Post-Interstellar Science Fiction Reading

Interstellar's Bookshelf

The Bookshelf which plays such an important role in Interstellar

Electric Literature recently ran an article titled ‘Science Fiction novels to help with your Interstellar hangover’. It’s a fine list, you should read it, and I definitely agree with the majority of their choices. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle? Yes, absolutely. Carl Sagan’s Contact? Uh-hu! Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Of course! The wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimeyness of Joe Haldeman and Kurt Vonnegut? Yep, yep, yep!

But that being as it may, I felt that the list could have benefited from some slightly deeper cuts…

To that end here are some further texts for when you have exhausted Electric Literature’s selection. Note: This post contains what some may deem SPOILERS for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, as well as some minor spoilers for the books in question, but I have tried to keep both to a minimum.

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds 

Let’s get the big one out of the way first. There were times during Interstellar when I felt like I was watching a very loose adaptation of Absolution Gap. I’d be remiss, of course, if I didn’t point out that this 2003 novel is the third part of a trilogy of sorts (one which began with 2000’s Revelation Space and continued with 2002’s Redemption Ark) and is best enjoyed as part of that sequence. All three present ideas with which you will be familiar if you’ve just seen Interstellar (for instance, the effects of time dilation and the rules of relativity play a huge part in how Reynolds constructs his narratives) but in Absolution Gap the author goes further, exploring the concept of gravitational signalling which is so important in Interstellar (and, arguably, does so in a more satisfying fashion than the film’s final act).

Reynolds, who used to work for the European Space Agency, certainly knows his science, yet the similarities between Interstellar and Absolution Gap go beyond an interest in the accurate depiction of physics. Destructive tsunamis? Check. Frozen planets? Check. Children who grow up to be genius saviours? Check. Mysterious beings which may or may not be key to the survival of a human race on the verge of extinction? Yes, you guessed it: Check. And, as in the film, the identity of those beings is one of the novel’s great mysteries; are they advanced aliens or are they perhaps humanity’s own future selves? The clincher, however, is the degree to which love is shown here to be something capable of transcending time and space. In Absolution Gap, love propels characters from star system to star system as much as their desperation to save humanity does, an appreciation of it keeps fingers off of triggers at key moments, and it forges bonds which surpass mere human lifetimes.

‘Schwarzschild Radius’ by Connie Willis

I first read this story in James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s quite brilliant anthology The Secret History of Science Fiction (2009), but it was originally published in 1987. Like the Alan Lightman book below, Willis here fictionalises a real life scientist, in this case Karl Schwarzschild who calculated the first accurate solutions to the equations of general relativity. The events of the story are told by a soldier who has intercepted a letter from Einstein to Schwarzschild during World War I, at which time the astronomer was serving with the German Army (and using his knowledge to solve ballistics problems). Willis deliberately muddles time periods and tenses in the story, playing with some beautiful and striking metaphors derived from the mathematical ideas Schwarzschild himself was working on at the time. Though perhaps nothing connects it thematically to Interstellar more than the Willis quote (sourced from an Infinity Plus interview, I believe) with which Kelly and Kessel preface the story in their anthology: ‘The real appeal of the past is that it’s the true forbidden country. Even when you write stories about the Outer Magellanic Cloud or the star pillars in Orion, there’s a chance that we can go there, we know we’ll get to the future eventually, one way or another, but the past you can never go to, not even to correct your mistakes. It’s the place you can’t ever go home to, even to take one last longing look, and yet it’s always with us, every moment.’

‘Schwarzschild Radius’ shows society to be as capable of catastrophic collapse as any star; war to be as all-consuming as any black hole. It’s a magnificent story (devastating in its own way, though that term is thrown around far too freely these days) and, whether or not you pick it up in The Secret History of Science Fiction or in Willis’s own collection Impossible Things (containing further Interstellar appropriate tales of environmental collapse), I highly recommend you give it a read.

Ark by Stephen Baxter

This 2009 novel depicts the journey of a group of survivors (in this case a generational crew) dispatched from an environmentally ruined Earth by NASA remnants working in secret on a last chance mission to set up a colony on a new world. Sound familiar? Yes, there’s a lot here which Interstellar riffs on, which I suppose isn’t surprising given our treatment of the planet. The novel is a sequel to Baxter’s Flood from the year before, a book with an unrelentingly realistic depiction of environmental collapse and rising sea levels. However unlike the Reynolds book above, Ark can definitely be read as a stand-alone novel.

