5 Plausible Science Fiction Novels in the Spirit of First Man

It’s been nearly 50 years since Neil Armstrong took those famous first steps on the surface of the moon, and the journey that brought him there forms the subject of the new Ryan Gosling/Damien Chazelle film First Man, based on the book of the same name by James R. Hansen. Which inspires the question: should such a a story, written today, be considered science fiction, or just a historical thriller? On the one hand, we obviously have the ability to send people to the moon. On the other, it’s been so long since it’s actually happened, it’s kind of lost its air of plausibility (this, of course, does not take into account the many conspiracy theories suggesting we never went to the moon in the first place).

That intersection between reality and such a perfectly plausible—but incredibly rare or difficult—scenario is where the movement known as “mundane sci-fi” lives. Although engineering a precise definition is tough, in general, mundane SF eschews the deliriously futuristic in favor of the possible and the soon-to-be. To celebrate our once and (possibly) future hegemony on the moon, then, here are 5 mundane sci-fi books in the spirit of First Man.

The Martian, by Andy Weir
If you can imagine sending astronauts back to the Moon, and maybe even a Moon base of some sort, why not Mars? Weir’s modern classic is more adventure story than sci-fi, as the technology that gets Mark Watney to Mars isn’t terribly futuristic, and the techniques he uses to survive once he’s marooned there (er, spoiler alert?) are perfectly plausible. The fact is this book might not be considered sci-fi at all in a relatively short period of time, and it’s theme of humans being smart enough to overcome any sort of challenge with the application of engineering, imagination, and a dash of desperation lines up perfectly with the optimistic story of a nation putting all its power behind the goal of putting men on the Moon—and then, of course, getting them back. Consider also Weir’s sophomore novel Artemis, a heist caper set on an operational Moon base, and taking into account the real difficulties of keeping a population alive on the lifeless, resource-strapped satellite.

Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Robinson’s trilogy about the colonization of the red planet is more ambitious in scope than The Martian, in the sense that he imagines not just a visit to Mars, but an entire terraforming operation that, over the course of three books, transforms the planet into one habitable for humanity. That sounds pretty fantastical, but what keeps it squarely in the “mundane” category mundane is that the plot hinges on the use of possible, plausible, or existing technology; everything Robinson imagines his colonists doing to change the environment of an entire planet is something that could conceivably be accomplished with existing tech. Meanwhile, everything Robinson imagines about his human colonists’ political, emotional, and societal decisions is just as true to life; as the project experiences casualties and unexpected setbacks, they swirl into a mounting storm of action, reaction, and unforeseen consequences. When (if) we finally get around to colonizing Mars, we might not do it in exactly the way Robinson imagines—but the point is we could. And after being reminded of the immense resources and scientific leaps that the moon landing required, Red Mars doesn’t seem quite so sci-fi after all.

China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen F. McHugh
McHugh’s Nebula-nominated novel is often considered a precursor to mundane SFF, and does include some advanced science-fictional technology. But it’s really about the ripple effect of economic and cultural upheavals in the wake of America’s collapse as a world power and transformation into a communist state. This, oddly, makes it an ideal bookend to First Man: the film (and the book it’s based on) illustrate how a robust capitalist society leverages its immense resources towards a singular achievement, while China Mountain Zhang is about the long tail of such a society, limping along after it has run out of road. The contrast between the two is fascinating.

Arkwright, by Allen Steele
Like Robinson’s, at first glance Steele’s story seems too big to be mundane: a dying sci-fi author, convinced the Earth is ultimately doomed, uses his wealth to set humanity on a path towards colonizing a distant planet, setting off a chain of events that unfolds across centuries and light years. But Steele keeps his technology realistic, imagining that the colonists eventually set off in a ship powered by a microwave beam—a technology that’s already theoretically capable of slowly accelerating a ship to about half light speed, which would get it to a planet dozens of light years away in a difficult but manageable amount of time. The rest of the logistics are dealt with in a similarly realistic manner; while the book’s overall scope is a bit outside the strict parameters of the mundane, it’s definitely there in spirit, and like First Man conveys a sense of epic effort and heroic sacrifice that would be required to turn such a project into a reality.

Moonfall, by Jack McDevitt
McDevitt is one of the authors whose work often falls just outside the mundane sci-fi sphere—his stories are usually just a bit too fictional or fanciful to be truly mundane. But Moonfall is as close to it  as he’s ever come—and it’s pretty close. In a future where a small lunar base has been established, a huge, fast-moving comet is discovered—and calculated to impact the moon in just a few days. When that happens, the moon will be vaporized, and destruction and fire will rain down on the Earth. Desperate measures are launched to evacuate the base and somehow avoid an extinction-level event, and McDevitt keeps a steady hand on the reins of plausibility the whole time, resulting in a story that trucks in realism, and shares a spirit of can-do science with First Man; it seems humanity can achieve anything if we can just find the right engineers.

What’s your favorite work of realistic SF?

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