Tag Archives: space

Redshirts, by John Scalzi

One reason that I like reading John Scalzi’s blog and short stories (sad disclaimer: this is the first novel of his that I’ve read) is that he writes about things that he has a genuine interest and delight in, and that comes through so very clearly. He has fun putting words together, poking fun at the tropes and attitudes of anything he likes (mostly sci-fi, but also politics and other things).

Redshirts is exactly that kind of book. It’s a book for anyone who laments hand-wavy science, character inconsistencies, Captain Exposition, and ridiculous MacGuffins in their television shows. Anyone who’s ever said, “wait, wasn’t he near death just last week?” or “Didn’t he profess undying love to that other character the week before?” or sighed when a new character with an emotionally involved backstory comes on, because he’s going to die before the end of the episode.

I think it’s gained plenty of cultural traction, but just in case – redshirts are the extras, the bit players, usually on sci-fi shows who are in a story situation with regular cast members. To increase tension, someone has to die, or at least be severely injured. It’s not going to be one of the regular cast members. If the bit player has an emotional tie to a main character, or more lines than, “oh, no, it’s a <gurgle> *thud*”, they may last until the third act. Otherwise, they’re dead in the teaser. [Geek moment – in the original Star Trek, redshirts weren’t always wearing red shirts. There was a prevalence of redshirts, but the redshirt-type character was sometimes wearing a blue or a yellow shirt instead. Red shirts were security, so they were most often the tag-alongs, but science/engineering and medical personnel were not exempt from the redshirt phenomenon.]

What makes this book different – how it subverts the trope – is that it turns the probable redshirt characters into main characters who then become aware that their function is to provide temporary emotional impact for the “regulars”. So, of course, they try to change it. Nobody wants to be horribly killed simply as a plot device, after all. And the whole thing turns into a send-up and homage to Star Trek and all other space-set science fiction shows, with a brilliantly tight ending and three codas. One of the codas only just escapes being a cliche, but the other two are perfect. It’s science fiction, because it’s mostly set on a spaceship in the future, but more than that, it’s about science fiction, what we expect from it and what we’re willing to accept from it.

I do have complaints, though. Well, one complaint. I didn’t find the characters to be very full – they had backstories but not really personalities. I guess that can be seen as one of the points, but I did occasionally find it difficult to remember who was talking, to hear their voice in my head. Except Jenkins. Jenkins was awesome. I think that’s the only thing, though. The science is very hand-wavy, but it’s supposed to be. It’s very story-driven, and moves very quickly, and some stuff gets glossed over, but I think the only real thing I had a problem with was the characterisation.

I will be actively looking for more of Scalzi’s stuff in the future – beyond, of course, Whatever, which is one of my daily must-reads on Google Reader. If you like funny stuff, sci-fi themed stuff, etc., then you should too.

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Initial thoughts on The Age of Wonder

Thoughts on The Age of Wonder

 

I have been somewhat sporadically reading The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. (Sporadically because I’ve just started a new job, and someone who shall remain nameless has gotten me hooked on World of Warcraft to the point where I have to play it myself, and then there’s the musical theatre group that I don’t practice for enough…anyway…..) It’s a good book, and definitely worth the acclaim that it got. It’s not without flaws, though, and since this is a relatively critical blog, I thought I’d mention them.

One of the things is just me and my personal history and education in the Romantic era. I took a class in my study-abroad year on Romanticism (primarily in literature) which focused a lot (a lot a lot) on the political and intellectual background of the era – the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, the extending of the vote in the UK and the Corn Laws and the “Industrial Revolution” and the resulting unrest, etc. [England in 1819? Highly topical sonnet by Shelley and brilliantly scathing if you know the characters] To me, primarily because of this class, the political/current-event background of the time period is essential to the issues in Romanticism. We discussed, in detail, how the world that these writers lived in shaped their mentality and ideas and forms – whether by addressing them in their work (Shelley, Wordsworth in some things, Mary Wollstonecraft), by allegorizing them (Byron, Shelley some more), or by ignoring them and focusing on something else entirely (Keats). (These examples are not exclusive of other writers, nor inclusive of all of these writers’ work.)

