With J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek into Darkness (2013) coming to theatres this week, our contributors thought now would be a good time to tackle the subject of space travel. Please find below four works of fiction that will take you where no one has gone before.
Surface Detail (2010)
If you’re going to travel in space, do it in style. Iain M. Banks, author of the brilliant Culture series, has long been my best bet for luxury interstellar cruise ships with sentient AI. With names like Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly, Hidden Income and Rubric of Ruin, these bold spacecraft show more personality in their name alone than most wooden sci-fi heroes do in the hands of lesser writers. Moving back and forth between six protagonists, the ninth novel in the franchise, Surface Detail, tells of outlawed virtual environments where undesirable consciousnesses can be uploaded to suffer untold tortures. In the future, mankind will evolve beyond the death penalty, but can it get past a hell of its own creation?
Banks has been writing the Culture series since 1987 and has gifted us with ten entries to date. It’s unclear how many more we’ll get, as the author revealed his battle with cancer last April. Each offering is a well-crafted gem to be cherished. Surface Detail, for one, captures a curious balance between the immense and the microcosmic, that same peculiar feeling of folded space and sharpened reality one gets when watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). One detail in particular reminds us of what a great author we still have with us: a Deepest Regrets class vessel named Vision of Hope Surpassed. That about sums it up.
The Transformers: The Movie (1986)
I remember watching, in my younger years, wonderfully violent cartoons on television. One of my favorites was The Transformers, but the series changed abruptly one day. New robots started showing up out of nowhere, and old reliables from early episodes were gone. Even the setting had changed from Raegan era USA to a post-apocalyptic Cybertron. I didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out I missed an important part of the story, one told in the classic theatrical flop The Transformers: The Movie.
The ninety-minute animated feature begins with an epic battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons, wherein many toys get retired or, if we’re to believe the producers, many robots get irreparably damaged. Soon, the planet-devouring Unicron (Orson Welles) grants a dying Megatron new life (and Leonard Nimoy’s voice) in exchange for stealing the Autobots’ Matrix of Leadership, resulting in three parallel chases across multiple planets and plenty of new Transformers to fill department store shelves everywhere. If you’re still young enough at heart to grasp the inherent poetry in giant robots duking it out for the fate of Cybertron, then you’re sure to enjoy The Transformers: The Movie despite the absence of fan-favorites Skids and Mudflaps.
Earth Star Voyager (1988)
In 1988, Disney produced a two-part mini-series called Earth Star Voyager, about a team of young adults on a 26-year mission to explore an “exoplanet” that could serve as a new home for Earth’s environment-destroying population. The technology postulated is antique even by eighties standards, with special effects worse than in the original Star Trek show; subplots just peter out like the whole thing was written as a television pilot; and the acting tends toward subpar if not laughable, such as every time the computer geek tries to touch type.
That aside, Earth Star Voyager presents an accessible version of space travel with likable geniuses facing the usual threats, from outlaw science guilds to eugenics-minded power mongers, all while laughing and flirting their way into a cohesive team. As a teenager, I was taken by the idea of characters my age doing something I always dreamt of doing, never letting the typical adolescent dynamics affect how they treat one another. Today, I find I still want to be them, off on an adventure with my friends, doing something momentous to benefit humanity.
Event Horizon (1997)
The tagline for Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) reads, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” However, only one sci-fi horror flick has ever succeeded in making me shriek at the screen: Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon, which tells of an experimental craft designed to go where no man has gone before by folding the universe onto itself and leaping from one end to the other. Seven years later, a rescue crew led by Laurence Fishburne discovers that the ship went instead where no dog has gone before (if we’re to believe 1989’s All Dogs Go to Heaven) and brought something back with it.
What fascinates me the most about Event Horizon is its depiction of evil as an intangible entity that travels from the depths of our souls and corrupts any space it occupies. Too often, Hollywood presents the devil as an anamorphic despot with horns and a greasy beard, but the cosmos reaches so far and wide I doubt he’d bother with the latest grooming trends or fiddle contests. More to the point, the notion of a monster that defies the basic principles of physics unsettles me to the core, confronting me with the limitations of our understanding, the insignificance of man, and the dangers that await were we truly to go where no one has gone before.