Tag Archives: space travel

Reading as a Writer: “Gypsy” by Carter Scholz

November/December 2015

November/December 2015

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.

Alpha Centauri - the brightest star to the left

Alpha Centauri – the brightest star to the left

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.

Alpha-Centauri-planet-illus-L-calcada-esoS-1024x640

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.

 

 

An “Interstellar” Trip

Interstellar movie poster“To act in the best interest of the many rather than the few…or the one.” This notion is a staple philosophy in the Star Trek universe, and it becomes a powerful point of conflict in Christopher Nolan’s movie about saving earth: Interstellar.  In some unidentified future, a blight destroys every crop but corn, it hasn’t rained in ages and New York state has been transformed into a dust bowl where huge, destructive dust storms attack on a regular basis.  Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his small family — his father-in-law (John Lithgow), his son Tom, and his daughter Murphy — eke out survival on their corn farm.  Murph has an intensely curious mind that leads her and Coop to a secret installation where Coop encounters a former professor and his daughter. They are quite happy to see him — before farming, he was a pilot, engineer and astronaut.  They need him to help them save earth.

Throughout this movie, Coop’s relationship with his daughter infuses his actions and decisions.  He and his crew are sent through a wormhole to save the world because they want to save their loved ones.  Is that selfish?  Or is it a good way to think of that particular altruism?  It causes several discussions that lead up to important decisions in the second half of the movie.  It got me thinking about the kind of person who gets involved in such an endeavor to begin with. I’m not sure I would be that kind of person, although I’m concerned about helping people.  But to leave the home world to travel to an unknown galaxy an unknown distance away to find a place where humanity could live?  Think about it.  Could you do that?

nebula-100x100

The science in this movie serves the story and does not overwhelm it.  I had read the long Jeffrey Kluger article in the November 10 issue of Time magazine about who consulted with Nolan about the science — theoretical physicist Dr. Kip Thorne of CalTech, retired astronaut Marsha Ivins — and I was impressed with the results.  However, there was still grumbling from some in my group about the science, which led them to conclude the movie had been badly written, but I disagree.  It wasn’t a movie about the science, it was a movie about the people and a highly risky endeavor.

Having said that, I had questions myself about the Black Hole sequence at the end.  I loved how Nolan incorporated the ideas of simultaneous time and simultaneous space which is about as foreign to us in our 3-dimensional world as one can get.  But the power of gravity at a Black Hole was kind of fudged in a big way, I thought, in order to make the ending work.  To give Nolan credit, however, he set it up very well.  I just didn’t completely buy into it.

On the whole, this movie was superb filmmaking.  Nolan is a master at telling a story through the visual and aural, capturing the human emotion as well as the human motivations that move people to act.  He showed how important relationships are in human life — relationships with people, numbers and equations, dreams, time, space, and ultimately, the universe.  The actors give excellent performances that pull the viewer into the story and keep him or her interested and invested to the very end.  Every story requires a certain degree of suspension of disbelief, and especially in science fiction.  This story is no exception.

Would I recommend this movie?  Yes.  It gets five stars from me, two thumbs up.  Go and open your heart and mind to the possible….

Wormhole in "Interstellar"

Wormhole in “Interstellar”