Charles Sheffield: “Georgia on My Mind” (c) 1993.

Charles Sheffield (1935 – 2002) was   a  mathematician, physicist and science fiction writer.   He served as  president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America,    and also  as  president of of the American Astronautical Society.

In 1992, his sci fi novel “Brother to Dragons” was awarded the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.   He won the Nebula and Hugo awards for his sci fi story “Georgia on My Mind” (1993).


“Georgia on My Mind” by Charles Sheffield (c) 1993.

A few notes:
The “Georgia” of the title is South Georgia Island, in the southern Atlantic Ocean,  north of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871): English inventor of the first mechanical computer. Babbage’s Analytical Engine was his concept of a programmable computer, and preceded modern computers in its basic ideas.

Ada Lovelace (1812- 1852): English mathematician and writer.
She was Lord Byron’s daughter and her education included mathematics. She had a long term working relationship and friendship with Charles Babbage. In particular she worked on the concept of the Analytical Engine. In 1842, Luigi Menabrea, an Italian mathematician, wrote a paper about Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Lovelace translated the paper from French into English. And significantly she added her own detailed notes, including an algorithm or computer program, to be carried out by the Engine to perform calculations. Ada’s computer algorithm was the first ever written and she is recognized as the first computer programmer.


“Georgia on My Mind”  is a sci fi story of a scientific mystery. And it is also a story of friendship, and of love.

Two computer scientists are faced with a startling scientific mystery: They find machine parts and written materials indicating that a more advanced and working version of the Babbage Analytical Engine was invented in New Zealand in the 19th century. And the mystery deepens and turns more intriguing, when they find journal entries of a meeting with the “Heteromorphs”, intelligent space aliens, on MacQuarie Island, in the southwest Pacific Ocean, about halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica, in the 19th century.

Charles Sheffield builds the tension of the mystery, and its unraveling, in two ways:
One is through the reactions of the two computer scientists, longtime friends, as they try to understand their discoveries. The other is through the entries in the 19th century journal they find. The journal entries tell the story of Luke and Louisa Derwent, of their scientific work, and their life and love for each other.

The story is narrated in the first person.

Bill Rigley is a computer scientist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He has many interests, in particular  in the history of science. In a farm house near Dunedin on the South Island of New Zealand, he makes an incredible discovery: components of an Analytical Engine apparently built in New Zealand in the 19th century. There are machine parts dating to around 1850, detailed drawings of an Analytical Engine, a hand written manual, dated 1854, on how to program the Engine, a manual that goes beyond the original 1842 Ada Lovelace manual. There are also drawings of curious-looking animals, and a journal that is also a personal diary.

But Rigley wants an independent opinion, before he makes his discovery public. He contacts his longtime friend, the narrator who lives and works in the US. Rigley and the narrator had been colleagues many years earlier, working together in developing digital computers.

When the narrator arrives in New Zealand, Rigley takes him to to the farm house, to a cellar, where he has found the machine parts, and the books and journal. Rigley is tense as the narrator reads through the journal. And together they begin to fit together the pieces of the puzzle.

Luke and Louisa Derwent had lived on the farm in the 1850s. They were from England. They were half brother and sister, and when they fell in love, they fled to New Zealand, to marry and live together.

Louisa was the mathematician and engineer, the builder of the Analytical Engine. She wrote the 1854 manual. The journal was kept by Luke, a biologist, and explorer of the islands in the southwest Pacific.

Louisa had corresponded with Ada Lovelace and Alexander von Humboldt. Using Babbage’s incomplete work on his Analytical Engine, she made the necessary changes to invent a complete and working version.

Luke’s Maori guides had taken him on voyages to their islands in the southwest Pacific, and told him of “the cold loving people” on MacQuarie Island. His guides said that although these people did not look like humans, they were very intelligent. They spoke with the Maori through a box, and had medical skills to heal even the dying.

In 1855, during the Southern winter months from May to August, Luke met the “the cold loving people” on MacQuarie island. He made drawings of their  insectile appearance. Their highly developed intelligence was evident in many ways: portable language translators; tools and machines to generate very quickly whatever they needed for their survival; and advanced medical knowledge and skills. On Earth, they had a permanent base farther south, closer to the Antarctic Peninsula, and their original home was in an even more remote place (outer space). Louisa named the aliens Heteromorphs.

Shortly after Luke returned from his explorations, Louisa fell very ill. She had less than six months to live. Luke was desperate to save her life, and decided to take her to the Heteromorphs, to their Earth base near the Antarctic peninsula. Louisa had worked out the co-ordinates of the Heteromorphs’ permanent base, from information they had provided. But there was no specific information in the journal of the exact location.

The Derwent journal entries ended in October 1955, when Luke and Louisa left with their Maori guides for the Heteromorphs’ base. Rigley and the narrator assume the Derwents took the Analytical Engine with them. Since there were no records of the Derwents after 1855, it was very likely they  never made it to their destination.

Where would the base be located? Rigley and the narrator realize the numerical tables in Louisa’s volumes are the key. They would need expert computer help to decode the tables. Rigley has already documented their discoveries, and sent the necessary photos and copies of materials to the University of Auckland, the British Museum, and Library of Congress.

Now they contact their friends in the scientific community, to help with the necessary computer expertise and equipment. They provide enough information to indicate the significance of their request.

The data analysis shows the Heteromorphs’ permanent base was on South Georgia Island: For the Derwents, the shortest route would have been to sail east, and then southwards through the Drake passage, between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula. It would have been a dangerous sea voyage through frigid stormy seas.

As Rigley and the narrator make the necessary travel plans to go there, they discover that the cross-talk within the scientific community has already occurred: Virtually overnight, South Georgia Island becomes the destination of scientists from Stanford, MIT, JPL, Lawrence Livermore…. This would be the most significant discovery in Earth’s history.