Make them struggle!

It’s common writing advice: make your characters struggle. When things are going well for them, throw a disaster at them.

I don’t disagree with this advice. First, it’s part and parcel of the rising-tension structure that’s at the core of traditional western storytelling. And second, it’s a psychological one-two punch: readers empathize and identify with a character who struggles (because we all do); and then readers feel a cathartic rush when the character succeeds in a struggle. Some say this is one of the main draws of fiction: to let the reader vicariously struggle and experience triumph. And by escalating the struggles, you escalate the vicarious triumphs.

But though I understand the advice, I’ve never consciously followed it. In my stories, I just see what should logically happen next, and I write that. Easier, harder, I don’t think about those, I just write the logical next thing. If there’s escalating struggle and rising tension in my stories, it’s entirely subconscious.

But THIS story… Every time I think, “What should happen next?” the answer is “More bad news. It just got worse.” Every time I think, “OK, they have a plan that will succeed, now I just have to write what’s left,” I start writing, and I discover, “Wait a minute. They never thought of this.” There is hazard here everywhere they look. There’s no “triumph,” there’s just survival to reach the next struggle.

Oh, there will be an eventual triumph. I know what it is (I’ve known from the start). And there’s maybe only six to eight challenges left before they get there.

Of course, two weeks ago, I thought there were only five or six challenges remaining, and I’ve hit them with half a dozen challengers since then. So there may still be surprises hiding out there for them. And for me!

Martin Takes a Hike for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life

From my Relay for Life page:

Sweating in the Summer Heat for My Sister

As some of you might know, my sister Anita was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago. For some people, this is a very private matter they keep to themselves. But Anita was really helped by stories from other survivors, so she’s telling the world her experience at http://anita.buckowing.me. She’s not sugar-coating anything, but she also refuses to get down. “It is what it is,” she says, and the family is doing whatever they have to do to fight this disease. Four years later, she is cancer free at every doctor visit, and she’s fighting strong!

Anita has also become very active in American Cancer Society fund raising. If you know Anita, you’re not surprised by this. Community participation and event organization is something she always excels at. And as part of that, she and daughter Kira and “sister” Amy have put together the BAAAD KROWS Relay for Life team. Don’t ask me to explain the name, and don’t ask me to explain how they roped me in, because neither one makes sense to me.

Well, OK, they didn’t have to rope me in. I’m not a doctor. I couldn’t help Anita with her disease, other than driving her to appointments now and then. But I can help her with this fund raiser, which is important to her. I am participating in the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life because I want to make a meaningful difference in the fight against cancer.

Almost everyone has been touched by cancer, either through their own personal battle or through someone they love. Anita’s not my first relative to face this, and I’ve had friends go through it as well.

So if you would like to help for Anita, or for your friends and relatives who have faced cancer, please make a donation to help the American Cancer Society create a world with less cancer and more birthdays. Together, we can help make sure that cancer never steals another year of anyone’s life!

Every day, the American Cancer Society is helping us stay well by preventing cancer or finding it at its earliest, most treatable stages. They assist families in finding the best resources to help their friend or loved one deal with a diagnosis and their journey to get well. The American Cancer Society is also rallying communities (like ours!) through events like Relay For Life, to fight back and find cures for this disease.

OK, a couple of those paragraphs are boilerplate. After all, the American Cancer Society can explain their mission better than I can. But I want to add my personal request.

The relay will be 7/25/2014, so there’s only a little time to raise funds between now and then. Any bit you can contribute would help toward that. $10, $5, even $1 would help.

Also, the Relay is more than just a fund raiser. It’s also a memorial for those we’ve lost, and a celebration for those who are fighting back against this disease. if you’d like to attend the Relay and help memorialize and celebrate, we’ll be in Wayland Friday July 25 to Saturday July 26, 3 p.m to 3 p.m. We’ll have somebody from BAAAD KROWS walking the track the whole time. We and other teams will have lots of games and other on-site fundraisers, including catering.

I’ll be there as soon as I get out of work on Friday. I don’t know which hours I’ll be walking, but I’ll be there.

