Until Friday, I had never seen Apollo 13. I know. Shameful, shameful space geek behavior. Of course, I knew what happened, I just hadn’t gotten around to watching the movie. (Although, while finally watching it, I was taken in enough to briefly wonder if I had gotten my history wrong, before realizing that a) no one would go see that movie, and b) Jim Lovell was on the Daily Show about a month ago.)
While it’s not quite on the same level of popularity, I had also been meaning to read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy for an embarrassingly long time, and just finished Blue Mars this past week.
At first glance, the two works don’t have much in common besides space travel–they are film and literature, nonfiction and fiction, the moon and Mars. Of course, both are hard sci-fi, in the sense that Apollo 13 stuck pretty well to the facts and Red through Blue Mars didn’t feature time travel, mind readers, or anywhere near the usual amount of sci-fi hand-waving.
Ultimately, the difference between the two works lies in where they place their faith. In Apollo 13, you have the technology of the early 1970s being utilized by people with the best training, character, and intentions possible. In the Mars novels, you have very human humans using reliable interplanetary space travel, terraforming techniques, and later longevity treatments and interstellar travel. The success or failure of the mission, in each case, relies on both the people involved and the technology on which they rely.
On Mars, the problems all center on human nature: given essentially perfect technology, how will your average individual, despite rigorous selection processes and training, manage to create problems both personal and universal? How do politics, economics, history, and basic relationships between individuals make it impossible to create a perfect world, even with all the tools to do so?
In other words: How can we find new and different ways to frak things up?
In Apollo 13, on the other hand, the exact opposite is true: assuming everyone involved in space and on the ground is operating at peak efficiency, and you’ve employed some of the best minds in the world, let’s list and discuss every possible problem and solution that technology or physics might offer us, and work at them until we have a solution.
Or: How can technology frak us over, and are we prepared to respond when it does?
To be fair, Blue Mars does end on an optimistic note, and Apollo 13 doesn’t go out of its way to portray its protagonists as Perfect American Heroes (although the facts of the situation do that well enough on their own). This may be a gross oversimplification (but then again, what isn’t?), but the line between the good intentions of people and the reliability of machines would be a fairly decent way to divide up most of science fiction (or science dramatizations of true events, as is the case with Apollo 13).
It’s also a good barometer for optimism. Which of the two is easier to believe? A world in which we have perfected our technology, but injustice and suffering still exist? Or a world in which, using our current, unreliable technology, we as a species manage to rise above our potential to the same extent that NASA did in the 1960s and 70s?