Where Flood was a genuinely frightening tale of environmental collapse, Ark excels as one of the most depressing depictions of spaceflight which I’ve ever read, with the characters spending decades trapped in what is essentially a tin can. Perhaps not the most ringing endorsement, but Baxter accomplishes this bleakness with great skill (it’s really a terrific novel!), and it does speak to the hopelessness frequently apparent in Interstellar. The characters in Ark know they are humanity’s last hope and yet they are too often unable to overcome their own petty desires and disputes. They keep secrets. They lie. They come to blows (and often much more violent exchanges). Like Interstellar too, the novel splits its narrative between the space mission and humanity’s ongoing, losing battle for survival on Earth. It’s a grim book, yes, often quite sad but also often thrilling.

Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

Is it a novel or is it a carefully structured collection of short stories? Like Interstellar, this book never quite decides what it wants to be (though it is typically understood to be, and marketed as, a novel), but let that not be an impediment to your enjoyment. Similar to Reynolds in his former career, Lightman is a scientist as well as a writer. His research has focused on areas very relevant to the plot of Interstellar such as relativistic gravitation theory and the development of accretion disks around black holes. Yet this short volume takes an altogether more imaginative approach to such professional interests.

The book presents the reader with a fictionalized Albert Einstein, a young scientist working on his theory of relativity in 1905. Each chapter details a dream which Einstein has during this period and each involves a different conception of time: time as a circle (hello, True Detective fans), time as a flow of water, time passing more slowly the farther one is from the centre of the Earth, people living just one day but that day being an eternity, time as a line which terminates at the present, and so on. It’s a rather wonderful conceit and, through it, Lightman (what a brilliant name for a physicist!) explores exaggerations of real science related to relativity as well as phenomena which are entirely fantastical in nature. Much like Interstellar, Einstein’s Dreams concerns itself with the relationship of human beings to time and to the physical laws underpinning the universe. It’s a wonderful read and, for all its physics, probably the most mainstream of the texts on this list.

The Algebraist by Iain M Banks

In contrast to Lightman’s volume, The Algebraist is the closest book here to the traditional conception of Space Opera. Banks may not have been as scientifically rigorous as, say, Reynolds, but he could write hugely entertaining widescreen Science Fiction like few others. This 2004 novel is about the search for the coordinates of a series of hidden wormholes which can provide instantaneous travel across the galaxy. Its hero Fassin Taak spends the novel searching not just for this list but also for the mathematics needed to unlock the precise location of the wormhole portals. Until he does so, his solar system is cut off from the rest of the Galaxy.

As a stand-alone novel, The Algebraist is a good taster for those who haven’t read Banks’s SF work or who might be wary of committing to his Culture series (though, with one or two exceptions, those books can be read in any order). The novel displays a time-sensitive thirst for knowledge which will strike a chord with anyone who has seen Interstellar but, in the same way the film undercuts the dourness of its characters with the comedy stylings of robots TARS and CASE, the serious nature of Taak’s mission in The Algebraist (aggressive marauders are bearing down on his home system) is frequently derailed by the absurdities of the Dwellers, the long-lived alien race which resides inside the novel’s gas giant. They are ridiculous but incredibly knowledgeable creatures, and a lot of fun to read about. Indeed, the “sailing race” enjoyed by these aliens in the middle of the story is an absolute highlight and worth the cost of the book alone.

Honourable mentions

It’s not a Science Fiction novel, but I want to at least nod towards John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) considering that the first act of Interstellar is basically a dustbowl story.

The real honourable mention, however, relates to the space habitat at the very end of the film, a station which clearly draws on so-called O’Neill Cylinders. If you want to learn more about this idea then you could do worse than go direct to the source and read The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space by Gerard K. O’Neill.

Yes, it’s a bit dated (it was published in 1976 after all) but it remains an engaging overview of how such massive space colonies could actually be constructed and how they might function. Moreover, much of it is written in a voice which could easily be that of Matthew McConaughey’s character in Interstellar. Just opening it to a random page, I find: “Our Earth is rich in plants and animals, but as industry and human population crowd environments it is not as rich as once it was…” More than a touch of McConaughey’s ‘This planet is a treasure but it’s been telling us to leave for a while now’ in that.

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