Gargarin: First in Space, but Not Drama

Netflix has a Russian language biopic called “Gargarin: First In Space,” which I found terribly disappointing. It should have been the Russian “The Right Stuff,” but totally wasn’t. And that’s a real shame.

Yaroslav Zhalnin plays Gargarin, and is a dead ringer, close enough that in some places, the production cuts back and forth between historical footage and recreation, and you’d never know. All of the cast is wonderful, and the emotions–such as there are–come through believably, even with subtitles.https://alchetron.com/cdn/Gagarin-First-in-Space-images-86d60f3f-e4c1-4f92-9c87-d0dce23d487.jpg

I was pleased that they included (and named) all twenty of the original soviet cosmonaut candidates. Sadly, through, this story was all Gagarin, and either the filmmakers didn’t know much more about him than you might learn from a blurb on a trading card, or they chose not to dramatize it.

Instead, the story is pretty much just Gargarin preparing for, then taking his historic flight, with a few flashbacks to his early life. There is a nice scene of him stealing from a German soldier during the war and almost getting his little brother killed, and…that’s about it.  The only sources of drama are the (probably fabricated) conflict between Gagarin and Titov, resolved with a last minute hug at the foot of the rocket, and the long suffering silence of his wife, Valentina, “the pilot’s wife” played by the lovely Olga Ivanova.

Watching this film, you get the distinct impression that Gagarin only married her because she was pretty, and only was selected to be first in space because he was pretty; senior officers in one scene explain, not very dramatically, how he should be first because some of the other cosmonauts are more fit, and should be saved for the harder, longer flights to come. Really? His staunch party support and photogenic youth had nothing to do with it?

It’s sad, because the film should have been so much more. We don’t get to see Gargarin plant a ceremonial tree the day before the launch or have the bus to the launchpad pull over so he can take a piss–both on which happened and led to traditions carried on right up to the present day.

There is a brief mention of the passcode Gagarin was meant to be given so he could unlock the controls in the event manual operation was needed, but we don’t see the ground technician slip him the code–which we know from history is what happened; the ground crew knew that if he needed it, there would be no time for party officials to approve it. This conflict between party officials and common sense is portrayed, but is watered down to the extent one wonders who they are trying not to offend. At least Gargarin’s summary promotion from lieutenant to major (skipping a rank for political reasons) is portrayed.

Another thing they get right is that Gagarin had essentially nothing to do except sit in the capsule until it was done with the flight–then pull the eject rings. As he makes his one orbit, reflecting over his life, we are treated to several shots of his feet, dangling over the tiny porthole like a little boy’s from a treehouse.

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/88/b3/3b/88b33b4ad98939f7f02a24f6ab7acb0e.jpg

Which is not to take anything away from him or the flight, but we get no sense of why he had to be the titular “first in space.” Instead, we see an attractive kid, an unexceptional but competent pilot, and his winning smile. We get no sense of anything that made him exceptional, either as a pilot, a cosmonaut, or a political envoy, we don’t see his post-flight drinking or infidelity (we don’t get to see him climb out the window) and we don’t see his fight to be allowed to return to the air, or subsequent crash and death (which would be where the real drama and tragedy lay).

We also don’t see cosmonaut candidate Valentin Vasiliyevich Bondarenko carried out in a body bag after his training accident, the drunken encounter that got Grigory Nelyubov booted from the program (later to commit suicide) or the state political revisionism that saw the famous photo of the Sochi Six–after the other fourteen cosmonaut candidates were airbrushed out of the photo–and history.

So…the effects are excellent and the performances are good for what they have to work with, but all in all, “Gagarin: First in Space” comes across as a fluffy bit of post-Soviet nostalgia that does a profound disservice to the genius and sacrifice behind Gagarin’s historic flight.

Flying by the Waist of Your Pants

There’s a scene in Ron Howard’s wonderful film, Apollo 13, when the crew is preparing to fire the LEM engine in space and Commander Lovell is Seen ensuring that his socked feet are firmly attached to the velco floor. That might well be authentic, but it leaves audiences with a mistaken notion of when flying the LEM was like during a landing.

Landings were dangerous because there was a big moon outside, just waiting to smash into you. The LEM had to maneuver, and the crew could be tossed around as it did so, just as they needed precision control. If something went wrong (as it did in Apollo 10) such an upset could elevate a minor problem into a crisis, but even under the best of circumstances, landings could be hard, and the last thing you wanted was for a suited astronaut to bang to into a bulkhead, breaking the suit or the LEM.

