Science fiction short stories have the power to transport my mind into another time, onto another planet, or into an experience that I’d never imagined before. Carter Scholz’s novella Gypsy in the November/December 2015 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine took me completely out of my mundane holidays 2015 world (and away from the pain of a sprained foot) and transported me onto a earth spaceship hurtling toward Alpha Centauri. At first, I thought maybe I was reading an homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but as I continued reading, the story twisted and turned in ways that Clarke’s didn’t.
Space travel in this story is dark, cold, uncomfortable, full of danger, and the ultimate challenge for a human being. I’m not that interested in hard science in science fiction, but I admired the math and hard science that Scholz included in this story. They made sense. Space travelers would need to calculate deceleration, how to change course, thrust, etc. I didn’t need to know if Scholz’s math was correct or the hard science was true. What he included in terms of specific detail was enough to convince me of their plausibility. The details about Alpha Centauri captivated me. I know little about other solar systems, and researchers in 2012 discovered a planet in the Alpha Centauri system that appeared to be earth-like. The space travelers in Scholz’s story are on their way to that planet in order to establish a colony.
What fascinated me about this story was the characterizations and human details, both in thought and action. The reader is dropped into the middle of the “action,” i.e. the space trip. Each astronaut who wakes to deal with a spacecraft issue adds a layer of backstory through memory and a layer of perspective on the story’s present. Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to earth but it’s still over 4 light years away. The trip was supposed to take 72 years, and the crew were put into hibernation. The ship’s computer has been programmed to waken a crew member if it detects a problem. So each crew member that wakes has a different problem to solve, challenge to meet. As each new section begins, more time has passed, more potentially fatal problems arise.
Through it all, each crew member remains committed to the trip’s purpose which allows each to do his or her best to resolve the problems. The problems are mostly due to human error which I also found fascinating. We may know a lot but we still don’t know about space travel outside our solar system. At the same time, Scholz’s writing details what space is like and how the crew members react emotionally. After about 80 years, crew member Zia awakens to deal with a course issue. He looks outside to check the coordinates of the stars and discovers an unfamiliar “sky.” It takes him a few minutes to get his bearings and identify the stars. He looks at the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Polaris and Cassiopeia, noting
“a new, bright star blazed above it, as if that W had grown another zag. Could it be a nova? He stared, and the stars of Cassiopeia circled this strange bright one slowly as the ship rotated. Then he knew. The strange star was Sol. Our Sun.
That was when he felt it, in his body. They were really here.”
When I read those words, I was there, too, and it was an amazing feeling in my mind. This sense of displacement, distance, and being surrounded by the vastness of space continued as I read through to the end. Scholz does not make it easy on the reader, but while the ending left me gasping, it felt totally inevitable given what had occurred in the rest of the story.
What an excellent science fiction short story! It is to Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine’s credit that they chose to publish it. Their stories are consistently good reading, and then every once in a while there will be a story like Scholz’s that reaches beyond the visible world to reveal humanity’s courage and depth. Whether you like science fiction or not, I highly recommend this novella, in this magazine, for its human truths.