I was watching the movie Gravity but I was remembering a similar scene in 2312by Kim Stanley Robinson. Swan is the heroine of Robinson’s book. She is an evolved human, but that aspect of her, although interesting, is not really important to the parallels between the film called Gravity and that scene in 2312which gave me my first experience of being abandoned in the weightlessness of space.
The humans in 2312, dispersed into space from an environmentally compromised Earth, are living not in near-Earth orbit, but close enough that the blue dot of earth still looms large when there are no clouds. Swan lives in a city called Terminator on Mercury that is built on rails so that it can live always in the period just before sunrise, because the extreme temperatures on a planet so close to the sun are unbearable in the full light of day or the full dark of night. These people have been through all of the early space accidents that probably took many lives. They are comfortable enough in space to create space art. They have found hollow asteroids or mined asteroids and have created mini worlds, some to preserve aspects of Earth that are being lost, others to fire the imagination or express someone’s ideology. They casually don space suits to go for evening walks on the raw surfaces of planets that could not be terraformed. Next to these space habitués our astronauts in Gravity look like the novices they are.
There is a scene in 2312 where Swan gets separated from her ship during a terrorist attack and she is floating alone in space. She knows what this means. She knows how much time she has. She is joined by another abandoned traveler who she happens to know, Wahram, a Titan and together they use their communicators to call for help. Each takes comfort from the presence of the other, but they, being used to space, take a sort of fatalistic view of their situation. They don’t burn extra oxygen through anxiety, but they do know that time is not on their side and they expect to die floating in gravity-less space.
These two different examples of weightless death or near-death experiences do remind us of how difficult it will be to colonize space, how many people will die to make it happen. I am sure people who took ship along with early explorers faced imminent death or actual death just as any people who are pioneers often do. They were risk-takers either by nature or necessity and they knew they were sailing into the unknown. But they did not inhabit an environment as vast or as hostile to mankind as space. They had air to breathe and blue skies and in the midst of the novel they were surrounded by the familiar. This will not be true as we venture into space. Both the film Gravityand Kim Robinson’s book 2312illuminate the alien nature of venturing off planet.
Can we ever really hope to travel in, and domesticate such a wild universe with all that empty space in between galaxies and planets, with no real assurance that there are other planets with breathable atmospheres and water? We know none of the planets in our system meet these requirements. Can we engineer the science of a planet to turn it into a livable place? How many times will the situation we find in Gravity repeat itself before we accomplish any of our goals? We humans are not people who like the status quo much; we always like to be moving ahead, towards that next new thing. But we are compassionate and sensitive people who grieve when we lose any of our fellows. Will we lose so many to the conquest of space that we will have to accept that our technology does not equal our zeal for exploration and risk, or will the very attempt produce the necessary technology? Besides the visual aspects of Gravity, besides the questions for film majors of how did they do that, these are the kinds of thoughts engendered by a movie that makes life without gravity its subject. What did you think about after watching the movie Gravity? I wish there were a way that you could answer.
This is me thinking out loud.
This blog post is also available at www.brissioni.com