien object.
Arbet is the deepspace radiation expert and pilot. He has been awake during the whole six years studying deepspace emissions.
Derfel is a generalist, a jack of all trades. He has several fields of expertise. He is the most abnormal of the misfit crew, actually liking crowds and small spaces.
In this story, Kretz awakes still groggy from the drugs. Zawn is already awake and viewing instruments on the science deck. Kretz joins him there and Selna gives him a vile-tasting high-energy drink to speed his recovery.
The alien spacecraft is obviously not just a probe. It has engines and a working fusion reactor as well as atmospheric replenishments. It is composed of spherical objects like beads on a string. Moreover, it has airlocks.
Zawn and Kretz discuss who will enter the alien vessel. They decide that they will both go and that Arbet will accompany them. Their ship maneuvers behind the last bead on the string and links up to the rearmost airlock.
When they enter the vessel, they find it contains many tunnels lined with lights, pipes and plants. They also find living aliens. After a bad start, relations seem to improve. Their translator computers are beginning to understand the alien language.
On the next visit, the stripe-faced strangers invite the whole crew to come to a banquet. Unfortunately, the Mirans seem destined to be the main course. The aliens throw flame at the Mirans and Selna draws a laser pistol and shoots at the aliens. The aliens shoot back with projectile weapons and then kick his body as he lies limp on the floor.
Kretz flees from the aliens. Since they are between him and the airlock, he heads deeper into the node. The aliens chase him with bloodthirsty cries.
Eventually, Kretz finds a way into the next node and is found by another alien. This one is not stripe-faced, but is rather large. The alien takes Kretz home and treats his injuries.
In this story, Arbet and Derfel take the lander to the sixth from the end node to investigate the apparently working laser communicator there. After they record the communicator operations, Derfel draws his laser pistol and forces Arbet to cycle through the nearby airlock. Derfel wants to be famous, but was not been chosen to visit the aliens in the previous visits. Now is his chance for fame.
Within the alien node, Derfel and Arbet are greeted as gods (or at least royalty). The aliens bow down to the Mirans and then carry them to a massive structure. After confrontations with other aliens, the populace carries them within the building and places Derfel on a throne.
This tale is quite unusual. The interstellar train concept has been used before (see The Celestial Steam Locomotive and Pandora's Star), but not at this level of hard science and detail. The use of this vessel to carry restless groups off Terra is definitely not new, but again the details are astounding. Supplemental inserts of documents about development of the slowtrain are quite interesting.
Note: the above dates are Terran, but the times are probably Miran local measures. While the speed of light is -- relatively speaking -- constant in space, the length of a year (and a century) varies depending upon the orbital parameters of the home planet. So, what does 1.8 lightyears mean to a Miran?
The story is a satire of the human condition. It pokes fun at various social concepts -- both modern and medieval -- through the eyes of confused Mirans. Sort of an SF version of Candide. Enjoy!
Highly recommended for Flint & Freer fans and for anyone else who enjoys tales of deepspace adventures, alien contacts, and human foibles.
-Arthur W. Jordin