Mapping H. Beam Piper, Part 3: To Niflheim!

Here’s something we already knew: Science Fiction authors don’t always get their science right.

The planet Niflheim, a hell-planet, features prominently in H. Beam Piper’s fiction because the name of the planet has become a swear-word. According to Uller Uprising, Niflheim is the 4th planet of the B8 star Nu Puppis, 148 light-years from Earth.

And the problem? Nu Puppis is actually 422.5 light-years from Earth.

It’s pretty clear that the figure given in the book is the intended distance of Niflheim from Earth. In fact, even the closer figure may be a problem – a trip to Uller, at Beta Hydri, is described as taking half a year, and that’s only 21 light years from Earth. So if travel times are linear, that would mean 2.5 years for the Terra-Nifflheim trip. There is also regular Niflheim – Uller traffic; ships from Niflheim stop over at Uller on their way to Terra.

On the other hand, Piper’s hyperdrives were not described consistently. In Uller, ships in hyperspace experience time at a slower rate. This is never picked up again in later books, but travel times have to be taken with a grain of salt in Uller Uprising.

The basic data on Niflheim stems from a short writeup by one Dr. John D. Clark, so the source of Piper’s error is easy to find. However, we still need to figure out what went wrong, and how to compensate for it in our little mapping project.

The coordinates are clearly correct for Nu Puppis, it’s just the distance that makes no sense. It is possible that Nu Puppis was thought to be much closer to earth when Uller Uprising was written. But we have to live with the broken data, and somehow get it back in sync with reality.

Unfortunately there are no other stars in the Puppis constellation that match type and distance, so we can’t claim a simple case of getting the name slightly wrong. So what is there in the sky that matches the star type and approximate distance? Not a whole lot:

HIP HD HR BayerFlamsteed ProperName RA Dec Distance AbsMag Spectrum
7588 10144 472 Alp Eri Achernar 1,63 -57,24 44,09 -2,77 B3Vp
25428 35497 1791 112Bet Tau Alnath 5,44 28,61 40,18 -1,37 B7III
10602 14228 674 Phi Eri 2,28 -51,51 47,48 0,18 B8IV-V
74785 135742 5685 27Bet Lib 15,28 -9,38 49,07 -0,84 B8V
13209 17573 838 41 Ari 2,83 27,26 48,90 0,16 B8Vn
113963 218045 8781 54Alp Peg Markab 23,08 15,21 42,81 -0,67 B9.5III
90185 169022 6879 20Eps Sgr Kaus Australis 18,40 -34,38 44,35 -1,44 B9.5III
12394 16978 806 Eps Hyi 2,66 -68,27 47,01 0,76 B9III
2484 2884 126 Bet1Tuc 0,53 -62,96 42,83 1,20 B9V
116971 222661 8988 105Ome2Aqr 23,71 -14,54 47,26 1,12 B9V
23287 32040 1610 5,01 3,62 42,86 3,49 B9Vn

Here, distances are listed in Parsec (I am too lazy to convert all of them). 148 light years are 45.38 parsec. Beta Tucane can be quickly discounted, as it is a weird multiple-star system and this would’ve come up in the descriptions in the story.

phi Eridani is about the right distance, and is the “best match” for coordinates to those figures from the description given by Dr Clark, but since the original values do match Nu Puppis the error in the document must have been confusing two stars, not getting the coordinates wrong. Still, phi Eridani is as reasonable a pick as any others.

Kaus Australis (Epsilon Sagittarii) is actually listed as 188 light years distant in Hipparcos, so it’s not a very good match. It also seems that the star is really too bright for a B class, and might be in the process of dying. Now, humans are short-sighted creatures, but I’d like to think we would not establish a permanent colony around such a star. Of course, in an advanced interstellar society, and close-up observations we may decide that the star has millions of years left and settle planets in its system anyway.

However, there is the distance issue, and we do have an even better match.

Epsilon Hydri is B9III and we’ll need to work out whether this could actually possess a planet at the described orbit, but it matches the distance fairly well and it’s in the same very general direction as Beta Hydri (by virtue of being in the same constellation), which would make it plausible that an incoming ship would stop over at Uller. There isn’t much information on Epsilon Hydri on the web, but I guess it’s a good choice.

I will go with Niflheim being in orbit around Epsilon Hydri when trying to work out a map of Piper space.

Do you guys have any opinion on what might be a better choice?

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2 thoughts on “Mapping H. Beam Piper, Part 3: To Niflheim!

  1. This is a common problem in older SF stories: That the estimated distance to a given star has changed markedly between the time the story was written and now. But instead of suggesting that the planet actually orbits a different star than the one specified in the story, I submit the best way to interpret the canon is that in the Piperverse, the star really is at the distance specified. After all, we know Piper's TerroHuman Future History occurs in a different universe from ours; for example, in the THFH, WW III occurs no later than 1975.

  2. Yeah I could just do that, but that does rob me of a valuable reference (the real world). The star's name is mentioned twice, once in the essay and once in the story, so it's not like we'd break a whole lot. There are more problems, anyway – travel time from Nif to Uller is described as 6 months, the same as the travel time to Terra. The star's position is never directly used in the story itself.

    In the end what I want to create is a consistent, plausible map – if I have to interpret, guess, and fix some issues then that's what I will do. 🙂

    I'll work out the 3d Coordinates for these stars though – and see what comes from that.

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