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Science Fiction Thursday: All the Astronomy News Fit to Print

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Science Fiction | October 15, 2015 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Science Fiction | October 15, 2015 |

I’m officially declaring this week astronomy week in SciFi Thursday, because every single random tidbit that I saved away over the course of the week (which is how this thing gets written) was about space. This does not strike me as a bad thing.

First up, NASA is still riding high on the buzz from The Martian and published detailed plans, including specific technologies and rough designs for how exactly their putting Matt Damon on Mars by 2030. You can get all the details on NASA’s website, which includes the fact that we are indeed using full-on ion engines to do this thing. Basically, to put it in relatively inaccurate but illustrative terms: instead of burning fueling and blowing it out the back of a rocket cone, we shoot charged particles out the back at close to the speed of light and get momentum that way.

Remember these things from Empire Strikes Back?


Our spaceship to Mars will be shooting those out the end and riding the momentum all the way to Mars. We’ve used them for a few small craft over the last decade, but basically, they’re one of those hypothesized technologies that have been in sci-fi for decades and we’re now seeing engineered.

Also, it hasn’t been officially announced that Matt Damon will be the first man on Mars (I mean, he’d be in his early sixties), but I think everyone can agree that it’s the best thing for PR to go ahead and just draft him on principle.

Next up in space? Well, the Kepler Space Telescope has sort of kind of detected something that has never been seen in over 150,000 surveyed stars. The star is emitting a light pattern that resembles nothing so much as regular objects passing in front over and over again. The pattern resembles that which we see around young stars when there is still a debris belt orbiting, but this is a fully mature star. Real actual astrophysicists are doing things like speculating that there are alien-built mega structures orbiting the star, causing the unusual pattern. Requests have been put in to point one of the big ass radio telescopes that direction in order to see if there is an any unusual radio activity. So, you know, aliens.

(source: The Atlantic)

Finally, NASA just uploaded over 8000 previously unreleased photographs from the Apollo program. You can go see them all organized and pretty here. I’ve investigated a few, but have not yet found the Nazis living on the dark side.

Book and movie of the week! This week’s were The Atrocity Archives and the film Snowpiercer. If you want to comment about either of these, put it in its own comment with the first line being either “The Atrocity Archives Spoiler” or “Snowpiercer Spoiler”. Also: if you reply to a comment with one of these spoiler tags, you don’t need to bother putting the spoiler tag yourself. Everyone should just assume that if the top level comment is a spoiler, it’s spoilers all the way down.

The Atrocity Archives Spoilers
Charlie Stross is one of those science fiction authors who creates magnificently interesting worlds, even while the stories themselves have never quite vaulted to first rate for me. This one is no different. I adore the setup, and I adore large swathes of the detail work. The way that bureaucracy functions like bureaucracy even in an agency dedicated to fighting existential threats of humanity. But the characters fall a bit flat for me in most of his work, and the sheer promise of the set-up doesn’t feel as rewarding as the world-building. He’s an author of many ideas, but still looking for a story that desperately needs told. As an aside, if you’re interested, there’s a wonderfully done roleplaying game built on the world of this series, using a variant of the old Call of Cthulhu rules.

Snowpiercer Spoilers
This is a problematic film for me. On a micro-level it works perfectly. It nails this dystopian hellish world, with its own very particular rules and limitations. And most of what works is the exploration of those things: the nature of the food bars, the running out of bullets, the weird children’s class rooms, the punishment by putting limbs outside. It feels so incredibly internally consistent, and every step makes you want something more, some more exploration of this insanely detailed world. On the other hand, the movie completely falls apart for me on the macro-level. The idea of the world freezing over and somehow this train runs in circles around it (to stay in the sun? I didn’t really followed their handwaving) for generations without even having to maintain the track? Thinking like that made the entire set-up of the movie collapse for me even as the detail work kept me interested. There was this constant tension between the scenes being internally riveting, even while the frame that held them was laughable and kept trying kick down each scene. The ending? Ugh. That only made it worse. Magically, the world is survivable now? And yet, you’ve just dumped a bunch of people with no food or survival skills into an icy wasteland, so even if the world isn’t instantly fatal now, I fail to see how they don’t all die in a week.

Next week: We’ll read A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the deepest and most thoughtful books about humanity and its future that I’ve ever read. For a movie, we’ll go in the exact opposite direction and watch Iron Sky.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.