This book….doesn’t. It doesn’t completely ignore the political situation – there’s a scientist mentioned who was guillotined, balloon technology was feared because it could have military implications, etc. – but it doesn’t make any sort of claim or connection between the external situation and the scientists’ internal motivations. I know it doesn’t have to, necessarily, but if something is specifically about the “Romantic generation”, then I want to know what about it being the “Romantic generation” led to this seemingly sudden explosion in scientific research and discovery – and so far it’s not giving me that.

If anything, it’s more a book about Joseph Banks and his protégés/connections/influence and assistance than it is a book about the Romantic generation’s discovery of science. Banks was the focus of the first chapter (which was actually the chapter so far that I’ve had the hardest time keeping interest in), and he has shown up in every following chapter – almost as the guiding hand for all of the research. He was President of the Royal Society (or whatever) so it makes sense – but he’s definitely the link, and that structural connection isn’t really even hinted at in the title or back-of-book summary. (Side question that I really should know, but I don’t: is there a technical term for the back-of-book/dust jacket summary thing?)

The other thing that I’ve been thinking of in connection with this book is the definition of technology. This is something that pops up every once in a while in my life, often when someone calls themselves a “Luddite” or makes similar comments about technology (usually in the “it’s taking over the world!” vein). The thing is, almost everything is technological. When people say, “I’m giving up on technology and going to live in the woods!” they forget that things like axes (for cutting down trees) and matches (for starting fires) and baskets (for collecting food) are all technology.

I noticed it in this book with the chapter on ballooning. It refers to “balloon technology”, which struck me as odd when I first read it. We don’t usually think of balloons, even hot-air balloons, as being “technology”, but they are. Everything we use is technology – it’s not limited to electronics or computers or internal combustion engines.

I still have four chapters left to read; I’ve just finished the chapter on Humphrey Davy and his research into nitrous oxide. I’ll probably post again when I’ve finished the whole thing.

 

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The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe

Ever since I read Moon Dust, I have been mildly obsessed with the space program. It’s not a new obsession; it’s one that lurks in the background of my mind and pops up every once in a while. I do wish that there were more of an active space exploration program, and that the space program as it is got more publicity (certainly when things go right, not just when things go wrong).

But, yes, ever since I read Moon Dust, I’ve had a renewed obsession. I watched through the entirety of From the Earth to the Moon (the story of Apollo 1 always makes me cry), rewatched Apollo 13 for the millionth time (stupid Ron Howard, sucking me in), had the Wikipedia pages on the astronauts up on a nearly permanent basis. And I acquired a copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Next step, assuming the obsession hasn’t burned itself out, is to try to find a copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s book about Apollo. (And watch the film of The Right Stuff, of course.  I may do a follow-up entry after watching it, to compare the book and the film. Oh, Ed Harris, I love your work.)

The other stimulus for The Right Stuff, for me, is the fact that it was written by Tom Wolfe. See, my senior seminar at university was on “New Journalism” – what is sometimes now called “creative” or “narrative” non-fiction.  (I won’t get into my full frustration with time-based appellations here. Let’s just summarize it by saying that in, say, fifty years, “new” forms of literature are going to have to be referred to as post-contemporary-post-post-modernist-new-literature or something ridiculous like that.) Anyway, “narrative non-fiction” is a movement that started in the 60s, as so many movements did, and changed the tone of non-fiction from very objective, impartial, and fact-based to subjective, personal, and fact-based. The writer, in creative non-fiction and new journalism, can be as much of a character as the people that he’s interviewed. At the very least, his (or her) personality and literary choices are acknowledged as a forming part of the book. Books – or articles, since a lot of the new journalism was found in feature magazines like Rolling Stone – are very personal, telling not only what happened, but what it was like. The tone is often very similar to sitting in a bar listening to someone tell about their experience.

Certainly The Right Stuff is. It’s full of facts, of course. There’s nothing in it that can’t be corroborated. There’s nothing in it that isn’t untrue. But there are any number of asides and perspectives that make it seem more subjective than you might expect from a non-fiction book.

