‘The Last Machine in the Solar System’ Examines Humanity’s End

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I just received a small, thin book in the mail with the title The Last Machine in the Solar System. Written by Matthew Isaac Sobin (with illustrations by Jak Katz), this little novella was easily read in one sitting, but the theme of the book has stuck with me for much longer. The news has just recently reported on the discovery of seven new planets that have scientists excited about all the possibilities they may offer. Of course, estimates say it will take over 11,000 years at our current rocket tech speed to reach them. But still… is 11,000 years too long? Is 50,000 years too long?

The reason I ask is that if you asked Jonathan, the almost eternal robot narrator of this book, he’d tell you that humans should get started right now on plans to exit our solar system. You see, the Sun isn’t going to be around forever. It’s going to expand into Mercury’s orbit, then Venus. While it does this, it’s also going to affect Earth’s weather and even its orbit. And at some point in the future, the Sun is going to swallow the Earth. Sure, we have Mars as a possible backup, but without a breathable atmosphere one has to wonder what kind of life we could expect to lead on a planet that really isn’t designed for human life.

Jonathan’s creator, Nikolai, gave the robot a mission to fulfill. And now Jonathan is heading back towards the Sun after spending over 3 billion years hanging out around Pluto and collecting data and observing the death of our solar system. During this time, Jonathan has consumed every possible bit of human creation (music, writing, etc.) that Nikolai could provide before dying… and then he collected the sounds and sights the Universe offers him after Earth and Mars were gone and transmissions ceased. And now… he’s going to fulfill that one final task and hopefully append the results to this autobiography that covers his birth, his creator, his experiences on Earth and then Mars, and then his departure for the inevitable.

Jonathan’s story is a tragedy, of sorts. Humans have long since expired, having never reached beyond the solar system. And Jonathan wasn’t even certain his shell would survive through time to allow him to finish his mission. But it did. And now the last machine in the solar system is returning… and this is the story of what happened.

As I said, the story has stuck with me. We have so much time… what’s the rush, right? The Sun is fine. My grandchildren’s children won’t even have to worry about our little star. We’ve got millions of years. Humans will eventually turn their attention to long-term survival, won’t they? Plenty of time…

Note: I was provided with a review copy of The Last Machine in the Solar System. The book will be available on April 11, 2017.

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This post was last modified on December 13, 2017, 8:47 pm

View Comments (16)

  • James: from Earth to Proxima Centauri are 4.2 light-years. The Horizons probe travels at top speed of 52,000 miles per hour. It would take 54,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri. The seven planets system, Nasa just discovered, is at 40 light years.... So 11,000 years to get there.... please check your math

    • I hadn't looked at this myself, but Hilary Brueck cites another link on Quora by Michael Busch, Planetary astronomer, SETI Institute—if that's a better source. His analysis is based on nuclear electric propulsion, which doesn't work yet and has the added problem that you can't stop once you get there, but he calculated 1250 years to reach Proxima Centauri. So that explains where Brueck got her 11,250 years figure from.
      Granted, that's not based on "currently available flight hardware" but I imagine that if we were going to try to go to a system 40 light years away, we would probably put some money and research into this "new system based on combining existing hardware elements and a somewhat larger budget for extended testing," as Busch calls it.

      • Agree. But that's like I would say I COULD EAT A WHOLE COW IS IN THE FUTURE SCIENCE COULD ENLAGE MY STOMAC FOR ME TO DO THAT. And we wonder why people are confused about science.... mixing real data with scifi...that is GOOOOD JOURNALISM.

        • If people are confused about science because they're getting their scientific facts from the intro to a book review about a science fiction book, then it seems like the real problem is with media literacy—like being unable to differentiate the above blog post/book review from a journalistic article.
          While we do strive to be accurate in our writing, we also acknowledge that writing a book review is not the same thing as writing coverage of the NASA story. This post is not intended to be the latter. If you have a problem with Hilary Brueck or Michael Busch's figures, then perhaps you should take it up with them.

          • Calm down, Galileo.

            Yes, take it up with Forbes. I read a number of sources about the newly discovered planets and I liked their take (link) on the next wave of propulsion. 11,000 years... 40,000 years... I think you missed the point of the post.

            I do agree with the Forbes estimate IF we had a breakthrough in propulsion based on the tech the figure references.

            Prozac, man. Double dose.

        • You've had three people try to respond to you rationally, so let me try a different approach.

          You're being angry and rude for the sake of being argumentative. You obviously have an axe to grind with journalists misreporting science. I recommend taking your ire to an actual news website where journalists are reporting on science, and not on a geek/family blog where a writer is doing a book review.

          If you put as much effort into differentiating between entertainment and news as you do calculating space travel, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

  • Again: Calculation (if there was any from your part...) is wrong. Check source, then FIND AT LEAST 2 OTHER SOURCES... I believe this is the least you can do as a "journalist".

  • Part of your confusion, and the confusion of many these days due to the lack of actual journalism taking place in the world, is that you believe James is a journalist or that this website is a journal of record. Your enthusiasm is admirable but you might find that directing your ire at actual journalists bears more fruit. This is a book review on a blog and the point you're arguing is an anecdotal flourish unrelated to the actual story.

    • AGREE. NOT JOURNALISM. But he continues to defend the numbers with a Forbes "article". Unrelated or not, he writes this "flourish" as he would know what is talking about. I do believe it IS related to his self acclaimed "science knowledge". Nonetheless I appeciate your comment Chris.

      • He said, "estimates say it will take 11,000 years" and when you pushed back he showed you one of the estimates he was talking to. James didn't suggest he did the calculation himself or that he believed it was true, he just said that some people had estimated that's how long it would take. I don't understand what your actual complaint is, where did James suggest he had any "science knowledge?"

  • Got it. If you are a geek, accuracy is “making the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs”.
    Good to know that when someone makes a point by referring “science things” in GEEK mode, should be excused for “Estimates from star trek ships would do the distance in 11,000 years instead of 530,000”, or better yet “beam me there scotty”. WTH. And Chris, go to to James’ website to see his claims there. Also Randy, by the way you differente between entertainment and news I take it you’re also not journalist.

    Bottom line. Nation of bloggers. Doesn’t make their news either correct nor entertaining.

    Don't bother answer...I'm out.

    • Seriously, you're going to get this worked up over an incidental throwaway comment in a book review on a pop culture/entertainment/parenting site?

      Nobody here is a journalist. GeekDad is not a news site. We're not reporting the latest in science news, we're talking about comic books and Lego and movies and puzzles and D&D, and you're frothing at the mouth and screaming about this casual remark as if it were presidential-level perjury? Really?

      In case nobody told you yet, typing in all caps is considered yelling; it doesn't make you right, it doesn't make your points important, it just makes everyone think you're kind of a jerk.

      Take a breath. Go back and reread what you've written here. Ask yourself it this inconsequential trivia is really the battle you want to fight, the hill you're willing to die on. Then turn off the computer, go outside and do something worthwhile.

  • Adrian,

    I appreciate your fervor... you sound like someone who has a passion for astronomy and mathematics. I'd like to point you to an article on current propulsion technology that I believe will show you are incorrect in your own calculations - http://bit.ly/IqT6zt