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Literature / Dragon's Egg

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Dragon's Egg is a 1980 hard science fiction novel by Robert L. Forward.

It is a first contact story about humans meeting the Cheela, a race of beings who live on the surface of a neutron star — the Dragon's Egg from the title.note  Both races live at a different time frame - twenty-nine seconds for a human is the rough equivalent of a year for a Cheela. It was followed in 1989 by a sequel, Starquake, which picks up exactly where Dragon's Egg leaves off.

Notable as a hard science fiction story in that the science tends to be the focus.

Tropes in this book:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The first human time is the year 2020 in a book written in 1980. There's not a lot of tech development, really - there are no personal computers and no internet. The idea of any computer time being a valuable resource you have to pay for time on in the year 2020 (as is the case at the discovery of the neutron star) is kind of funny in retrospect. The nearest to this is the booking system in supercomputers and clusters, only the little difference that is no money involved, or Amazon's EC2.
  • Aliens Never Invented the Wheel: Wheels are never mentioned in the book: the Cheela use sleighs. While it's not explicitly stated, it's easy to surmise that, in the neutron star's extreme gravity, a technology where some part — such as an axle — needs to be lifted off the ground is not practical.
  • Alternative Number System: The Cheela use base 12, since they have 12 eyes.
  • Ancient Astronauts: That is, we are. The arrival of the human spacecraft is so slow from their standpoint they worship it as a god. By the time we actually make contact, the Cheela have developed rudimentary chemistry. Also deconstructs the trope, since the interaction is nothing like how believers in ancient astronauts think it happened on Earth.
  • Anti-Gravity: One of the first things the Cheela invent on their own that is a technology beyond our own. Notably, they develop it before flight — it's actually the basis of their aerospace engineering, since in Dragon's Egg's gravity you can't get airborne without it.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: Since they were born of a neutron star, the Cheela aren't even made from conventional atoms.
  • Blob Monster: The Cheela are sort of like amoebas.
  • The Bus Came Back: Swift-Killer, In-Universe.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The humans meeting up with the Cheela right as they developed society. If the trip had been scheduled just a few weeks (or days!) earlier the humans may have missed them. A few weeks later and the Cheela may have developed some tech already on their own. (Though it would not have been their original civilization, because of the starquake.)
    • Justified up to a point, because the arrival of humans is explicitly said to have kickstarted the Cheela civilization: suddenly some "stars" are moving, so Cheela astrologists invent a writing system to keep track of them, which gets adopted by the general population, etc. It's still a heck of a coincidence, because if the humans arrived a few years earlier or later, the Cheela might have not evolved yet, or be already extinct.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: The story of Pink-Eyes, later renamed God's Chosen.
  • Egopolis: After awaking from her long slumber as a plant, Swift-Killer returns to find there's a town named after her.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: Cheela astronomy and religion, pre-contact, since they are making use of their own limited knowledge and resources. Funnily enough, if taken as metaphor, the stuff about the gods wanting to communicate with them aren't that wrong, since at that point the humans are about to initiate first contact.
  • Extra Eyes: 12, in a circle.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Soother of All Clans. She sought to remake Cheela society in her own vision, but was quite calm and respectful about it. Right up until she attempted a hostile takeover.
  • Figure It Out Yourself: After Cheela science advances far beyond human knowledge, they give the humans an encyclopedia... of entries encrypted using keys based on the new scientific knowledge in the files. For instance, the explanation of Faster-Than-Light Travel is encrypted with a key engraved on an object placed in another star system. Thus, the humans need to figure things out for themselves, but when they do the files will confirm that they got the right answers and perhaps provide additional details.
  • Finishing Each Other's Sentences: One sided. Because the humans speak so slowly to the Cheela, eventually the Cheela start to figure out the point of the sentence before the human is finished speaking. This is to the point that when the humans are finishing sending down the encyclopedia, the Cheela say they've already figured out a lot of the end, but it will be helpful for record purposes.
  • First Contact: Humans meeting the primitive Cheela.
  • First-Contact Math: How the humans contact the Cheela.
  • Flat Character: The humans in this story who are visiting the Cheela have a few simple characteristics, but are nothing more than a device to bring the Cheela in. The Cheela are far richer characters.note 
  • Heavy Worlder: One of the most extreme examples. The Cheela have the same mass as a human being, but compressed into the size of a sesame seed.
  • Humans Are Cthulhu: The Cheela see humans as deities, worshipping their vessel under the name Bright.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The Cheela think absolutely nothing of eating their dead. While they still consider killing wrong, those who die of old age or an accident become somebody else's lunch.
  • Innocent Aliens: The Cheela have as many differences between them as any race, but they don't mean any harm to humans.
  • Luke Noun Verber: Several of the Cheela, such as Swift-Killer, Bit-Cruncher, Clear-Thinker, and Sky-Teacher.
  • Minovsky Physics: Most of the human technology that didn't already exist when the book was written is based on magnetic monopoles, particles that are actually discussed by Real Life physicists (though they remain hypothetical for now). Forward explains in great detail the physics behind the monopole-using tech.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: One Cheela is named Leonardo. It's implied that many more Cheela following the First Contact are named after human historical figures, but they're never named.
  • No Antagonist: In terms of the overarching plot of First Contact. The Cheela go through a great deal of time and conflicts happen in each time period, but there is no Big Bad in the book. Though Soother comes close, she lasts for less than a chapter.
  • A Pupil of Mine Until He Turned to Evil: Averted. The humans upload their encyclopedia to the Cheela who quickly outpace humans, but they take on the role of a good teacher instead.
  • Renaissance Man: Swift-Killer. A military leader, inventor, and avid mater who establishes First Contact with humans.
  • Scavenger Hunt: The Cheela eventually surpass humanity and give them the secret of interstellar travel but in it's encrypted with the key listed as "written on a pyramid on the fifth planet of Epsilon Eridani".
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Very much on the Idealistic end; not only is First Contact pulled off without any harm to either species, but the history of the cheela appears to be far less violent than human history.
  • Space Elevator: The Cheela need one of sorts to get off of the star.
  • Starfish Aliens: The Cheela are like amoebas, only with 12 eyes on stalks.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Aliens: Humans to the Cheela, initially. The roles are soon reversed
  • Technology Levels: Mostly averted. The Cheela's technological development is very loosely patterned after the mankind's, but their different environment imposes important differences. See Aliens Never Invented the Wheel and Anti-Gravity above for more.
  • Time Stands Still: That's about how the humans look to the Cheela.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: For every twenty-nine human seconds, about a year goes by for a Cheela. (Reading this out loud at a normal pace from "Year Inside, Hour Outside" to this point takes about six months of Cheela time.) A Cheela lifetime runs about 90 "greats" (approximately forty-four minutes) on average. One human character goes to bed annoyed that he'll be asleep for the Cheela equivalent of a millennium.