Basically, The Right Stuff is about the beginnings of the astronaut program. I’m using that word deliberately, because in addition to the Mercury program (and all the hoopla around the Mercury Seven, the first astronauts) it’s also about the test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base, particularly Chuck Yeager and his group, and the unstated rivalry between the X-15 program (piloted planes that could potentially go beyond the boundary of space) and the Mercury program. It’s about the events, the politics behind them (in both a Washington and a non-Washington sense of “politics”), and the personalities involved.

The Right Stuff, as a phrase, is used informally throughout the book for that ineffable quality that pilots might have. One can lose the right stuff at any point (“it can burst at any seam”), and for any reason – some of which have to do with the person and some to do with external forces, especially doctors.

One of the things that I took away from this book – and, to some extent, Moon Dust – is how finite NASA’s goals were, and became. “Beat the Soviets.” “Put a man in space.” “Put a man on the moon.” Well, …. now what? It’s actually kind of sad – whenever they attempted to do something scientific or discover something in the Mercury program, it was thwarted for various reasons. Grissom’s capsule was lost. Carpenter was all but dismissed from the program. In Apollo, the “scientists” were looked down on, to some extent, by the pilots. And it’s sad, because the science of it, the discovery process, might not be as glamorous or as quick-rewarding, but that’s what keeps programs going.

The other thing that I found sad in this book was the dichotomy between the Mercury program and the X-15/X-20 program. It’s a great “what would have been”.  The X-programs were training and developing piloted aircraft to take off from the ground and enter space – kind of like the space shuttle eventually was, sort of. If they had been allowed to continue (they were killed to free up funding and resources for Apollo and other NASA programs), it is entirely possible that we would be closer to “space tourism” or at least more commercially viable space exploration today. We might not have put a man on the moon by the end of the 60s – and I do love Apollo – but we might be making more trips there today.

Of course, it’s impossible to say what might have been. But the overwhelming sense that I got from Tom Wolfe’s book was that NASA – and Washington – were playing the short game while the X-program was playing the long game. And too often we can’t even see the benefits of the long game for the risks, and the rewards of the short game.

This book is also a monument to how fickle and short-term public interest is. Not that the book itself has dated – it hasn’t, surprisingly. But Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier (Mach 1) and was as feted as Lindbergh. Within a few years, it was the turn of the Mercury Seven, and all the work that was being done at Edwards was ignored. Alan Shepard was the first American in space, and got a ticker-tape parade in New York and went to the White House. Gus Grissom was second, and got a handshake on the tarmac. John Glenn was the first American in orbit, and was the Golden Boy for a long time. Who can remember the others who also made orbital flights? (Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper. Deke Slayton was one of the Mercury Seven, but was grounded before he went into space.) And before Mercury was even over, attention had shifted to other aspects of the Cold War – in fact, people were declaring the Cold War over. NASA’s attention had shifted to Gemini and Apollo. The public’s attention had shifted away from NASA. And it certainly had shifted away from the test pilots outside of NASA. Chuck Yeager almost died trying to set a new flying record, and no one noticed.

It’s definitely a “new journalism” book. While Tom Wolfe is never explicitly present, the style is very much his, and you’re very much there. It’s “fly-on-the-wall” – you almost feel like you are there, watching John Glenn confront the other astronauts, or hiding in the houses with the wives and families trying to evade the press corps, or drag-racing along Cocoa Beach, or screaming up through the atmosphere in either a jet or the Mercury capsule. It’s not easy to read, exactly – the style takes some getting used to. Narrative non-fiction has become incorporated into most modern non-fiction today, but The Right Stuff is “new journalism” at its most raw (without being Hunter S. Thompson), so it can be a little bit disconcerting.

Next up on my agenda is the film – like I said at the top, I may do a follow-up post once I’ve watched that. (Probably within the week. Ah, the joys of being essentially unemployed.) And then perhaps I’ll be able to move on from this current NASA obsession, and on to other things….

