The 2013 movie Gravity is a space thriller, and one of the best sci fi movies I’ve seen. It stars Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, and George Clooney as Matt Kowalski, a veteran astronaut commanding his final mission. They are fixing the Hubble Telescope when space debris hurtles through and destroys their ship; they are left marooned in space, tumbling helplessly above the luminous Earth. From then on, it’s one thrill and chill after another. Sandra Bullock’s performance as Dr. Ryan surprised me—there was delicacy and vulnerability to her character, along with a gritty determination. Clooney was a bit too folksy for my tastes, but since astronauts do seem to be super cool and collected, his character rang true. The visual effects, which comprise 80 of the 91 minutes of the film, are totally amazing, as is the Academy Award-winning electronic score, which ratchets up the tension without mercy.
In Gravity, as I watched one of the space vehicles breaking up and burning as it fell to the Earth, I couldn’t help but think of the mythological Icarus, who with human arrogance, dared to fly too close to the sun.
As I watched their ship being smashed to smithereens, I couldn’t help but think of the serene opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which space was an accommodating blank slate for our dreams. The space station orbits the earth to the tune of The Blue Danube, and we have hauled our mundane world along with us. The outer space of Gravity is another thing entirely—a lethal nothingness, totally unforgiving to human beings.
If you enjoy Gravity, consider reading The Martian by Andy Weir. Astronaut Mark Watney is left marooned on Mars, like a Martian Robinson Crusoe, after a cyclonic sand storm. In a situation that would drive most of us insane, Watney cheerfully and resourcefully solves problem after problem in order to survive. But will it be enough? In some ways, the fascination of this book for me was following Watney’s thought processes as he faces catastrophe. The lesson seems to be that survivors don’t give up easily.
Reading The Martian made me think of the first science fiction novel I ever read, which was The Sands of Mars, by Arthur C. Clarke. His Mars is an altogether kinder and gentler place for humans, and is a bit of a relief after reading of the ferocious Mars of The Martian. Clarke proposed a way for Mars to become habitable by transforming its moon Phobos into a second sun. The science in The Sands of Mars is dated, but it remains an enjoyable read.
If you enjoy The Sands of Mars, consider checking out Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars trilogy. Chronicling the colonization of Mars in the year 2026, Robinson presents a startlingly realistic vision of what life on Mars could really be like. Mars becomes a political battleground for those who wish to leave Mars as it is, and those who wish to transform and exploit it.
All the above books and movies present different scenarios for whether man will be able to explore the planets and stars, or not. Space radiation and the possible inability of our bodies to stand up under the rigors of zero G gravity indicate that it will be tough going, though maybe it will be our own fragile psychology that will make the journey impossible.