Forty years ago today, Neil Armstrong made science-fiction geeks out of everyone. Without waxing too poetic, it was the moment when decades—if not centuries—of dreams about going to new worlds became a reality. With all due respect to Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard, Armstrong’s step onto an actual extraterrestrial surface was the first real space travel, in the sense of going somewhere. For a short while, there actually was a man on the moon.
Given the awesomeness of science non-fiction that year, I might almost expect it to be a down year for science fiction. Not so. 1969 had some good sci-fi—maybe not as good as landing on the moon, but damn good nonetheless.
It was, for example, the year Billy Pilgrim came unstuck in time. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut challenged the idea that sci-fi wasn’t an appropriate genre for high-brow “literary-fiction” writers, tradition that has carried forward to become the “counter factual” fiction (sci-fi by any other name…) of writers like Margaret Atwood and Michael Chabon. It was also the year Ursula K. LeGuin explored gender and identity in Left Hand of Darkness, and Michael Crichton scared the bejesus out of everyone with his mutated virus in The Andromeda Strain. Ray Bradbury published a collection of short stories in I Sing the Body Electric (the title story of which became The Electric Grandmother), and Isaac Asimov collected some of his best stories in Nightfall and other Stories.
Recently, I mentioned that I was looking forward to the new Star Trek movie because the trailers looked pretty good. I was accused of having cloudy judgement—I wanted the movie to be good, and so of course the trailers looked good. Which is fair enough—plenty of movies haven’t been as good as their trailers.
But what’s wrong with rooting for a movie? I want Star Trek to be awesome again, to be all about adventure and a future where people get do interesting things other than hide from radioactive mutants left over from the apocalypse. Sure, rooting for a movie from the get-go has led to some pretty harsh disillusionment (The Phantom Menace, the second and third Matrix movies), but on the other hand The Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2, and Lord of The Rings all turned out pretty well. So, in order of their release dates, here are the five movies I’m rooting for this summer:
As reported by my fellow DISCOVER blogger Eliza Strickland, researchers believe that the moon may have considerable amounts of water ice. But Tintan fans have known this since 1954, which is when Hergé published the second half of his Destination Moon two-parter, Explorers on the Moon: during a moonwalk, Tintin discovers a cave with a floor of ice.
Okay, okay, admittedly the ice suggested by Eliza’s researchers isn’t just lying around — it’s bound into lunar rocks. But it is another prop for the Destination Moon books, which have held up surprisingly well over the decades, especially given that they were published three years before Sputnik I and 15 years before the Apollo moon landing.
Written with a desire to get the science and technology right (for example, in the first book, Destination Moon, an explanation of how a nuclear reactor burns uranium fuel is given that was not materially different from the version I found in physics textbooks years later, and which was somewhat better presented), the books feature a nuclear-powered rocket that uses Von Braun’s original Direct Mode mission plan to get to the moon (no mucking about with lunar landers, or rendevousing with booster stages in Earth orbit when you have a nuclear engine!). Acceleration couches support the crew, whiskey forms into little balls under its own surface tension in zero gravity, and reduced lunar gravity complicates walking.
Of course, there are lots of inaccuracies one could pick at, but to my mind Tintin’s discovery of ice is emblematic of why the books hold up so well. Hergé could easily have chosen to have Tintan discover the ruins of a lost civilization, or giant mushrooms, or any one of a number of things that are a lot more dramatic and cartoonogenic than ice. But by making the discovery of ice the scientific highlight of the mission, Hergé grounds Tintan’s fantastic adventures in reality, and gives the books the ring of truth.
Pixar worked its magic this weekend, shooting to the top of the box office for the ninth consecutive time with WALL-E. And deservedly so–the movie pulls you into its world, and anybody whose heart doesn’t go out to the title character has a soul made of burnt toast. WALL-E is the name of the last robot left cleaning up the garbage-strewn Earth. All the humans left for an intergalactic cruise while the planet was getting spruced up, but the cruise has been going on for 700 years now with no end in sight.
Used to being pampered by robots and never leaving their hover-chairs, the humans have gotten a little bit portly over the centuries, and now find it difficult to even walk (if it ever occured to them to do so). Which is a problem that lurks in the minds of the people who are planning real-life expeditions to Mars.