Thank you for your time.

Even small donations help. If you would like to contribute, please visit my Relay page.

“Unrefined” wins Third Place in Writers of the Future!

From PRWeb:

The 1st Quarter winners of the 31st year of the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest were announced today.

THE FIRST QUARTER WINNERS ARE

1st place – Tim Napper of Australia
2nd place – Auston Habershaw of Massachusetts
3rd place – Martin Shoemaker of Michigan

They were chosen from a group of 8 finalists and are now awarded cash prizes, a week long intensive workshop, an awards ceremony and are also published in the annual L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future. Tim, Auston and Martin will receive a cash prize for their win this quarter.

Tim, as first place for the quarter, will compete with the 1st place winners of the remaining three quarters of the year for the Grand Prize of $5,000.00.

Contest judges include, Tim Powers, author of On Stranger Tides, Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert, Dune, Robert J. Sawyer Flash Forward, Robert Silverberg, Sailing to Byzantium, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, A Mote in God’s Eye, Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game, and Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death, to name a few.

I am so proud, so pleased, and so relieved. Why relieved? Because this was the last quarter I was eligible for Writers of the Future. It’s a contest for non-pro writers trying to break in, and I am now officially a pro. So for me, this quarter was win-or-go-home. That added a degree of pressure I haven’t experienced in past quarters.

I am also grateful for a couple of rejections. Why is that? Because my Third Place story, “Unrefined”, was originally written for the Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest. I thought it was perfect for that contest: an inspiring story of humanity exploring space and finding ways to survive challenges. But the judges thought otherwise. If they hadn’t, they would’ve published it, and that would’ve meant I was no longer eligible for Writers of the Future.

After the Baen Memorial passed on “Unrefined”, I sent it to what I thought was surely its natural home, Analog. But Trevor thought otherwise, and he passed. If he had accepted it, it would’ve been published last year, and that would’ve meant I was no longer eligible for Writers of the Future.

So the lesson to me is: don’t give up on a story! There are other markets. Keep trying until you exhaust them all! If I had given up on this one, I wouldn’t be going to Los Angeles next year to hang out with Tim and Auston (plus Illustrator winners Michelle Lockamy, Tung Chi Lee, and Emily Siu) and the winners of the remaining quarters and the pro instructors and judges, learning how to improve my writing as a craft and as a business.

I would like to finish with the “theme song” for this story: “The Tide is High” by Blondie. No, I didn’t listen to it while I was writing the story; but after I finished the story, I was in my local Harding’s, and this song was on the PA system. Listening to it, I realized that the lyrics applied perfectly to my story (you’ll have to wait for the anthology next year to see why):

The tide is high, but I’m holding on.
I’m gonna be your number one.
Number one…
Nummmmmber onnnnnne…
Nuuuuuummmmber onnnnnnnnnnnne…

Then I went home, looked up the song, and found this amazing Apollo/space-themed video; and I knew I’d found my theme song. Enjoy!


Blondie – The tide is high

Professional status!

I just read the news: Galaxy’s Edge has been accepted by SFWA as a pro-qualifying market. Therefore my two sales there, “Il Gran Cavallo” and “Pallbearers”, are my third and fourth official pro sales. (They’re my fifth and sixth at pro rates, but Digital Science Fiction didn’t last long enough to qualify as a pro market.)

So the good news is: I am now officially eligible to join Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Thank you Mike Resnick, Laura Somerville, and Shahid Mahmud for producing such a great magazine and making this possible.

The bad news is: I am now officially ineligible to enter Writers of the Future. My current entry for Q1 is my final eligible entry. I have now “pro’ed out”, putting me in the great company of authors like Annie Bellet and Kevin J. Anderson. Thank you, Joni Labaqui, David Farland, and the crew at Author Services, Inc. for an amazing three years with the contest. And thank you to all my fellow members of the WotF forum for all your support and encouragement.

