Altair in fiction
Altair (Alpha Aquilae) is a luminous white star in the constellation Aquila (the Eagle) frequently featured in works of science fiction. Classified as a A-type main sequence star, and located 16.7 light-years from Earth, Altair is one of the few stars for which a resolved image of measurable nonzero extent has been obtained (see graphic). It rotates so rapidly, with a period of just 9 hours – compared to 25 days for the Sun – that it is significantly oblate, having an equatorial diameter more than 20 percent greater than its polar diameter. It is a peculiar fact that among the authors of the fictional works in this article, not excluding Hal Clement (who imagined dramatic equatorial bulges for many of his planets), only Jerry Oltion (1999) has employed or even acknowledged the striking physical peculiarities of this star (see "Biosphere", below).
There is no evidence that the system is home to any extrasolar planets.
Altair is the brightest star in the constellation Aquila and the twelfth brightest star in the night sky. With an apparent visual magnitude of 0.77, it is one of the closest stars visible to the unaided eye (most of the nearest stars are red dwarfs too dim to see without a telescope). It forms a part of two well-known triplet asterisms: With β and γ Aquilae it forms the straight line of stars sometimes referred to as the Family of Aquila or the Shaft of Aquila; more prominently, it is the southernmost vertex of the Summer Triangle, the other two vertices being the bright stars Deneb and Vega (see High Sierra, below).
The name Altair is from the Arabic (النسر الطائر an-nasr aṭ-ṭā’ir), which translates literally as the flying eagle, from its belonging to the constellation. The star is named and plays a part in a variety of ancient myths worldwide, especially in the Western- and South-Pacific regions of the globe. In particular, in Chinese myth it is called the Cowherd Star after the story of the cowherd Niú Láng and his two children (β and γ Aquilae), who are separated from their mother Zhī Nŭ (the star Vega) by the Milky Way. They are only permitted to meet once a year, when the Milky Way is crossed by a bridge of magpies.
General uses of Altair
Altair may be referred to in fictional works for its metaphorical (meta) or mythological (myth) associations, or else as a bright point of light in the sky of Earth, but not as a location in space or the center of a hypothetical planetary system:
- Walden (1854), apologia written by Henry David Thoreau. In describing the supposed remoteness of his lodgings on Walden Pond, Thoreau compares it to various otherworldly locations: We are wont to imagine rare and delectable places in some remote and more celestial corner of the system ... I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned, part of the universe. If it were worth the while to settle in those parts near to ... Altair, then I was really there, or at an equal remoteness from the life which I had left behind, dwindled and twinkling with as fine a ray to my nearest neighbor, and to be seen only in moonless nights by him.(meta)
- Ben-Hur (1880), novel by General Lew Wallace. Judah Ben-Hur returns to Jerusalem as the adopted "young Quintus Arrius," and has the chance to revenge himself against his erstwhile friend-turned-enemy, the tribune Messala, by defeating him in a great chariot race. He will race the four eager white Arabians of Sheik Ilderim, who are named after stars: Ha, Antares—Aldebaran! Shall he not, O honest Rigel? and thou, Atair, king among coursers, shall he not beware of us? Ha, ha! good hearts. (myth)
- High Sierra (1941), film written by John Huston and W. R. Burnett, and directed by Raoul Walsh. On his way to a planned heist in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) meets Velma (Joan Leslie). Under the night sky one romantic evening, he points out various stars to her: [ROY] ... you see different stars at different times. They change with the seasons ... [VELMA (pointing)] That big star farther south? You know what it is? [MED. CLOSE SHOT FAVORING ROY AND VELMA Roy comes closer to Velma to better see the way she is pointing. ROY] Where? Oh, yeah... I think maybe that must be Altair. Yes, I guess it is Altair. [Velma's face is upward, her hair falls back. Roy looks at it. Their hands meet. They stand holding hands.] (sky)
There follow references to Altair as a location in space or the center of a planetary system, categorized by genre:
- The Woman from Altair (1951), novelette by Leigh Brackett published in Startling Stories shortly before that magazine's demise. The woman of the title is from the world Ahrian in the Altair planetary system.