NASA needed a way to hold the astronauts down so they could focus on their jobs while giving them the mobility needed to move about the cabin as needed. It had to be light, it had to be reliable, and it had to be dead simple. Their solution? The Apollo LEM Crew Restraint System:

https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a16/LM11-co5.jpg

Apollo-crs

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Why Finland Can’t Go To The Moon

So, we’ve seen all the pix from Finland, where this year’s World Science Fiction Convention was held, but how many there, gathered to celebrate all that is scifi and fantasy with shiny new rocket ship Hugo trophies, that byinternational law, Finland is forbidden to go to launch such a rocket?

Title IV, Article 23 of the Treaty of Paris specifies that “Finland will neither make, manufacture, nor field aircraft designed to operate with a normal range in excess of 5,000 kilometers, nor shall it assign or second its personnel to aircraft so designed.”

This provision is designed to restrain Finland from operating long-range bombers, but it also restrains it from sending Finns to the Moon since the Moon is more than 5,000 km away and requires air transport to get there.

Finland will not violate the Treaty of Paris. The Russian Federation, as successor state to the Soviet Union, is legally permitted to enforce Finland’s treaty obligations through force of arms, and Finland takes these obligations seriously. So, no moon shot for the Finns.

Of course, individual Finns might travel to the Moon in the same way that individual Finns can fly on long-range commercial aircraft. However, “Finland” -as a state – cannot sent a craft to the moon through any means currently known to science.

Although….the atmosphere is arguably less than 5,000 km deep–what if they went straight up?

The Reviews Are In!

I am over the moon (no pun intended) at the reception this story has gotten. It’s hard Scifi–as in real-world science and hardware that either actually existed in 1969 or really could have, and it’s long–novelette length in an era where flash prevails. I knew when I wrote it that Trevor Quachri at Analog was my first, best, and maybe only market.

But Trevor bought it–Yay! And he put my name on the cover (a pretty big deal, since this is only my second sale to Analog and there are 16 other authors in the issue)–Yay! And he hired the great, Hugo-winning artist, Vincent DiFate to do a full, two page illustration–say what?

famcover-smUnbelievable!

And now the reviews are in:

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Taos Toolbox

In its ten years of operation, Taos Toolbox has become one of the best-regarded Milford-style advanced novel writing workshops in the country. With Worldcon in Europe this year and a major novel rewrite on my agenda for the year, I decided to apply. I consider myself very fortunate to have gotten in, as George R.R. Martin is teaching this year and while Walter won’t tell me how many applicants he got, he did confirm it was a record.

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Our National Bird on the Mend

As a science fiction author, I spend more than my fair share of time thinking of all the ways the world can go to hell in a hand-basket and ruin everything for everybody–that makes for dramatic stories.
But in fact, science is about understanding and progress, and we need to take time for that too.https://farm8.staticflickr.com/7636/17018868367_7a8e996ecc_b.jpg

This morning, just as I was sitting down with my second cup of coffee, a bald eagle flew past my 35th floor window, not twenty feet away

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Happy Anniversary America, I Got You On My Mind

I used to work with a very British chap with the very British name, David Noble. Once, in the lead up to the long July 4th weekend, I asked him his plans. “Ah, July 4th,” he said. “That’s the anniversary of the date you lot kicked us out. We don’t celebrate that.”

No, but he took the day off.

Happy birthday, anniversary, kick-the-Brits-out day, or however you choose to think of it. As troubled as the world is, I am pleased to live in a time when most of it’s people view one another more as neighbors and friendly rivals than as enemies. May we all continue the trend, educate the laggards, make amends for past indiscretions, and remember that the culture we bequeath to the future is at least as important as the skin color genes—or the flags.

Cheers.

Meanhile on Twitter….

tom follows meThis, seen on Twitter today, tickles me for a couple of reasons.

I’m a big fan of Hugh Laurie since way back, since long before he became Dr. House, from back when he and Stephen Fry were ubiquitous funny men on the BBC. I’m also a big fan of Tom Hall since way back, since we worked together at Softdisk and used to eat pizza and play cards together with a collection of kids at the dawn of an industry and all with their lives before them.

Tom, a co-founder of id Software who recently had one of his level designs from the original Doom game voted an all time favorite of fans, probably saw my recent publication in Galaxy’s Edge Magazine. But what has Hugh done lately?

I kid.

Cheers.