Space odyssey: voyage to the planets Review and Opinion

Space odyssey: voyage to the planets Review and Opinion

Space Odyssey: A Voyage To The Planets
Tim Haines and Christopher Riley
BBC hardcover £20

review by Steven Hampton

In 1979, American publishers Harper & Row issued anthology The Science Fictional Solar System (Sedgwick & Jackson, 1980, in UK) edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh, which comprised 13 stories - from the likes of Robert Sheckley, James Blish, Arthur C. Clarke, Fritz Leiber, and Larry Niven - visiting each of the planets and the Sun, the asteroids and comets, in dazzlingly imagined scenarios. These particular stories (such as Brightside Crossing by Alan E. Nourse, about a hazardous trek over the sunward face of Mercury, and Isaac Asimov's Waterclap, set in an undersea base on Earth) were chosen because they were inspired by scientific veracities of the times in which each tale was written.

In the summer of 1994, the debut of The ZONE magazine (on which I served as assistant editor, for four issues) began a series - still ongoing - of articles under the umbrella title of 'The Planets Project', providing an overview of the principal SF tropes with regard to each world, considering several notable subgenre examples, story cycles and major works. Yet, even before this, Ben Bova began a series of standalone novels with Mars (1992), continuing more recently with Jupiter and Saturn, focusing each fictional instalment of his 'grand tour' on the latest scientific findings. Also relevant to all this is The Planet Suite (TTA Press, 1996), a small press chapbook by the wizard of British 'slipstream' literature, Allen Ashley. All of the above provides an adequate basis for further and similar explorations of the fantastical territories between fact and fantasy.

Anyone who caught the BBC 'edutainment' show, Space Odyssey: Voyage To The Planets, a two-part miniseries written and directed by Joe Ahearne (creator of innovative and critically acclaimed 'vampire' drama, Ultraviolet) would surely have noticed that it seemed derived, in part, from the corporation's drama-documentary stream that used cutting-edge digital effects to deliver 'natural history' stories about dinosaurs and cavemen. But despite its docudrama formula this space opera offers considerably more than just 'Walking with Astronauts', as the five-person crew of spaceship Pegasus take on both dangers and surprises of the world's first interplanetary mission during their ambitious tour of the Solar system.

Personally, I thought that the TV show was fairly enjoyable, despite some painfully clunky dialogue (scientists explaining all the 'obvious' stuff to one another results in frequent slips into info dump mode), and the rather disconcerting (and, perhaps, intentionally satirical?) affect of astronauts on the claustrophobic six-year flight seeming a bit too much like 'Big Brother' house-mates (surely a mass-media reference too far?) when their messy crew-cabins are voyeuristically viewed in split-screen format. Saved by terrific visual effects, its mostly-likeable female characters easily eclipsing the males (supposedly the leads), with the possible exception of Russian flight engineer Yvan, and some nifty plotting that allowed for maximum dramatics while keeping contrivances to a minimum, and maintaining a compelling degree of realism throughout. Was it really the science fiction television event of 2004, or simply another hopelessly derivative, and vaguely camp, propaganda exercise (albeit a welcome one, in any case) for a return to manned space flight beyond Earth orbit?

The companion volume to the TV show makes excellent use of its coffee-table book layouts, with a great many pages of vividly colourful, photo-real digital artwork, archive stills, charts, old and new maps and astronomical drawings. Presentation, and even up-to-the-minute space science data isn't everything or enough, though, to ensure this book will be of interest to keen sci-fi fans. Thankfully, the writers have purposely excluded all behind-the-scenes material about the making of the BBC's TV programme, and chosen instead to deliver a fascinatingly clever, space enthusiasts' travel guide recreating the plausibly hard-SF affect of the TV show.

The book offers a balance of the first interplanetary mission's expectations and aims, with the thrills of unforeseeable discoveries by the Pegasus' crew. Chapters start with a capsule scientific history of each planet, directing us towards in-flight reports from the Pegasus astronauts, using the form of diary entries and ship's logs. There are scant entries from the chief scientist or flight surgeon back at mission control, so, unlike the two-hour TV show, which actually benefited from frequent cut-away scenes to monitoring stations back on Earth, to allow the story to jump ahead excising many uneventful days or long dull months of flight-time, the book sticks with the Pegasus crew all the way. This tighter narrative focus throughout evenly composed chapters enables the reader a chance to relive the groundbreaking flight, with much greater attention to scientific detail than featured in the slightly less informative TV show. Like a privileged ride-along for the Pegasus' marathon space voyage, we follow the crew from elation to exhaustion, though failure and success in misery and delight, through all of their sudden terrors and triumphs, and eventual homecoming.

A highly enjoyable mix of fact and fiction, with plenty of comedy and tragedy to leaven the science lessons, this is not, in the final analysis, a truly great SF book... but it certainly is an inspiring one, and with this kind of material that counts for a lot.

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Space odyssey: voyage to the planets Review and Opinion