For Movie Fans Who Loved 'Gravity': Riveting Reads About Space and Science
With a simple but terrifying premise and stunning effects, Alfonso Cuarón's new film "Gravity" has moviegoers turning up in droves: When satellite debris destroys their space shuttle, astronauts Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) must find their way back to Earth despite faulty communications and the constant threat of forever being lost in the void. The movie has achieved a staggering 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is drawing Oscar buzz.
What's making "Gravity" so successful is how it resonates on multiple frequencies: stealing our breath with the sheer scope of space, while delving into the psychological terror of being lost alone in space, where--as they say in "Alien"--no one can hear you scream. While "2001: A Space Odyssey" is an obvious pick for what to read next, we've got even more unexpected reads that'll press the same buttons. Just be sure to hold on tight.
If you're into: The vastness of space
In Stephen Hawking's brilliant, seminal work on the nature of the universe, the legendary British physicist covers it all, from the Big Bang to black holes. If you can wade through Hawking's technical prose, you'll learn everything you ever wanted to know about space, and then some.
If you're into: The hard science
Thinking about the endlessness of the universe is enough to make your brain hurt. But, does it truly go on ad infinitum? In her 2003 memoir, MIT-trained astrophysicist Janna Levin argues instead that there are limits to space--it's just hard to prove it because the universe is so darn huge. Levin bucked convention with her work: Most astrophysicists believe the universe is ever-expanding. Recalling her life and studies through letters she wrote but never sent to her mother, Levin manages to make her mind-melting work digestible to the average reader.
If you're into: The shipwreck story
"Gravity" is a shipwreck story for the space age, and it echoes the book that launched the genre: Daniel Defoe's classic 1719 novel, "Robinson Crusoe." Astronaut-like, Defoe's hero is itching to explore new worlds; he gets his wish when he is shipwrecked on a remote island where his only company is a dog, two cats and occasional visits from local cannibals.
If you're into: The terror of isolation
If you like characters who face themselves down while cut off from the world (apparently, even just working so solo while shooting had "Gravity's" cast and crew members worried for Bullock), Emma Donoghue's "Room" offers that oh-so-unmoored feeling. A nameless mother--Ma--tends to her five-year-old son, Jack, while they're locked away in an 11-foot-square chamber, with Ma battling back her own panic as she strives to ensure her son has some normalcy in a life-threatening situation. (In their case, that's whenever domineering captor Old Nick comes for a visit). Like Dr. Stone as she goes deeper into space, Ma has to muster some serious ingenuity to get herself and Jack to safety.
If you're into: Fiction that knows its stuff
Over the weekend, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson took "Gravity" to task on Twitter, calling out the film's scientific inaccuracies (though noting that he did actually enjoy it). We bet that he wouldn't object to readers picking up his mentor Carl Sagan's novel "Contact." Despite being published in 1985, its premise still endures: SETI scientists make first contact with extraterrestrials using mathematics--theorized to be the ultimate "universal language"--to communicate across space and time.
If you're into: Feats of human endurance
There are few memoir subtitles as apt as amateur mountaineer Aron Ralston's "Between a Rock and a Hard Place": One day in 2003, Ralston was exploring a Utah canyon 40 miles from the nearest paved road when an 800-pound boulder fell, pinning him by the arm. For five days, Ralston may as well have been floating in outer space, so slim was the chance that he'd ever be found. Increasingly hypothermic, dehydrated and hallucinatory, Ralston took his body to new limits, intentionally breaking his arm against the boulder and then amputating it with a dull multi-tool in order to break free. Memorably portrayed by James Franco in Danny Boyle's film, "127 Hours," Ralston's story is both a tribute to and warning about all that humans can endure.
If you're into: International intrigue
The complications that ensue between Russians and Americans in "Gravity"--thanks to debris from a Russian satellite--remind us that our worries about our neighbors-to-Sarah-Palin are not confined to just our planet. Ever since Sputnik, America and Russia have been battling for dominance of the final frontier. There's a long tradition of Russian/American heavily-armed conflict in thrillers, the modern era of which was spawned by the late Tom Clancy's 1984 novel, "The Hunt for Red October," in which the Soviets unleash a submarine with terrifying destructive capabilities.
If you're into: A solo narrator
Dramatizing a stranded astronaut's solitary peregrination through space, "Gravity" draws on the literary tradition of the solo journey--the alpha and omega of which is Homer's "The Odyssey." Like Dr. Stone, Odysseus' story starts with a worldly mission (war in Troy), but his true journey begins after he becomes stranded--and isolated--in a foreign locale. In its examination of how a lone voyage can yield revelations about the world, time and self, this antique epic makes a perfect complement to Cuarón's film.