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I'm trying to recall a sci-fi short story that I once read, about a spacecraft that's attempting to travel farther from Earth than anyone ever has before. As it gets farther away, the crew start to experience unexplained psychological and neurological symptoms. One by one, they eventually become catatonic and need to be cared for in the ship's infirmary, while their crewmates desperately try to determine the cause.

The protagonist is the last person to be affected, and just as they are starting to succumb, they come up with a theory: human consciousness is not just an individual phenomenon, but is somehow dependent on the collective effect of all the other human minds on Earth. So as the ship leaves Earth's "sphere of influence", its passengers lose their consciousness and intelligence. Having realized this, the protagonist is barely able to program the autopilot to turn around, and the narration describes their descent into insanity and subsequent return to consciousness.

The title might have contained a reference to "closeness", "distance", "solitude", "togetherness", or something along those lines. I have a vague sense that the theme and style reminded me of David Brin's work, but having looked through his bibliography, I don't think it's one of his stories.

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    How old do you think the story is? About when did you read it? Did you read it online or in a book or magazine?
    – user14111
    Apr 1, 2022 at 5:35
  • Good questions. I don't recall exactly when I read it, but probably at least 2 years ago and at most 10. I think it was probably an ebook version of a story that originally appeared in print, by a fairly well known author. Based on the writing style, I doubt it was written earlier than the 70s, but it could be much more recent.
    – David
    Apr 1, 2022 at 5:59
  • This is kind of reminiscent of Vernor Vinge's "zones of thought" (although it's clearly not the same).
    – Tom
    Apr 2, 2022 at 1:41

1 Answer 1

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I think this is In Numbers by Greg Egan.

I have the story in a collection of text files gleaned over the years from the Internet. According to ISFDB it has only been printed once in Asimov's magazine April 1991, however there is a copy on archive.org. The story starts:

I dream that I'm floating in the void between the stars. Untethered. No ship in sight. Suitless, naked to the vacuum. I search frantically for the sun, as if merely knowing its direction could save me, but I'm spinning much to fast to find my bearings, and each time I catch a glimpse of what might be the home star, I lose sight of it again, before I can be sure.

"Last night"--as day nineteen came to a close with Callaghan's condition unchanged—the orders arrived from Earth, officially cancelling the mission.

We shut down the drive for six hours while we rotated Cyclops one hundred and eighty degrees. Now we are decelerating at 1.3 gees—as fast as we can, within safety parameters--but we'll still be traveling away from the solar system for fourteen and a half more days before we even come to a halt, and then it will take as long again just to get back to the point where deceleration began. I have no right to be even mildly surprised by this—to shed the velocity gained over nineteen days' ship time at 1 gee requires 14.6 days at 1.3; any intelligent child could do the calculation—but some Earth-bound, commonsensical part of my mind still can't quite accept a twenty-nine-day U-turn.

The story is told as a recollection by the protagonist of the events leading up to this situation. It is exactly as you say, with increasing distance from Earth the crew started succumbing to catatonia. The remaining crew frantically searched for a physical cause but found nothing and the protagonist eventually decides it's just the removal from Earth that is responsible. The story ends:

What's special, about being ten billion kilometers from Earth, as opposed to ten thousand or ten million'? Distance, that's all. We didn't just evolve on a planetary surface, with air and water and gravity. We evolved in the presence of each other. It seems that the refinement of human consciousness made use of that fact. Relied on that fact. The media releases back on Earth have mentioned none of this; mission control is keeping quiet about the rantings of eight people who have been through an ordeal. The mystery disease has mysteriously spared us, and no doubt we will be quarantined while the experts diligently hunt for the non-existent virus. The truth, though, won't stay buried for long. Will genocide still be thinkable, in a world where every human being relies for their humanity on every other'?

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    That's definitely it! Thanks, I should have guessed it was by Egan.
    – David
    Apr 1, 2022 at 13:25
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    Interesting. Plenty of science fiction authors have dealt with the dangers of isolation and loneliness in space, but not many have pointed out a physical cause other than distance. I am reminded of Cordwainer Smith's description of the pain of space travel, pain so terrible that one's senses must be numbed to withstand it, in "Scanners Live in Vain." Apr 1, 2022 at 13:41

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