Jen Haeger asked me three simple little questions. Or so she thought…

Jen Haeger asked me three simple little questions. Or so she thought…

Jen is the author of Moonlight Medicine: Onset, an urban fantasy/paranormal romance (I’m never sure where the line is there) about a veterinary researcher caught up in a war between werewolves who want to destroy her because she offers the most dangerous thing possible: a cure.

Don’t bore me with all that medical stuff!

“I like a good doctor story as much as the next reader, but don’t bore me with all that medical stuff! Don’t tell me the patient’s blood pressure, don’t tell me what course of treatment they tried that accidentally made things worse, and don’t tell me how they found the real illness hidden behind all of those mysterious symptoms. Just tell me that the patient went to the hospital, and the doctor did some doctor stuff, and the patient got worse until they did even more daring doctor stuff, saving the patient in the nick of time!”

“I like a good sports story as much as the next reader, but don’t bore me with all of those plays and strategies! Don’t tell me the plays they tried and how their opponents blocked them, don’t tell me the ingenious strategy that turned disastrous, and don’t tell me how the replacement quarterback tried something no one had ever seen before and surprised everyone with the winning touchdown. Just tell me there was a game, and the teams clashed, and the home team was on the verge of losing until the underdog turned it around and won the game!”

“I like a good police procedural as much as the next reader, but don’t bore me with all of that forensic stuff! Don’t tell me how they combed the scene for clues, don’t tell me the strange evidence they found but couldn’t explain, and don’t tell me how the forensic team managed to tie together disparate clues to paint a picture of the real crime. Just tell me there was a crime, and the police were stymied, and then the lab fingered the real killer. Don’t waste time on procedure, just get to the exciting chase scene at the end!”

“I like a good science fiction tale as much as the next reader, but don’t bore me with all of that science stuff! Don’t tell me how the laws of physics blocked the protagonists’ plans, don’t tell me how they pushed their ship to the limits to try to skirt the edge of possibility, don’t tell me how they pushed too far and their ship broke down, and don’t tell me their ingenious plan for turning disaster into triumph. Don’t waste time on believable science, and especially don’t waste time convincing me that it’s believable. Just make something up, and get to the exciting chase scene at the end!”

I don’t think anyone would watch House M.D. and say the writers should cut out all the medicine. I don’t think anyone would watch The Replacements and say the writers should cut out all the football plays, the huddles, and the practices. I don’t think anyone would watch CSI and say that the writers should cut out the, ya know, Crime Scene Investigations and the laboratory scenes.

Yet some people show no hesitation in dismissing science fiction with actual science and engineering at its core. Not just “I’m not interested in that,” but rather, “You’re doing it wrong!” And often they’ll add (with a sneer), “It’s science fiction! Duh!” I can only shake my head and pity them. Such limited imaginations…

There’s room for medical soap operas, and room for medical mysteries. There’s room for stories about the lives and passions of pro athletes, and room for stories of a team of underdogs fighting against all odds to get to the championship. There’s room for buddy cop films, and room for forensic investigations.

And there’s room for fantastical, metaphorical science fiction verging on fantasy, and room for real nuts-n-bolts, hard science fiction.

The Troll Under the Fridge

Copyright © 2014 by Martin L. Shoemaker
Adapted from Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, De tre bukkene Bruse som skulle gå til seters og gjøre seg fete, Norske Folkeeventyr, translated by George Webbe Dasent in Popular Tales from the Norse, 2nd edition (London: George Routledge and Sons, n.d.), no. 37, pp. 275-276. Translation revised by D. L. Ashliman.

Once upon a time there were three Billy Goats, who were to go into the kitchen to make themselves fat, and the name of all three was “Gruff.”

In the kitchen was an old refrigerator with all the best food; and under the fridge lived a great ugly troll, with eyes as big as saucers, ears like skillets, and a nose as long as a carving knife.

So first of all came the youngest Billy Goat Gruff to open the fridge.

“Creak, crack, creak, crack!” went the hinges of the fridge. They were old and hadn’t been oiled in a long time.

“Who’s that cracking open my fridge?” roared the troll.

