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Love astronaut-themed science fiction? Here are some favourite books, movies and TV shows grounded in space travel

Love astronaut-themed science fiction? Here are some favourite books, movies and TV shows grounded in space travel
Entertainment
Binti: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor (DAW, Feb. 5, 2019). When Binti becomes the first of the Himba people to join the ranks of students at the prestigious Oomza University in space, she leaves Earth behind and finds herself thrown into the centre of a generations-long war between the university and an alien race known as the Meduse. This three-book series follows Binti and her unlikely allies as she balances the culture she came from and the future she represents. — Crystal Paul

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books, July 3, 2018). An alternate-history novel set in the early ‘50s. The premise? A giant meteorite smashes into Washington, D.C., in 1952 and accelerates the need for humans to find another planet to live on. Dr. Elma York is a Second World War veteran who flew planes as a WASP. She also happens to be a math genius and one of NASA’s human computers, and she decides she wants to be an astronaut. The novel explores what might have happened if women were allowed in the astronaut corps early in the space race, and it also touches on the civil-rights movement and struggles faced by African Americans in that time period. — Stefanie Loh

The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books, Aug. 21, 2018). In this sequel to The Calculating Stars, mankind has managed to reach the moon and has now set its sights on establishing a human colony on Mars — in 1961. Dr. Elma York — otherwise known as “The Lady Astronaut” — is hoping to get chosen for the Mars mission, but torn between her professional ambitions and her personal life. Once again, Kowal does not fail to pull in the social environment of the early ‘60s, and the tensions resulting from the civil-rights movement and South Africa’s apartheid are woven into the narrative. — Stefanie Loh

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 14, 2017). This is character-driven literary science fiction at its finest and it examines how humans will deal with the challenges of long missions of space exploration. The Wanderers follows three astronauts through a 17-month training simulation for a Mars mission and through them gets at the question of what drives humanity’s need to explore. But the narrative also pulls in the families of the astronauts and we see the strain that the long separation puts on them. — Stefanie Loh

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow, May 19, 2015). What would we do if we knew the world was about to be destroyed by “hard rain” that will fall for 5,000 years? That’s the premise of this science-fiction saga by a Seattle novelist who’s one of the masters of the genre. As Seattle Times reviewer Nisi Shawl wrote in 2015, “Stephenson’s storytelling style combines the conversational and the panoramic, allowing him to turn his piercing gaze on the familiar aspects of a strange future, encompassing the barely conceivable detail by detail, striking vista by sweat-covered heroic gambit, and telling us how it might be possible to regain what we could so easily lose in so many heartbreaking ways.” — Stefanie Loh

The Three-Body Problem series by Cixin Liu (Tor Books, English translation of first book published November 2014). President Barack Obama called it “just wildly imaginative, really interesting.” Amazon reportedly may spend up to $1 billion (U.S.) acquiring the rights to produce a three-season TV show based on the Hugo Award-winning series. There’s a reason the first instalment in this trilogy was the first Asian novel ever to win a Hugo Award. The series, based in China, chronicles the existential crisis that grips all of humanity when it encounters an extraterrestrial civilization bent on taking over Earth. But the alien armada won’t arrive for another 400 years, leaving humans plenty of time to bicker over how best to prepare the eventual space battle. — Neal Morton

The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey (Orbit, first book published June 2, 2011). This eight-novel series also inspired a TV series. First novel is Leviathan Wakes. My whole family loves both books and TV shows for realistic depictions of working and travelling in space. The summary: In a world in which humanity has colonized most of the solar system, tensions build between Earth, Mars and the outer planets, and then alien tech comes into the picture. — Carole McClosky

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (Vintage, July 5, 2002). Stories of Your Life was adapted to the big screen as the movie Arrival, featuring a fearless Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist charged with finding a way to communicate with Earth’s new alien arrivals. But this isn’t your everyday alien encounter story. It incorporates sophisticated concepts of physics, language and time, and wrestles with the idea of free will. — Crystal Paul

