Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (1996)

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows, Matthew 10:29-31

In 2019 a SETI programme picks up a radio transmission from near Alpha Centauri containing the sound of exquisite alien songs.   The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) decides to fund and lead an independent, scientific mission to that part of the galaxy to try and find the planet of origin.  After a few months, the Jesuits  lose contact with the expedition and the UN sends a second mission to Rakhat.   The information that they send back  threatens to bring the Jesuit order to its knees. Only one member of the first mission, Father Emilio Sandoz, has been found alive.  He has been discovered living in a state of degradation in what appears to be a brothel, and worse still, has been accused of murdering a child.  Decades later in 2059 (thanks to the speed of light) Sandoz finally arrives back on Earth, a broken man, sexually brutalised, with his hands horrifically maimed.  Under huge international and media pressure, as well as UN condemnation for taking matters into their own hands without approval, the Jesuit order decides to hold an investigation into what happened on the planet of Rakhat.

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SF is Love

Recently, I’ve been feeling the science fiction urge, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to read some of the classics and catch up on newer stuff.   With the help of the NPR’s Top 100 science fiction and fantasy books, I’ve compiled a reading list and, thanks to the library and local secondhand bookshop, made a start on working my way through it.  I’m currently reading Iain M. Banks’s Nebula nominated The Algebraist (2004) and Isaac Asimov’s classic, The Foundation Trilogy (1951). I also  got Roger Zelzany’s The Dream Master (1965) which won a Nebula and comes highly recommended by Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kate Wilheld’s Hugo winning Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing (1977).  From the more recent books, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1994) has been on my shelf for a while, and I got Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996), which picked up a clutch of awards, plus Liz Williams’s Banner of Souls (2004) which looks like good dystopian fun.

And, just because it’s awesome, here’s a link to an article about the kind of discovery that inspires science fiction, a strange, black planet. Anyone want to have a go at a story about this?

Perspective

Since becoming interested in Buddhism I’ve also become more interested in astronomy and cosmology.  I don’t know if the two things are connected, but since getting interested in Buddhism, my interests do seem to have expanded and that may have something to do with letting go of fixed ideas about my self.

Anyway, sometimes when I want some sense of perspective and a bit of a wake up, I look at these:

The Scale of the Universe

Detailed Panorama of the Milky Way

The scale of our world relative to other objects in the galaxy

What happened when Hubble took a close look at an apparently empty piece of space

 

Women of SF: Eleanor (Ellie) Arroway from Carl Sagan’s Contact

No 63 in Godard’s list

Dr Eleanor Arroway is the main protagonist in Carl Sagan’s science fiction novel Contact (1986) and the film adaptation of the same name in which she’s played by Jodie Foster.

Ellie is a brilliant radio astronomer who becomes Director of the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestial Intelligence) programme.  After years of searching the skies, Ellie and her colleagues discover an alien radio signal from a star called Vega.  The signal turns out to be a message containing instructions for building a machine, but it lacks any information about the purpose of the machine.  Ellie and her scientific colleagues have to persuade the world’s governments that building the machine and allowing them to activate it is in the best interests of Earth.

The film adaptation makes changes to Sagan’s story, most unfortunately, I think, in shifting the emphasis from the global team effort in the novel, to the exceptional individual in the film, with the result that the film loses the characters from Russia, India, China and Africa who accompany Ellie on the mission in the novel.  But I also think that Jodie Foster is perfect for the role and Contact is one of my favourite science fiction films.

Eleanor Arroway is a great woman of science fiction.  She’s passionate about astonomy, principled, a loyal friend to her fellow scientists, determined in the face of massive challenges, not to mention brave enough to get in a machine that might take her anywhere in the Universe and switch it on.  She’s not perfect: she has problems with her family, she’s argumentative and has a tendency to be impatient with and rude to people who irritate her.  She also has Daddy issues, which could be annoying from a feminist perspective, but since a lot of male characters in science fiction have Daddy issues too, I can’t really claim that it’s a particularly gendered aspect of the story!

You wanna hear something really nutty? I heard of a couple guys who wanna build something called an “airplane,” you know you get people to go in, and fly around like birds, it’s ridiculous, right? And what about breaking the sound barrier, or rockets to the moon, or atomic energy, or a mission to Mars? Science fiction, right? Look, all I’m asking, is for you to just have the tiniest bit of vision. You know, to just sit back for one minute and look at the big picture. To take a chance on something that just might end up being the most profoundly impactful moment for humanity, for the history… of history.

Poem: Louis MacNeice, ‘Star-Gazer’

Forty-two years ago (to me if to no one else
The number is of some interest) it was a brilliant starry night
And the westward train was empty and had no corridors
So darting from side to side I could catch the unwonted sight
Of those almost intolerably bright
Holes, punched in the sky, which excited me partly because
Of their Latin names and partly because I had read in the textbooks
How very far off they were, it seemed their light
Had left them (some at least) long years before I was.

And this remembering now I mark that what
Light was leaving some of them at least then,
Forty-two years ago, will never arrive
In time for me to catch it, which light when
It does get here may find that there is not
Anyone left alive
To run from side to side in a late night train
Admiring it and adding noughts in vain.

The third in my 30 days of poetry.  I haven’t read much Louis MacNeice, but I like this one, partly because it features stars.  I’m also fascinated by the fact that the light from stars reaches us from the distant past.  MacNeice was an Irish poet who was born in 1967 and died in 1963.

Alien Life, Coming Slowly into View

I happen to be an optimist. It may take decades after the initial indications of alien life for scientists to gather enough evidence to be certain or to decipher a signal of artificial origin. The full ramifications of the discovery may not be felt for generations, giving us plenty of time to get used to the presence of our galactic neighbors. Besides, knowing that we are not alone just might be the kick in the pants we need to grow up as a species.

Go V’ Ger

The extraordinary Voyager 1 spacecraft is demonstrating its nimbleness more than 30 years after leaving Earth.

I have an attachment to Voyager 1 because it’s awesome, obviously, it was launched the year I was born, and it’s fictional descendent made a good character in the otherwise rather dull first Star Trek movie.

Andy and I are so childish, every time we hear Voyager mentioned, we have to say “V’Ger seeks the creator” in robotic voices … every. time.

“OMG! V’Ger is …. Voyager!”