- Close to Critical (1964), novel by Hal Clement. The book is set on Tenebra, a planet of the star Altair and a hellish world with crushing gravity and surface temperatures of just over 374 °C, close to the critical point of water. The Tenebrans are an intelligent and adaptable albeit primitive race who must be crash-trained to lead the rescue of two young humans who have become marooned in a damaged Bathyscaphe while plumbing the planet's thick atmosphere. The plot of Close to Critical is similar to that of Clement's widely beloved Mission of Gravity of a decade earlier: The Competent (alien) Man in extremis, the lover of knowledge, bravely facing an intricate and demanding technical challenge.
- A Far Sunset (1967), novel by Edmund Cooper. In the year 2032 the exploration starship Gloria Mundi lands on the planet Altair V—a planet inhabited by primitive humanoids who, it turns out, share a common ancestry with the terrestrial branch of humanity. Most of the Gloria's crew mysteriously disappears soon after touchdown, leaving alive only the novel's protagonist, the psychiatrist Paul Marlow. Crusoe-like, Marlow gains ascendancy over the local tribe of the indigenous Bayani and begins training them in the rudiments of civilization. Adapting to the simplicity and naïveté of the Bayani lifestyle, he begins to view the complex and advanced culture of the Earth as being absurd. When after two Bayani years he is contacted by a starship come to his rescue, he considers staying on Altair V.
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1978- ), novels and other media by Douglas Adams. The denomination of currency commonly used throughout the galaxy is the Altairian dollar, native (of course) to the Altair system. We first hear about this kind of money early in the original book when we learn that Ford Prefect, roving researcher for that "wholly remarkable book," The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, knows how to see the Marvels of the Universe for "less than thirty Altairian dollars a day."
- The Third Planet from Altair (1980), juvenile gamebook #7 in the series Choose Your Own Adventure, written by Edward Packard and illustrated by Paul Granger. This interactive book describes with multiple variant scenarios and plot threads an expedition sent to the planet Altair III from the Earth to investigate the source of mysterious radio signals.
- The Winds of Altair (1983), novel written by Ben Bova. Earth is an old planet, and her teeming masses are running out of resources ... and time. It is up to men like Jeff Holman to discover a haven for Earth’s suffering millions. Altair VI is one such world, and Holman is determined to terraform this alien planet into one where the human race can survive—but there's a hitch: It is already home to a sentient race who are just as smart as we are. Jeff "can’t help feeling that what we are doing is wrong. It’s murder. Genocide ..." and he faces a soul-wrenching decision. Still, the long-term outlook can hardly be in doubt. "In his nonfiction and fiction alike, Ben Bova makes it clear that survival for the [human] race lies elsewhere than on this planet [Earth] alone..."
- The Tommyknockers (1987), novel by Stephen King. Altair IV is a desolate, nearly airless world serving as a sort of cosmic storeroom for objects from all over the galaxy (compare Altair IV in Film and television: The Forbidden Planet below). In the novel, inhabitants of a small New England town discover an alien spacecraft, and in he days the follow are themselves transformed into super-intelligent but ethically challenged aliens. Bizarre crimes are committed, such as the "kidnapping" of young David Brown, whose jealous older brother Hilly teleports him to Altair IV where he languishes alongside a trove of interstellar junk.
- The Rowan (1990), novel by Anne McCaffrey. The Rowan tells the life story of Angharad Gwyn, a Prime Talent (the highest classification of telepath), from the moment the child's family and community were destroyed to the time when she becomes a Prime. Gwyn—The Rowan of the title—was the only survivor of a landslide that destroyed the Rowan Mining Camp on the planet Altair. Buried under detritus and sludge for days, the child sent cries for help and, thanks to the power of her young mind, was heard by every receptive telepath on the planet.
- "Biosphere" (1999), short story by Jerry Oltion published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. An exploration ship lands on the newly discovered—and newly named—Boglietti's Planet. On this blazing, steamy jungle world a cloud deck forty thousand feet thick barely shields the glare of Altair, nine times brighter in the sky than the Sun seen from the Earth. Young protagonist Darren becomes lost in a chartreuse forest so pulsing with avid life that in a few hours it rots the clothes off his back, and just as quickly composts to dust any branch he plucks for a defensive club—the basis for a science fiction conundrum: Using nothing but his own naked body, how can he survive and find his way home? Oltion is the only author among those appearing in this article to make use of Altair's unique stellar properties: "Boglietti's world, like everything in the Altair system, had a lot of angular momentum, which meant a short day."