“Oh, it is only I, the tiniest Billy Goat Gruff, and I’m getting a snack to make myself fat,” said the Billy Goat, with such a small voice.

“Now, I’m coming to gobble you up,” said the troll.

“Oh, no! Pray don’t take me. I’m too little, that I am,” said the Billy Goat. “Wait a bit ‘til the second Billy Goat Gruff comes. He’s much bigger.”

“Well, be off with you,” said the troll. And the little goat grabbed a pudding cup and fled from the kitchen.

A little while after came the second Billy Goat Gruff to open the fridge.

“Creak, crack, creak, crack, creak, crack!” went the hinges of the fridge.

“Who’s that cracking open my fridge?” roared the troll.

“Oh, it’s the second Billy Goat Gruff, and I’m grabbing some lunch to make myself fat,” said the Billy Goat, who hadn’t such a small voice.

“Now I’m coming to gobble you up,” said the troll.

“Oh, no! Don’t take me. Wait a little ‘til the big Billy Goat Gruff comes. He’s much bigger.”

“Very well! Be off with you,” said the troll. And the middle goat grabbed a frozen package of macaroni and cheese and fled to the microwave oven. Fortunately no trolls lived under the microwave, only some dust bunnies, and they weren’t very hungry.

But just then up came the big Billy Goat Gruff.

“CREAK, CRACK!” went the hinges of the fridge, for the Billy Goat was large and impatient and he opened the door very wide to see what was deep in the back of the fridge.

“Who’s that cracking open my fridge?” roared the troll.

“It’s I! The big Billy Goat Gruff,” said the Billy Goat, who had an ugly hoarse voice of his own.

“Now I’m coming to gobble you up,” roared the troll.

“Dude… Seriously?” said the big Billy Goat Gruff. “You’ve got a fridge full of food here. Pudding cups and frozen jalapeno poppers and potato salad and cheese and hot dogs and broccoli and orange juice and… Hey, I think you have half a leftover turkey in the back there! That looks good! And there’s about a hundred more things in here as well. Troll, with all this food, why would you want to gobble me up?”

The troll scratched one big ear. He had only three fingers on each hand, but that was enough to scratch with. “Ummm… I never thought of that. Hiding under things and gobbling people is the only job I’ve trained for.”

“Well, take the day off! You’ve got plenty of food. Hey, we’re watching the big game in the den. Sixty inch TV! Kickoff’s in ten minutes. You should join us!”

So the big Billy Goat Gruff grabbed the leftover turkey, and the troll grabbed the jalapeno poppers and popped them into the microwave. Then all three Billy Goats Gruff and the troll really raided the fridge and set out a small mountain of snacks and drinks on all the tables in the den. The dust bunnies decided they were hungry after all, so they brought in some chips and salsa. Everything was ready just in time for the kickoff.

The game was a real nail-biter: it went into overtime, and a Hail Mary pass won it for the home team. Everyone roared with excitement, even the dust bunnies (though they roared very quietly). The troll and the big Billy Goat Gruff stood and gave each other a high five. (Well, high three for the troll and high two for the big goat, but you know what I mean.)

The Year’s Top Short SF Novels selects “Murder on the Aldrin Express”

Now it can be told: AudioText, producers of fine audio books, has selected “Murder on the Aldrin Express” for volume 4 of The Year’s Top Short SF Novels. This is truly an honor! Their emphasis is mainly audio, but they also produce an ebook version of each volume.

To see what sort of company that puts me in, here are their past volumes:

