Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ascension: Ups and Downs

I thought the first part of the three-part Ascension was really good, until the very end.  I thought the very end of the third part was good, too.  And the rest, well, it had its moments, but was largely derivative and predictable.   Still, there was enough to enjoy in the entire three-part series to make it worth watching.

The set-up for Part 1 was compelling, old-school science fiction.  An Orion starship is launched from Earth in the Kennedy years, in the early 1960s, and no one knows about it and its mission - which is to deliver a human crew, descendants of the original crew, on a hundred-year much-slower-than-speed-of-light voyage to Proxima, the third sun in the Alpha Centauri trip star system, the closest star to Earth.  As such, journeys to Alpha Centauri have always been attractive to science fiction writers, and I've published both a novel, Borrowed Tides, and written a song, Alpha Centauri, on this theme.

But the launch of an Orion-type starship in the Kennedy years is a great start for this story, seeing as how a real rocket scientist, Werner von Braun, actually proposed such a ship in our real history. Further, a story based on no one on Earth knowing about this creates a powerful tableau.  It's 50 years into the voyage.  Earth is right where we are now, in 2014.  And although it's 2014 on the ship, too, their culture is still in 1960s JFK style - just before Dylan and the Beatles, what we saw in the first few seasons of Mad Men.

When we find near the end of Part 1 that someone on Earth does know about this - the son of the rocket scientist - that adds to the story.   But when we learn at the very end of Part 1 that the ship had never left Earth at all, and the crew and their descendants were just one big experiment about how humans might fare on a trip to the stars without actually getting there - well, that makes our story something very different.

It's a pretty nice twist, but one which is reminiscent - actually the reverse - of the famous twist at the end of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, when we learn that a kid training in virtual combat on a computer war game is actually directing the action in a real interstellar war.  In Ascension, what we thought was a trip to the stars turns out to be simulated journey, on a ship that has stood in its hanger for 50 years and never left the ground, not even Earth let alone our solar system.

What we know have, for the rest of the three-part series, is a biosphere story, about what happens when people live in a self-contained bubble with no information or food or anything from the outside, and how the people outside react to this.   That's a good enough platform for a story, but not as good by a mile as a ship that was really, secretly launched to the stars in the JFK's administration.

The very end, as I said, does offer something more interesting, a kind of trip to the stars, but the vehicle is apparently not a ship, but a girl with Carrie-like powers.   This, at best, is a new turn on a trite motif - but it has some promise, and at least gets Ascension finally off the ground.

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