The Right Stuff

Someone said that a Science Fiction story was one that wouldn’t work if you removed the science element

I was struck by this watching an episode of the Right Stuff on Disney+. The opening scene deals with the would be astronauts discussing a friend who has just “flamed out”: been killed in a test flight. The characters drink whisky around a fire, they speak in low voices, they shake their heads and look serious as they reflect on the noble mission they are undertaking.

It’s am interchangeable scene that could have appeared in many stories.

Compare that with opening of Tom Wolfe’s original novel. A test pilot has been killed but which one? The tension is raised as the wives phone each other, trying to determine who it could be. The identity of the pilot is revealed.

And then, something different. Rather than nobly reflecting on the tragedy, the other pilots try to determine the cause of the accident. As always, they decide it was pilot error. It wasn’t down to chance, it was something that could have been avoided if the pilot did their job properly. It seems heartless, but that’s how the other pilots maintain their sanity, that’s how they handle the uncertainty of the job.

The Right Stuff novel was Science Fact, not Science Fiction, but like good SF it respected its subject matter, it didn’t just throw standard story elements at a setting and waited to see what would stick.

Incidentally, I seem to remember the opening quotation was by Fred Pohl. I had a look online to check but I couldn’t find it. I did find this rather nice line though:

“Someone once said that a good science-fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam. We agree”.

Frederik Pohl, 1968.

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