  • The Year’s Top Short SF Novels: “Return to Titan,” by Stephen Baxter, is set in his Xeelee sequence. Michael Poole and his father search one of Saturn’s moons for sentient life that would interfere with their plans to build a gateway to the stars. In this year’s Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award winner for best short fiction, “The Sultan of the Clouds,” by Geoffrey A. Landis, a terraforming expert is inexplicably invited to Venus by the child who owns most of the planet’s habitable floating cities. “Seven Cities of Gold,” by David Moles, tells the story of a Japanese relief worker charged with tracking down the renegade Christian leader responsible for detonating a nuclear device in an Islam-occupied North American city. In “Jackie’s-Boy,” by Steven Popkes, an orphaned child befriends an uplifted elephant from the abandoned St. Louis Zoo as they trek south across a sparsely populated North America to find sanctuary. “A History of Terraforming,” by Robert Reed, involves a young boy’s ambition to take up his father’s work of terraforming Mars and then much of the solar system and discovers that much more than planets have been altered. In “Troika,” by Alastair Reynolds, the lone survivor of a mission that explored a massive alien object attempts to reveal what he discovered despite the wishes of the Second Soviet Union. Set in the author’s S’hdonni universe, “Several Items of Interest,” by Rick Wilber, the Earth ruling aliens ask a human collaborator to help quell a human insurrection led by the collaborator’s brother.
  • The Year’s Top Short SF Novels 2: In “The Ice Owl,” by Carolyn Ives Gilman, an adolescent, female, Waster in the iron city of Glory to God finds an enigmatic tutor who provides her with much more than academic instruction while a fundamentalist revolt is underway. In the HUGO AWARD winner, “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” by Kij Johnson, an architect from the capital builds a bridge over a dangerous mist that will change more than just the Empire. In “Kiss Me Twice,” by Mary Robinette Kowal, a detective, with the assistance of the police department’s AI that takes on Mae West’s persona, solves a murder with all the flair of an Asimov robot story. “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” by Ken Liu, is a moving chronicle of attempts to witness the history of Japanese atrocities against the Chinese in a World War II prison camp by traveling back in time using Bohm-Kirino particles. In “The Ants of Flanders,” by Robert Reed, a teenage boy, incapable of fear, takes center stage in an alien invasion of Earth that pits alien foes against each other in a war that has no regard for mankind’s existence. Finally, in “Angel of Europa,” by Allen M. Steele, an arbiter aboard a space ship, exploring the moons of Jupiter, is resuscitated from a hibernation tank to investigate the deaths of two scientists that took place in a bathyscaphe underneath the global ocean of Europa.
  • The Year’s Top Short SF Novels 3: In “In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns,” by Elizabeth Bear, Police Sub-Inspector Ferron investigates the murder of genetics engineer, Dexter Coffin, who has been turned inside out, in a cutting edge biomedical lab set in a not too distant future India. In Jay Lake‘s “The Stars Do Not Lie,” Morgan Abutti is soon in fear for his life when he tries to announce his discovery of something in the stars that contradicts the creation myth of a major religion on his planet. In “The Weight of History, the Lightness of the Future,” also by Jay Lake, set in the author’s “Sunspin” series, the Howard Immortal, Before Michaela Cannon, and an untrustworthy shipmind investigate the cause of the Mistake, an alien attack on human civilization with an EMP weapon that occurred more than a thousand years ago and wiped out most of its technology. In “Sudden, Broken and Unexpected,” by Steven Popkes, a burnt-out, talented musician is hired to help a world-class rock star divaloid, an electronic construct, prepare for her new world tour. There’s only one problem, the musician passionately despises divaloids. In Robert Reed‘s “Eater-of-Bone,” marooned human colonists, from the “Great Ship,” fight for dominance on a planet inhabited by smaller, weaker, and less intelligent aliens. Finally, in “The Boolean Gate,” by Walter Jon Williams, set in the 19th century, an elderly Samuel Clemens escapes his Mark Twain persona through his friendship with Nicola Tesla. As Tesla’s inventions come to fruition, Twain suspects that Tesla has opened up a gateway to an alien intelligence.

For those keeping track at home, that means this story will appear in two “best of” collections this year! To all of the people behind “Murder on the Aldrin Express”: thank you!

The Year’s Best Science Fiction selects “Murder on the Aldrin Express”

I’m a little late getting this on my blog, but here it is at last: Gardner Dozois, editor of The Year’s Best Science Fiction series, has selected “Murder on the Aldrin Express” for inclusion in volume 31! You can preorder it here!