- Sunstorm (2005), novel written by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. A giant planet that will plunge into the Sun "with the mass of fifteen Jupiters" has been launched toward the Solar System by the Firstborn intelligences of the Altair system. The Altarians, believing mankind to be a disorderly and profligate race, are determined to stop humanity from wastefully "infecting" the galaxy. At immense cost, the planetary missile has been launched on a collision course with the Solar System, with the intention of triggering a huge solar flare (see animation) that will sterilize the surface of the Earth, and possibly destroy humankind's ultimate refuge on Mars as well. Although illuminated by a spark of hope at the very end, this generally pessimistic tale marks a striking contrast to Clarke's usual liberal, optimistic view of the probable benefits of technology to the future of the human race.
- V: The Second Generation (2008), novel written by Kenneth Johnson, creator of the original V mini-series that aired in 1983. In the mini-series finale, the Resistance, who has been trying to prevent the reptilian race The Visitors from stealing Earth's water and harvesting humans for food, send out a deep-space signal hoping to reach another alien race they understand are enemies of the Visitors. In V: The Second Generation, that signal is intercepted by the Zedti, a race of humanoids evolved from insects whose home planet revolves around the star Altair, some 16 light years away. The Zedti, who arrive to aid the Resistance and vanquish the Visitors, explain that they were able to travel to Earth in just 4 years utilizing a form of wormhole technology.
- The Romulan War: Beneath the Raptor's Wing (2009), Star Trek: Enterprise relaunch novel written by Michael A. Martin as part of the film, television, and print franchise originated by Gene Roddenberry. The planet Altair VI has been attacked by the Romulans twice. The first attack was blocked by the warships Columbia, Heinlein, and Kon-Tiki, and the second was defeated by a task force led by the starship Endeavour.
Film and television
The items in this subsection all refer to works in the film, television, and print franchise originated by Gene Roddenberry.
- "Amok Time" (1967), episode of Star Trek: The Original Series written by Theodore Sturgeon. Suffering through his first infliction of pon farr, the Vulcan biological mating urge, Spock must return to Vulcan to marry his betrothed or he will perish. Solicitous of his first officer, Captain James Kirk diverts the USS Enterprise from its original destination, Altair VI, so that he can deliver Spock to his home planet. Complications ensue.
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), film written by Jack B. Sowards and directed by Nicholas Meyer. The film opens with a space battle between the USS Enterprise and a Klingon ship that turns out to be a holodeck simulation: the Kobayashi Maru test for cadets pursuing the command track at Starfleet Academy. This simulation confronts the subject with a moral and strategic dilemma. Should he rescue the disabled civilian vessel Kobayashi Maru if it means violating a peace treaty with the Klingons and the risk of war, or should he observe the spatial proscriptions of the treaty and abandon the ship to certain extinction? As the scenario unfolds, the damaged spacecraft reports that they are "nineteen periods out of Altair VI," the closest starport to the disaster and a possible haven if the Kobayashi Maru can be succored.
- "Encounter at Farpoint" (1987), two-hour pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation written by Gene Roddenberry and directed by Corey Allen. Captain Picard and the crew of the newly built USS Enterprise-D examine the mysterious Farpoint Station, which the enigmatic Bandi are offering to the Federation—all while he labors under the judgmental gaze of a powerful alien entity that calls itself Q. At Farpoint, Picard wants to fire on a mysterious hostile craft, but is warned off by Q, so he sends an away team instead. In an "establishing" conversation for the new series we learn that Captain Robert DeSoto of the USS Hood was once ordered not to beam down to the surface of the planet Altair III with an away team because the excursion was considered too dangerous, and inappropriate for a commanding officer.
- "Prophet Motive" (1995), episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine written by Ira Steven Behr and Robert Hewitt Wolfe, and directed by René Auberjonois. In the episode, Zek, a Grand Nagus of the venal and acquisitive Ferengi, has a change of heart and turns to a spirit of kindness and giving—a development so out of character that it alarms the medical staff, including Julian Bashir, the chief medical officer of Deep Space Nine. A sub-plot has Bashir nominated for the prestigious Carrington Award for medicine, which he ends up not winning. In the episode's back-story, Doctor Henri Roget of the Central Hospital of Altair IV was a recipient of the same award in 2371.
