By Seattle Times staff
All this reporting and writing about the moon landing’s 50th anniversary got us in the mood to read and watch some science fiction. So here are our staffers’ picks for some of their favourite astronaut-themed science fiction books and movies. We narrowed it down to selections grounded in science and space travel. (Thus, the exclusion of Star Wars.)
Here goes, sorted by media type in order of release year.
Binti: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor (DAW, February 5). When Binti becomes the first of the Himba people to join the ranks of students at the prestigious Oomza University in space, she leaves Earth behind and finds herself thrown into the centre of a generations-long war between the university and an alien race known as the Meduse. This three-book series follows Binti and her unlikely allies as she balances the culture she came from and the future she represents.
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books, July 3, 2018). An alternate-history novel set in the early ‘50s. The premise? A giant meteorite smashes into Washington, DC, in 1952 and accelerates the need for humans to find another planet to live on. Dr Elma York is a World War II veteran who flew planes as a WASP. She also happens to be a math genius and one of Nasa’s human computers, and she decides she wants to be an astronaut. The novel explores what might have happened if women were allowed in the astronaut corps early in the space race, and it also touches on the civil-rights movement and struggles faced by African Americans in that time period.
The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books, August 21, 2018). In this sequel to The Calculating Stars, mankind has managed to reach the moon and has now set its sights on establishing a human colony on Mars — in 1961. Dr Elma York — otherwise known as The Lady Astronaut — is hoping to get chosen for the Mars mission, but torn between her professional ambitions and her personal life. Once again, Kowal does not fail to pull in the social environment of the early ‘60s, and the tensions resulting from the civil-rights movement and South Africa’s apartheid are woven into the narrative.
The Wanderers by Meg Howrey (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 14, 2017). This is character-driven literary science fiction at its finest and it examines how humans will deal with the challenges of long missions of space exploration. The Wanderers follows three astronauts through a 17-month training simulation for a Mars mission and through them gets at the question of what drives humanity’s need to explore. But the narrative also pulls in the families of the astronauts and we see the strain that the long separation puts on them.
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow, May 19, 2015). What would we do if we knew the world was about to be destroyed by “hard rain” that will fall for 5,000 years? That’s the premise of this science-fiction saga by a Seattle novelist who is one of the masters of the genre. As Seattle Times reviewer Nisi Shawl wrote in 2015, “Stephenson’s storytelling style combines the conversational and the panoramic, allowing him to turn his piercing gaze on the familiar aspects of a strange future, encompassing the barely conceivable detail by detail, striking vista by sweat-covered heroic gambit, and telling us how it might be possible to regain what we could so easily lose in so many heartbreaking ways.”
The Three-Body Problem series by Cixin Liu (Tor Books, English translation of first book published November 2014). President Barack Obama called it “just wildly imaginative, really interesting.” Amazon reportedly may spend up to $1 billion acquiring the rights to produce a three-season TV show based on the Hugo Award-winning series. There’s a reason the first instalment in this trilogy was the first Asian novel ever to win a Hugo Award. The series, based in China, chronicles the existential crisis that grips all of humanity when it encounters an extraterrestrial civilisation bent on taking over Earth. But the alien armada won’t arrive for another 400 years, leaving humans plenty of time to bicker over how best to prepare the eventual space battle.
The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey (Orbit, first book published June 2, 2011). This eight-novel series also inspired a TV series. First novel is Leviathan Wakes. My whole family loves both books and TV shows for realistic depictions of working and travelling in space. The summary: In a world in which humanity has colonised most of the solar system, tensions build between Earth, Mars and the outer planets, and then alien tech comes into the picture.
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (Vintage, July 5, 2002). Stories of Your Life was adapted to the big screen as the movie Arrival, featuring a fearless Amy Adams as Dr Louise Banks, a linguist charged with finding a way to communicate with Earth’s new alien arrivals. But this isn’t your everyday alien encounter story. It incorporates sophisticated concepts of physics, language and time, and wrestles with the idea of free will.