Here’s the incredible table of contents:

1.“The Discovered Country” by Ian R. MacLeod
2.“The Book Seller” by Lavie Tidhar
3.“Pathways” by Nancy Kress
4.“A Heap of Broken Images” by Sunny Moraine
5.“Rock of Ages” by Jay Lake
6.“Rosary and Goldenstar” by Geoff Ryman
7.“Gray Wings” by Karl Bunker
8.“The Best We Can” by Carrie Vaughn
9.“Transitional Forms” by Paul McAuley
10.“Precious Mental” by Robert Reed
11.“Martian Blood” by Allen M. Steele
12.“Zero For Conduct” by Greg Egan
13.“The Waiting Stars” by Aliette de Bodard
14.“A Map of Mercury” by Alastair Reynolds
15.“One” by Nancy Kress
16.“Murder on the Aldrin Express” by Martin L. Shoemaker
17.“Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince” by Jake Kerr
18.“The Plague” by Ken Liu
19.“Fleet” by Sandra McDonald
20.“The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin” by Michael Swanwick
21.“Bad Day on Boscobel” by Alexander Jablokov
22.“The Irish Astronaut” by Val Nolan
23.“The Other Gun” by Neal Asher
24.“Only Human” by Lavie Tidhar
25.“Entangled” by Ian R. MacLeod
26.“Earth 1″ by Stephen Baxter
27.“Technarion” by Sean McMullen
28.“Finders” by Melissa Scott
29.“The Queen of Night’s Aria” by Ian McDonald
30.“Hard Stars” by Brendan DuBois
31.“The Promise of Space” by James Patrick Kelly
32.“Quicken” by Damien Broderick

I am in amazing company! I am honored beyond words.

My favorite “serious” space movies

In a Facebook thread, Brad R. Torgersen and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (my fellow Galaxy’s Edge authors) asked about my list of “serious” space movies (fiction or fictionalized history, not documentary films). These aren’t necessarily good films, but they’re films that in some way tried to make space travel in the near future (or in some cases near past) feel believable. And for that I enjoy them despite any flaws.

And boy, do some of them have flaws! I’m sure some of you will point them out in the comments. Go ahead; but realize I. Don’t. Care. The list is sooooooo short, a space junkie like me has to take what I can get. This list contains everything I could find after looking at every single page of Amazon’s science fiction DVD category. Out of nearly 8,000 titles, I found only 20 or so that even attempt to have believable space travel. With numbers that small, I have to look for reasons to include a film, not jump on reasons to exclude it.

And if you know any that I missed, please let me know! Here’s what I’m looking for: verisimilitude. As Harlan Ellison explained in an essay I can’t find right now, verisimilitude means it isn’t perfect, but it feels real enough to suspend your disbelief for the course of the story. What I look for in a “serious” space film is:

  • Some sense of realistic physics, though I don’t mind corners cut for the sake of pacing. But no teleportation, no FTL, no inertialess drives. Travel through space should take time, and the rocket equation and orbital mechanics should rule.
  • Light-speed delay when communicating across space.
  • No artificial gravity. It’s spin, boost, or zero G!
  • No magic.
  • No psi.
  • No supernatural. It’s OK if the characters believe in the supernatural; but the viewer shouldn’t have to in order for the story to make sense.
  • Vacuum, radiation, acceleration, resources, and life support should be serious issues that characters must plan for.
  • No replicators or holodecks (though nanoassembly and microassembly and 3D printing might be a good substitute for replicators).
  • No artificial intelligences that might as well be human. If there must be AIs, they should be recognizably computers (like HAL in 2001), bound by programming rules even if those rules are unclear.
  • No aliens (with some slack cut if the whole point of the film is first contact).

Some of these films will fail some of these criteria. Some will fail most of them, even. But if the filmmakers made an effort to follow just a couple of them and be consistent, then the film is on my list.

Here’s the list, in alphabetical order.

