Magazine article The American Conservative

Talk, Talk against the Dying of the Light

Magazine article The American Conservative

Talk, Talk against the Dying of the Light

Article excerpt


ON MAY 28, 1942, the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, badly damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea, squeezed into a Pearl Harbor dry dock needing an estimated 90 days of repair. But with four Japanese carriers steaming toward Midway Island, 1,400 repairman swarmed over her, using so much electricity that Honolulu had to be partially blacked out. Two days later, the Yorktown sailed off to the decisive battle of the War in the Pacific.

On Jan. 16, 2003, a chunk of foam broke off the space shuttle Columbia during liftoff. NASA engineers asked their managers to have a spy satellite scope out the damage, but the higher-ups assumed, wrongly, that America couldn't improvise a repair or rescue during the 30 days the crew could survive in orbit, so why bother? Two weeks later, the Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry.

During the golden age of science fiction in the middle of the 20th century, the predominant plot--the space voyage--was essentially an updated sea story. (It's no coincidence that the greatest American science-fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein, who was born 100 years ago this summer, was an invalided U.S. naval officer.) Classic "hard" science fiction reflected the can-do culture of an era exemplified by the Yorktown repairs and going to the Moon in eight years.

We now live in a can't-do age, when merely building a fence along the border strikes our leaders as beyond our nation's capabilities.

"Sunshine" is a medium-budget ($40 million) science-fiction thriller with art-house pretensions. Eight astronauts on a last-chance-for-mankind mission try to reignite the dying sun with a "stellar bomb" the size of Manhattan. The movie falls uncomfortably between the grand heroism of the old sci-fi and the petty self-absorption of our reality-television shows.

Granted, the physics of the premise are unworkable--for one thing, it takes a half million years for light to jostle its way out from the dense solar core to the surface, so by the time we noticed anything was wrong with the sun, it would be too late--but some of the film's conceptions of how much the freezing folks back on Earth could do if they had to are thrillingly old-fashioned. For instance, this bomb is humanity's final hope because "all the fissile material on Earth has been mined" to make it. …

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