This Week in Space Stuff
I’ve been away working on some cool projects, including a novel and a short story collection, but there’s some developments for 40 Acres coming down the pipeline. Bear with me and keep up with my freelance work on Twitter. I’m looking to create more of a space for my afrofuturist and sci-fi analysis here, so look at this as a start.
This has been a helluva week-plus for space enthusiasts and sci-fi lovers out there. First off, Interstellar came out last Friday, and like all Nolan films it has inspired tons of debate and plenty of strong opinions for and against.
**Spoiler alert: the following section contains serious spoilers. click the alert to skip down if you haven’t seen Interstellar and don’t want to ruin it**
So, a quick review. I’m not terribly fond of the actual storytelling in Interstellar. Every character is a flat, one-dimensional trope. There’s McConaughey’s Space John Wayne routine, Michael Caine playing the same character Michael Caine plays in every movie (Alfred with a PhD this time), Jessica Chastain’s Zero Dark Thirty character, a Black Science Man, and Anne Hathaway being an irrationally attractive space damsel in distress. All of the relationships are supposed to work on paper, but even the familial ones feel forced. Like they and the characters only exist to advance the plot. Good plots serve good characters, but shoehorning in stock characters just to advance the plot is lazy. The only characters I thought were of any use were a revelation in Mackenzie Foy as Cooper’s (McConaughey’s) daughter, Murphy and Matt Damon, in a powerhouse uncredited cameo as pioneer researcher Dr. Mann. More on Space Damon later.
So much about the Earth plot just doesn’t make sense. I prefer unexplained apocalypses to long bits of exposition or scrolling text, but Nolan doesn’t accomplish that all that well. The Earth and insistence on using the imagery of Americana just doesn’t square with whatever happened. There’s no menace, no real sense of dread at The End, and no logic. In a world apparently starved for food there exists a government strong enough to field and hide NASA, but not enough to be a presence in rationing food or limiting children. Plus everyone uses the same exact technology as now. Nothing about the Earth setting really fits. And the repeatedly ridiculous deus ex machina circumstances that get us to the space portion feel cheap. Although the deus ex machina is probably a key point of the story, I don’t think anyone would have been upset if we had just started in space and hadn’t had to find a way to explain how a man could quietly retire from NASA, farm for years and suddenly become our last hope.
Despite all that, I loved Interstellar. And most of it had to do with the segments in space dealing with the consequences of relativity, time, distance, technology and isolation at the absolute edge of space. No film since “2001” (a clear inspiration and comparison for this film) has come close to exploring these issues in such depth in space travel. And it all comes together for the time when Matt Damon is on the screen. His character is weird, almost as much of an anomaly as Matt Damon showing up unbilled was. But it’s the strongest and most striking metaphor of the whole movie. His Dr. Mann plays out a dance that is the inversion of HAL from 2001.
Nolan takes a dim view on humanity and an optimistic view of our technology, as even disturbingly human robots continue to follow orders even as they involve self-sabotage or suicide. Unlike the classic Asimovian anxieties present in almost all space science-fiction-existential or metaphysical issues from robots or aliens-Dr. Mann’s character in Interstellar shows Nolan’s view that even at the farthest reaches of space through wormholes and black holes, human dysfunction is the main enemy we face. There’s a few more subtle things I like that drive that point home, including how Dr. Mann seems to have picked up the robots’ speech inflection (again, an inversion of 2001), and how his name is, well, Man. Those scraps of story were enough to keep me from asking too many questions while the amazing IMAX visuals and science-fiction nerdery kept me enthralled. Good enough.
Speaking of Interstellar’s connection with Asimov, there’s another one maybe in the works. Word is, Christopher Nolan’s brother Jonathan Nolan (frequent co-writer and writer for Interstellar) is in talks with HBO to bring Isaac Asimov’s magnum opus, the “Foundation” series, to television. It’s being envisioned as a space “Game of Thrones” sort of genre political theater and like Game of Thrones, it is based on a drawn-out, slow-burning serial source material that may lend itself to television. I’m excited. The concept of “psychohistory” as introduced has really influenced my life as a sci-fi lover and data analyst. I know Asimov has proven very difficult to adapt and that existing adaptations (like “I, Robot”) largely suck, but color me intrigued.
I actually loved the expanded Foundation series (the second trilogy written after the first that ties it in to the Robot series), but focusing in on the original trilogy is a good bet. I think the day-to-day struggles of the Foundation and the Mule as a compelling villain (very interested to see who will take that role) will make up for the books’ serious lack of character development. Of course, we’ll probably get some strong leads not mentioned in the books and a focus on a single timeline rather than the multiple jumps favored by Asimov, but we’ll see. I’m hopeful.
One last thing. Humanity landed a spacecraft on a goddamn comet last week. While folks like Jose Canseco may be a tad bit overenthusiastic about what it all means, for me the landing is a bit of a dream come true. Although Philae’s mission seems to have come to a premature ending because of a batter malfunction, I’m still excited. Anything that shows that we still have eyes beyond the sky even in today’s funding climate is a good sign. Between our cultural imagination as expressed in media forms, private companies and events like this, it is my hope that our imagination once again been turned back to space. Let’s hope so.