  • Apollo 13. Not science fiction, of course, though it is fictionalized to a degree. Any student of Apollo can tell you all the corners they cut to keep the story a manageable length. But director Ron Howard, star Tom Hanks, and the entire crew were fanatical about realism here.
  • Apollo 18. This is a found footage fake documentary about a secret Apollo mission and what goes horribly wrong with it. The menace turns out to be predictable by anyone who knows SF horror, and there’s a 250,000-mile-wide logic hole in the ending; and I. Don’t. Care. The entire film is set in a realistic Lunar Module and Command Module and on a realistic Lunar landscape, and I loved every nut and bolt of it.
  • Astronaut Farmer. Billy Bob Thornton plays a former astronaut named Farmer who gave up his career to go back and take care of the family farm. (No, subtlety is not their strong suit.) He decides to use salvaged gear to make and launch his own space mission with the help of his wife and kids. Yeah, wildly implausible, but they dressed it up nicely. When he finally launches, it has much of the feel of an old Mercury mission; and frankly, I do believe a small group of private individuals could launch a modern Mercury mission if government didn’t shut them down first. Maybe not a single astronaut in a barn; but let’s face it, this blog post uses more computer memory than the original Mercury guidance computer. No, I’m not exaggerating: I took a backstage tour of Kennedy Space Center, and they took us to the old Mercury guidance control station, and through the guidance computer. It was the size of a walk-in closet, and it had a whopping seven kilobytes of memory. With all the advances in computing power, materials science, rocket fuels, communications, and space technology, recreating Mercury should be a breeze, if anyone wanted to pay to do it.
  • Contact. OK, this one breaks a whole bunch of my rules: there’s FTL, there’s aliens, there’s artificial gravity, and more. And I. Don’t. Care. Jodie Foster as Dr. Arroway is so good, and the depiction of scientists as real human beings with aspirations and failings is so believable that I have to include it here. The space technology depicted is unbelievable, but the space program and the politics surrounding it are entirely believable. Plus I like the ambiguous ending, including an ending that rather surprisingly leaves room for faith. And besides: it may not have realistic spaceships, but all those radio telescopes, man! I just wanted to jump in there and play with them!
  • The Conquest of Space. This is probably the worst of the list, with a jumbled storyline and some improbable space collisions. I only picked it up after I had cleaned Amazon out of better titles. Still, it was an early film to use a rotating ring station for spin gravity.
  • Countdown. Fair warning: ignore the improbable, almost mystical ending. Just turn it off and believe that the protagonist died, because that makes more sense than the way he saved himself. But up to that point, director Robert Altman made an almost documentary film about what happens when NASA tries to accelerate their Lunar plans to beat a surprise Russian mission.
  • Destination Moon. Yes, it’s dated. Yes, the comic relief scenes are a bit embarrassing. But this was a story by Robert Freakin’ Heinlein! And he also served as technical adviser! They really aimed for accuracy as best they knew it then.
  • Destination Space. A very obscure film about another ring station and an accident aboard that threatens the station. This was apparently a pilot for a series that was never picked up. Again, dated, but not bad for the period.
  • Europa Report. A 2013 film in found footage documentary style, telling of a mission to search for possible life on Europa. They did a nice job with the hazards of space, the long tedious stretches between planets, the spin gravity, and the exploration of Europa.
  • From the Earth to the Moon. After Tom Hanks did Apollo 13, he convinced HBO to do this miniseries on the Apollo program; and he applied the same attention to detail here as they did in Apollo 13. This series is brilliant. Go watch it. Now. Twice.
  • Gravity. Yeah, some of the orbital mechanics were pretty screwy, but the hazards of vacuum and collision and separation and life support were handled very well.
  • Marooned. Apparently this one did not sit well with some astronaut’s wives, because it put their worst fears up on the screen. It tells of a NASA mission that goes wrong, and Mission Control’s desperate attempts to send up a rescue mission.