Other film and television
- Forbidden Planet (1956), film written by Cyril Hume and directed by Fred M. Wilcox, loosely based on William Shakespeare's romance The Tempest. Early in the 23rd century, the United Planets cruiser C57-D is sent to the planet Altair IV to discover the fate of a colony expedition lost there 20 years before. The spaceship receives a radio transmission from Dr. Edward Morbius of the original expedition (Prospero) who warns them away, advising that he cannot guarantee their safety and that he needs no further assistance. The starship's captain, Commander John J. Adams (Alonso and Ferdinand—see graphic), insists that Morbius provide landing coordinates; Morbius reluctantly complies and the C57-D lands on the "forbidden planet." Adventure—and scenes with Robbie the Robot (Ariel) and the id monster (Caliban)—ensue. The plot, mixing the tawdry and the potent, is very sophisticated for the time ... The visual treatment was unsurpassed until 2001: A Space Odyssey, made 12 years later. Despite its flaws, the film remains one of the few masterpieces of science fiction cinema.
- "The Plot to Kill a City" (1979), episodes 106 and 107 in the television series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century written by Alan Brennert and directed by Dick Lowry. After capturing Raphael Argus, a notorious assassin who began his career on Altair V, Buck learns that the killer is to attend a conclave of terrorists. Buck assumes his identity, discovers a plot to destroy New Chicago, is himself discovered, and manages to get back to Earth to foil the conspiracy.
- Doctor Who – The Ultimate Adventure (1989), stage and audio play written by Terrance Dicks, based on the long-running British science fiction television series Doctor Who. The story involves an alliance between the Daleks and the Cybermen who have joined forces to kidnap the American Envoy and ruin a peace conference on Earth. Doctor Who and his companions fail to foil the plot, but follow the trail of the kidnappers to Altair III, and then the Bar Galactica and points beyond.
- "Tin Man" (1998), episode #19 of Stargate SG-1 written by Jeff F. King and directed by Jimmy Kaufman. 11,000 years ago, the inhabitants of the planet Altair (P3X-989) were forced underground by deadly radiation, and eventually transferred their minds into exact android duplicates to survive. By the time SG-1 visits their planet, only one Altarian remains: Harlan, who creates android replicas of the Earth team to aid him. When this is discovered, the androids must remain on Altair, and the real SG-1 returns home.
- Aquarion Evol (2012- ), anime television series written by Mari Okada, and directed by Shōji Kawamori and Yūsuke Yamamoto. Mankind living on the planet Vega is threatened by a new enemy from the planet Altair, whose female population was wiped out by a mysterious disease. Altarian kidnap squads seeking to ensure the preservation of their race roam the cities of Vega, looking for females strong enough to survive the interdimensional trip back to their Aquilan homeworld.
- Crystal Caves (1991), DOS-based side-scrolling computer platform game developed and published by Apogee Software. The player controls Mylo Steamwitz: a space trader, a loser, and a serial investor in get-rich-quick schemes. He travels to the Altairian star system and ventures into the "Crystal Caves" hoping to harvest the huge crystals which he dreams will bankroll a planned twibble farm. There are many challenges to overcome, both athletic and adversarial, as he gathers booty in his left-to-right quest.
- Frontier: Elite II (1993) and Frontier: First Encounters (1995), computer games written by David Braben et al. The Altair system is home to a single habitable Federation world that boasts a profitable tourism industry.
- Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares (1996), 4X turn-based strategy game developed by Simtex and published by MicroProse. The homeworld of the avian Alkari race orbits a star named Altair by default.
- Descent: FreeSpace – The Great War (1998), computer game developed by Volition, Inc. and published by Interplay Entertainment. Space war rages between the Galactic Terran-Vasudan Alliance and the brutal Shivans. At certain points during gameplay, monologues by members of an extinct race, the Ancients, are told in pre-rendered cutscenes. The Ancients inhabited the Altarian system some 8000 years ago, leaving behind the massive ruins of the Temple of Altair on Altair V, until they were annihilated by the Shivans; with an undertone of sadness they detail those events, suggesting the long history of the Shivans' actions and their effects on developing sentient species.