Books — nonfiction

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach (W.W. Norton & Co., April 4, 2011). Mary Roach is the queen of taking scientific subjects and turning them into witty, hilarious prose. In Packing for Mars, she puts everyday questions in the context of space travel and what it would take to get astronauts to Mars. This means you get a series of delightful essays centred around questions like “What happens when an astronaut pukes in his helmet?” Roach shows you how space food evolved to what it is today, writes about the Zero G toilet in entertaining detail and takes you behind the scenes to see how Japan selects astronauts. — Stefanie Loh

Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program by Margaret A. Weitekamp (Johns Hopkins University Press, Dec. 9, 2005). The public faces of the Apollo program were male astronauts, but that’s not because women weren’t qualified for space travel. In fact, the doctor in charge of stress-testing the test pilots who became the first astronauts was convinced women might be especially well-suited to the job, and invited women pilots to undergo the same tests as their male counterparts. Alas, the program was not sanctioned by NASA, and the women never went into space. Written by Margaret Weitekamp, curator of the National Air and Space Museum’s social and cultural dimensions of space flight collection in Washington, D.C., Right Stuff, Wrong Time delves into this chapter of women’s history in America for a glimpse into what might have been. — Megan Burbank

Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth by Andrew Smith (Harper Perennial, second edition, July 2, 2019). Originally published in 2005, this was written by a British journalist who decided in 1999 — 30 years after the first moon landing — to track down all nine of the remaining living (at the time) astronauts who had walked on the moon to find out what they did with the rest of their lives. Essentially, to try to answer the question of whether there’s any way to find fulfilment again on Earth after walking on the moon. As might be expected, the answers were different for each man, but for all of them, life was never again the same. — Bob Condotta

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, May 16, 2004). Though much of the action precedes the Apollo program proper, Tom Wolfe’s account of the lives of naval test pilots who would become America’s first astronauts is a fun romp and one of the definitive stories of how space travel in America came to be. Not all of it holds up — there’s a lot of unexamined mythmaking around the pilots’ performative masculine swagger (see: “Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving,” women referred to as “cookies”) but it’ll make you fall in love with Chuck Yeager, it takes into account the experiences of the long-suffering women who were married to test pilots, and Wolfe’s description of what happens to a plane “at the edge of space” is alone worth the price of admission — “the ordinary laws of aerodynamics no longer applied and a plane could skid into a flat spin like a cereal bowl on a waxed Formica counter.” It’s impossible not to want to know what happens next. — Megan Burbank

Movies

Apollo 11 (2019). Apollo 11 is one of the best documentaries about the space program I’ve ever seen. Released in 2019, it consists solely of archival footage — on 70mm no less — of the mission’s various stages from launch to touchdown, plus on-the-ground video of the folks camped out to see the rocket blaze into the sky. With a subtly thrilling score, masterful editing and no talking heads or hand-holding narration, it unfolds more like an exciting feature film than a dry historical account, and short of sitting in front of a living-room TV on July 20, 1969, it may be the closest thing we have to a real-time look at the moon landing. — Megan Burbank

Hidden Figures (2016). A rousing, inspiring crowd-pleaser, this fact-based 2016 Oscar nominee shone a light on a trio of heroines: three brilliant black women who worked as “computers” in the early days of the space program, a workplace dominated by white men. — Moira Macdonald

The Martian (2015). Whip-smart astronaut played by Matt Damon uses his science-based skills to save his life on the Red Planet after being accidentally stranded there. — Soren Andersen

Interstellar (2014). A Christopher Nolan masterpiece featuring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain as astronauts who travel through a wormhole to search for a home for humanity. It’s weird, complex and all about relativity. And I loved every second of it. — Stefanie Loh

Afronauts (2014). True story: In 1964, Zambian science teacher Edward Makuka launched his own space program to try to beat the U.S. to the moon. He formulated a dubious plan to launch 16-year-old Matha Mwambwa into space using an aluminum rocket and a catapult system. The rocket never took off, but decades later director Frances Bodomo’s short film takes a look at what the Zambian space program might have looked like. — Crystal Paul

Gravity (2013). Astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) try to rescue themselves after their space shuttle suffers catastrophic damage. — Soren Andersen
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