Apollo 11 (2019). It is one of the best documentaries about the space programme I’ve ever seen. Released in 2019, it consists solely of archival footage — on 70mm no less — of the mission’s various stages from launch to touchdown, plus on-the-ground video of the folks camped out to see the rocket blaze into the sky. With a subtly thrilling score, masterful editing and no talking heads or hand-holding narration, it unfolds more like an exciting feature film than a dry historical account, and short of sitting in front of a living-room TV on July 16, 1969, it may be the closest thing we have to a real-time look at the moon landing.
Hidden Figures (2016). A rousing, inspiring crowd-pleaser, this fact-based 2016 Oscar nominee shone a light on a trio of heroines: three brilliant black women who worked as “computers” in the early days of the space program, a workplace dominated by white men.
The Martian (2015). Whip-smart astronaut played by Matt Damon uses his science-based skills to save his life on the Red Planet after being accidentally stranded there.
Interstellar (2014). A Christopher Nolan masterpiece featuring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain as astronauts who travel through a wormhole to search for a home for humanity. It’s weird, complex and all about relativity. And I loved every second of it.
Afronauts (2014). True story: In 1964, Zambian science teacher Edward Makuka launched his own space programme to try to beat the US to the moon. He formulated a dubious plan to launch 16-year-old Matha Mwambwa into space using an aluminium rocket and a catapult system. The rocket never took off, but decades later director Frances Bodomo’s short film takes a look at what the Zambian space program might have looked like.
Gravity (2013). Astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) try to rescue themselves after their space shuttle suffers catastrophic damage.
Another Earth (2011). A thought-provoking film on second chances and forgiveness that follows a young and intelligent woman whose one mistake leads her to deal with the consequences of her choice and the choices she continues to make afterwards. While the film largely ignores the scientific and physical impacts of having another Earth — such as gravity and the atmosphere — the second Earth in the film adds a layer of mystery and uneasiness to the story.
Sunshine (2007). Director Danny Boyle’s visually gorgeous, contemplative drama about a crew of astronauts dispatched on a mission to try to reignite the dying sun.
Space Cowboys (2000). Senior-citizen astronauts (Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones) prove to Nasa that age is no barrier when it comes to space travel.
Contact (1997). Robert Zemeckis is a hit-or-miss director if there ever was one, but his adaptation of the Carl Sagan novel Contact is one of his triumphs. Starring Jodie Foster as a woman of science and Matthew McConaughey as a man of faith, Contact is the kind of space-travel movie that’s about so much more: love, death, science, religion and the nature of reality, all in a warmly cerebral movie that privileges character development over spectacle.
Gattaca (1997). Featuring one of Ethan Hawke’s most underrated performances and prescient details about DNA testing, 1997’s Gattaca is more than just a movie you probably saw in your high-school biology class during senior week. With coolly minimalist design and cinematography and Uma Thurman and Jude Law doing the most in key supporting roles, it’s a story of thwarted ambition and the planetary loneliness of space travel, sibling rivalry and conformity, with old Hollywood-style glamour, Patricia Highsmith-esque intrigue, and a wonderfully ’90s vision of a dystopian future.
Apollo 13 (1995). In all the celebration this year over Apollo 11’s successful moon landing, we’d be remiss if we didn’t also mention this classic space movie starring Tom Hanks, that immortalised the words, “Houston, we have a problem” and tells the story of Apollo 13’s ill-fated mission to the moon in April 1970.
The Right Stuff (1984). It doesn’t get better than Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager — that’s a man’s man. Mr Cool. It’s three hours long, but so well done.
Outland (1981). A space Western retelling of High Noon with Sean Connery in the Gary Cooper role. — David Miller
Silent Running (1972). About a post-apocalyptic space station (a floating garden in space — like a biodome) run by the last remaining (and injured) crew member (Bruce Dern) and his cadre of little robots.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece about astronauts imperilled by the rogue robot HAL 9000 on a mission to Jupiter.
— The Seattle Times/TNS
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