P.S. I still want to read profiles, both mission profiles and post-Apollo profiles – of the CM pilots. Does such a book exist? Like Moon Dust, but for the astronauts who stayed in the CM….

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Moon Dust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, by Andrew Smith

For my senior seminar at university, I took a class in New Journalism – the movement that started in the 1960s that led to more narrative non-fiction and the acknowledgement or realization that pure objectivity is impossible. In narrative non-fiction, the writer is often a character in the work. It’s still factual, but the research process, and the creative process, is as much a part of the story as the research findings. Moon Dust and the other book I’ve finished recently (The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks, blog post to come), are very much a part of the narrative non-fiction category of writing. The story of the writer is explicitly a part of these books, even more so, if I recall, than the gonzo journalism of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Moon Dust interweaves the stories of the surviving Moonwalkers with Andrew Smith’s own memories and feelings about the Apollo program.  He never pretends that this is an objective work of biography or technical detail; it’s very much a personal project for him. There are biographical details of the astronauts, of course, and a bit of technical information and history about the space program, but it’s almost more a philosophical book. Smith realizes by the end that the greatest outcome of Apollo is the opportunity it gave us as a species to look back on Earth, to reassess our place in the universe and our place in the world. The main question of the book is “what next?” What do you do after you’ve walked on the moon? How do you follow that up? How do we follow it up as a species, as a culture? Smith talked to all, or nearly all, the surviving Moonwalkers and a couple of the Command Module pilots, to try to answer that question.

Twelve men walked on the moon; nine of them are still living. No one has left Earth orbit since 1972 with Apollo 17. Eventually – and sooner than we might want or expect – no one living will have walked on the moon. No one will know what it is like to look back at Earth and see it complete and whole, hanging in space. It is almost sad: my generation especially knows the successes of the space program only through history. We didn’t live through Apollo, so we don’t really know the excitement and adventure of the moon landings. We know the current space program more through its failures or its trivia. We don’t hear about the successes anymore – they’ve become normal or commonplace. We only hear about NASA when things go wrong – Challenger, or Columbia. Or the last flight of the space shuttle. We only hear news about people going to space when it’s unusual or seemingly ridiculous, like the “space tourists”.  Being an astronaut is no longer something that most people dream of and strive for; those who do often realize that they were born in the wrong time for it.

Like most people, I only vaguely know the names of the astronauts in the “middle” Apollo missions. I know the names of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, of course. There are a few others that I’d heard of because they feature in Apollo 13. But some of them I had to look up as I was reading. And they are the ones that are the most interesting in this book. Neil Armstrong is notoriously reticent, Buzz Aldrin has a reputation for being wacky (although that didn’t really come through in this presentation of him); Gene Cernan is parlaying his “last man on the moon” status into lobbyist pressure for a return. Those are things you might expect, I suppose. The ones I most enjoyed were the ones who’d adapted their experiences into other areas: Alan Bean, who’s now a painter; Edgar Mitchell, who seems to still be living out his emotional “epiphany” from his moonwalk.

The writing in this book is quite conversational, and quick because of that. I only marked a few passages, and those near the end, just because of the way I read it (patchily, during breaks at my current job); there weren’t any moments where the writing left me skeptical. I’d definitely classify it as a good book, in part because my reading list afterwards has grown.  I feel like I’ve gotten the end of the story – what happened next – but there are gaps. I really want to read The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe now (another classic of the narrative non-fiction/new journalism style), and I want to know more about the Command Module pilots. (I can only name two CM pilots – Michael Collins from 11, and Ken Mattingly from 16. And I only really know Ken Mattingly from Apollo 13 and because he came to speak at USD a couple years after the movie came out. He’s now one of my favourites, of course.) But now that I know what happened “next” – as much as anyone can, I think – I want to know more. What was it like being in the space program? What was it like not landing on the moon? What are the stories of the other missions? Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 have become fairly well-known, but what was it like for the other ones? What was it like at Mission Control? And that’s what a good non-fiction book should do: give you information but also expand your horizons. (and your reading list, apparently…..)

 

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