In "Above It All," Reaching For the Stars Won't Help Anybody

Robert J. Sawyer's "Above it All" is a horror story that takes place on the Mir spaceship. What makes Sawyer's choice of venue odd is the year the story was written, 1996. What's so significant about this year?

That's the year the U.S started to have a continuous presence on the station- in other words, the year two former enemies put aside their differences to work on reaching the stars, discovering the unknown. What's so scary about that?

On the surface, not a whole lot. Sawyer's protagonist, Colonel Paul Rackham, is an American astronaut who has been enamored with Mir since it's launch twenty years ago (the story takes place in a 2006). Now he finally gets to go, to retrieve the body of a cosmonaut who committed suicide.

No one can make sense of the cosmonaut's death on Earth, and how could they? The space adventurer is supposed to be one of society's heroes, right up there with firemen and the professional athelete. But Sawyer doesn't see it that way. In his 2006, Russia's "dark years" of 90's capitalism have only continued. Food shipments to Mir are being looted by technicians. Capitalism hasn't helped anybody in a while.

Put in this context, neither Paul, nor the cosmonaut Yuri's missions seem so grand. Wasteful seems to be a better description. Of course, it's not Paul or Yuri's fault, it's never anyone's fault. "Above it All" reminded me a bit of David Simon's superlative The Wire: Sawyer has no problem with the people, it's the institutions he can't stand. In a horrific yet perfectly logical ending, Paul decides to make a positive impact, or at least break the cycle. It's not a perfect choice, but it's the only answer he can find.

Discussion Topics:

Do you like the story? The first time I read I was head over heels, the second time it feels a bit heavy-handed. Your thoughts?

Did Paul make the correct decision? It's a huge choice to make, and one that could be called 'giving up'.

Space funding has come under a microscope as of late with President Obama proposing the end of lunar missions, focusing on technology investment instead. While going into space certainly sounds noble, can we afford to be noble with such suffering on Earth? Could NASA's budget be spent on something like education? Or even just ending our debt?

Schedule:
May 1st- "Tideline" - Elizabeth Bear, 2007

May 8th- "Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts" - Ben Francisco, 2010 (audio only, text link coming soon)