- Galactic Civilizations (2003), strategy video game developed by Stardock and published by Strategy First. One of the five major races in the game is the Altarian Resistance, psychic humanoids inhabiting the Altair system who possess a very practical morality: They are quick to destroy any "Evil" civilization unless it is a lucrative trading partner. The Altarians are opposed by the reptilian—and Pure Evil—Drengin Empire.
- Light of Altair (2009), computer game developed and published by SaintXi. Players colonize various planets and develop or defend them as circumstances dictate—one of the available planets being in the eponymous Altair system.
- AltairVI (2010), Windows Phone 7 role-playing game deveolped and published by altairvi.com. This is the adventure of the surviving crew of the USS Bodacity who are stranded on Altair VI, a remote planet in the peripheral sectors of colonized space. The Bodacity loses contact with Altair Base's navigational beacon, and the crew attempt to bring her down by hand. Manual control of a large ship in the heavy winds that sweep the Altarian moorland is challenging, and they crash against the ramparts of the base.
Altair is referred to as a location in space or the center of a planetary system unusually often in fiction. For a list containing many stars and planetary systems that have a less extensive list of references, see Stars and planetary systems in fiction.
- "Gazing up at the Man in the Star?". National Science Foundation. Retrieved 2012-01-18.
- This image of Altair was made in 2006 with infrared interferometry, using the MIRC instrument on the CHARA array interferometer, and published in 2007 by J. D. Monnier and his coworkers at the Mount Wilson Observatory.
- Schaaf, Fred (2008). The Brightest Stars: Discovering The Universe Through The Sky's Most Brilliant Stars. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. p. 194. ISBN 978-0-471-70410-2.
- Schaaf, Fred (2008). The Brightest Stars: Discovering The Universe Through The Sky's Most Brilliant Stars. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. p. 190. ISBN 978-0-471-70410-2.
- "Summer Triangle". The Internet Encyclopedia of Science. Retrieved 2012-01-19.
- Brown, Ju; Brown, John (2006). China, Japan, Korea Culture and Customs: Culture and Customs. Charleston, SC: BookSurge Publishing. p. 72. ISBN 1-4196-4893-4.
- Yuan, Haiwang; Williams, Michael Ann (2006). Magic Lotus Lantern and Other Tales from the Han Chinese. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited. pp. 105–107. ISBN 1-59158-294-6.
- Thoreau, Henry David (2011). Walden. Huntington, WV: Empire Books. p. 64. ISBN 1-61949-195-8.
- Wallace, Lew (2011). Ben-Hur. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace. p. 198. ISBN 1-4663-4816-X.
- Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter (1993). "Clement, Hal". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St Martin’s Griffin. p. 234. ISBN 0-312-13486-X.
- Adams, Douglas (2002). The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. New York: Del Rey. p. 12. ISBN 0-345-45374-3.
- Bova, Ben (1983). The Winds of Altair. New York: Tom Doherty Associates. p. 190. ISBN 0-8125-3227-9.
- Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter (1993). "Bova, Ben". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St Martin’s Griffin. p. 147. ISBN 0-312-13486-X.
- Oltion, Jerry (June 1999). "Biosphere". The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction 96 (6): 40–57.
- Clarke, Arthur C; Baxter, Stephen (2005). Sunstorm. New York: Del Rey Books. p. 222. ISBN 0-345-45251-8.
- Clarke, Arthur C; Baxter, Stephen (2005). Sunstorm. New York: Del Rey Books. p. 319. ISBN 0-345-45251-8.
- Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter (1993). "Clarke, Arthur C". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St Martin’s Griffin. p. 232. ISBN 0-312-13486-X.
- Johnson, Kenneth (2008). V: The Second Generation. New York: TOR. p. 191. ISBN 0-7653-5932-4.
- Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter (1993). "Forbidden Planet". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St Martin’s Griffin. p. 437. ISBN 0-312-13486-X.
- "Vasudan". RPGamer.org. Retrieved 2012-02-18.
- Volition staff (1998). "FreeSpace Reference Bible" (Word 97 download). Champaign, IL: Volition, Inc. p. 25. Retrieved 2012-01-24.
- "Games Studio: Light of Altair". SaintXi. Retrieved 2012-01-24.
- "Light of Altair Review". Imagine Games Network (IGN). Retrieved 2012-01-24.
- "Episode 1: Stranded on Altair VI". AltairVI. Retrieved 2012-01-25.