  • Mission to Mars. Yes, it has a cheesy ending taken straight from 2001 (breaking one of my rules as well). Yes, the protagonist’s flashbacks to his dead wife are a bit heavy handed. Yes, the one character who sacrifices himself seemed to die pretty needlessly. (Mind you, that could’ve been a great scene with just a few tweaks.) But the mission prep and the zero G scenes and a lot of the ship operation scenes felt right to me. And some of the Mars exploration felt right as well.
  • Moon. OK, the economics of the film make no sense. I won’t spoil it here, but there are cheaper ways to man a Lunar base. But oh, man, what a Lunar base! Everything about it felt real to me (other than the gravity – Lunar gravity was beyond their effects budget). And the miniatures for the outside shots! Want! Want! WANT!
  • October Sky. Again not science fiction, but rather fictionalized history about a group of boys who study rockets as a way to escape their coal town. The scene where Homer proves mathematically that he has been unjustly accused is a masterpiece of serious SF: math saves the day! And the ending… Well, the ending makes me wish my dad were still alive, so I could give him a hug. For that reason alone, this one goes on the list.
  • Outland. All right, so it’s just a cheesy High Noon in space; but it’s a cheesy High Noon in space, with Sean Connery! Plus the sets and wardrobe for the mining base just convinced me: this was what life on a mining base on Io would be like. (Actually I suspect the radiation level on Io is too high, but still…)
  • Race to Mars. In 2007, Canadian TV did a strange double-feature: they filmed a science “documentary” and a science fiction mini-series at the same time, with the same footage. The documentary, Mars Rising, describes the known science of Mars and what a Mars mission would be like, including staged footage from a hypothetical mission; and then the miniseries takes that exact same footage (plus more) and weaves it into a story. This obscure little double-feature is as good as it gets for “serious” science fiction. I also have a nostalgic attachment to it: I bought these discs specifically for inspiration so I could write Mars stories; and while watching these discs, I was struck with how difficult it is to land on Mars. Suddenly I imagined a way that mission planners might get around that: send astronauts to Mars orbit, but then have them control robots and landers without ever going to Mars themselves. That became the inspiration for “Not Close Enough”, the first story I sold to Analog. (And to show how great my lucky idea was, Buzz Aldrin himself has suggested exactly that approach!)
  • Red Planet. Cheesy, cheesy, cheesy. I would’ve liked it better without the crazed cyborg. But some of the zero G was nice, and I liked the exploration of Mars. (The less said about the ending, the better.)
  • The Right Stuff. Another fictionalized history, this time of the Mercury program. It’s very focused on the astronauts, but some of the mission planning and training is excellent.
  • Space Cowboys. Some of the things they do with a shuttle are wildly implausible. Reaching the Moon with the missiles at the end makes wildly implausible look pretty good. But I liked how this film captured the spirit of the astronauts and the training program.
  • Space Truckers. OK, this film is not a “serious” film of any kind. It’s humor, and sometimes way too broad even as humor. The spaceships look like semi-trucks. They haul genetically engineered square pigs (for easier stacking). The ship’s computer has a southern accent. There’s an explosive decompression scene that defies belief. (Seriously, there’s no way George Wendt is fitting through that tiny hole.) But it makes me laugh. And more important, the lunch counter built around a rotating ring of a space station made me smile, because in that one little detail they were trying to get it right. (Let’s just not talk about the cyborg with his sex toy with the pull starter… No… I said let’s not talk about that!)
  • 2001:
    A Space Odyssey. For some, the gold standard for believable space travel. It’s dated in some ways, but it’s still fun to droll over the spacecraft and the space scenes. Just don’t try to make sense of the ending…
  • 2010:
    Odyssey Two. In which they try to make sense of the ending. If anything, the rocket technology in this one is a lot more nuts-n-bolts. In 2001, you just accepted “This is how it works.” In this film, “how it works” becomes a critical plot element. Also the computer technology of HAL here felt very real to me as a programmer. (Damn users gave him contradictory requirements!)

Two notable absences from this list are Armageddon and Space Camp. I haven’t seen either one. In the case of Armageddon, I’ve been warned away by people who say it won’t pass my nonsense filter. Space Camp is just one that never catches my eye when I’m shopping.

Opinions? Suggestions? Jokes at my expense? All are welcome.