Paul Preuss recently returned to writing speculative and historical fiction about science after years as a full time science writer, covering all fields but specializing in physics, cosmology, accelerators, photon science, and, more recently, engineering. Previously he wrote novels, science articles, and book reviews by the hundreds. And before that he made documentary films and worked on network TV specials—his first and shortest professional film was “Over, Through, Around” for the premier episode of Sesame Street. He was a drama major at Yale, where he graduated with honors as a Scholar of the House in film and drama. Preuss’s father was an air force officer, and he grew up in various places, with the longest stay at Sandia Base in New Mexico.
by Paul Preuss
My 1988 novel Starfire, recently reissued in digital form by Diversion Books, tells the story of the crew of a fusion-powered rocketship and their catastrophic brush with the sun. In retrospect it’s clear that the myth of Icarus inspired the story, but the myth slept deep in my unconscious for years. The proximate cause of the novel was quite different.
It grew from a screenplay I wrote with Gary Gutierrez of Colossal Pictures, who had just finished directing the special effects for The Right Stuff and was about to do the same for Top Gun. Gary wanted to make a documentary-style film about a daring space mission. Initial support came from producer Lynda Obst, but the movie world would have to wait until Gravity (and Obst herself would have to wait until Interstellar), to perfect the range of physical, mechanical, photographic, and computer effects needed to achieve sustained, cinéma vérité-style weightlessness on screen.
Flashback a decade and a half: while most of my trips to Greece have focused on Crete, Icarus wasn’t on my mind the first time I rode the local bus from Iraklion to Knossos. The Minoan civilization was named after King Minos by Sir Arthur Evans, who was the first to excavate (and, some say, over-restore) the well-known but little-explored site. He uncovered a fabulous palace, surpassing the expectations roused by legend. Evans theorized that the palace and the famous Labyrinth of myth were one and the same—Knossos’s original name may have been labyrinthos, a word persisting from the ancient Minoan language that means “the place of the double axe” (labrys). Because the later Greeks credited Daedalus with designing the Labyrinth, it’s hard to visit Knossos without Daedalus and his son, Icarus, coming to mind.
In building their palaces Minoans were exquisitely sensitive to the landscape of Crete, whose dominate elements are the mountains and the sea. The sacred sites of their religion tended to concentrate in caves and on mountain peaks.
After several trips to the island I’d made friends who know a lot about both Minoans and mountains. Not just on Crete but all over Greece, I learned, many peaks are named Profitis Ilias, or Prophet Elias. Since Ilias and Helios (Eelios in Greek) are so similar in pronunciation, it was easy for early Christians to identify the saint with the sun god. Both drove fiery chariots through the air. Ilias’s ride was one way to heaven; Helios had to do it every day. There are at least seven peaks on Crete named Profitis Ilias, and the highest is just south of Knossos. All unknowing, I’d formed a link between the Labyrinth and the sun god.
To punish Daedalus for helping his wife, Pasiphae, mate with a bull, Minos imprisoned him and Icarus in the Labyrinth—presumably before the birth of the Minotaur, the offspring of that union, who would have eaten them. They escaped with wings that Daedalus made by tying feathers together and gluing them with beeswax. All went well as they flew north. Then, as Robert Graves puts it in The Greek Myths, “Icarus disobeyed his father’s instructions and began soaring towards the sun, rejoiced by the lift of his great sweeping wings.” When Daedalus looked back to see how Icarus was doing, all he saw were feathers floating on the water.
The elements I needed were there, waiting: escape from an island bristling with shrines of the sun god, and the fate of those who approach Helios too closely.
Fast forward: when budget obstacles killed the Starfire script, Gary encouraged me to start from scratch; one of the fun things about writing a novel is having an unlimited effects budget. The result was a story of which the script told about half.
Starfire, the ship, indeed features “great sweeping wings.” They give no lift, however; they are radiators that carry off the excess heat of the fusion reactor. The stand-in for the wings of Icarus is not the winged ship but the asteroid that Starfire rendezvouses with on its first scientific mission.
In the 1980s the asteroid making the closest approach to the sun was named, you guessed it, Icarus. Icarus (1566 Icarus, formally) is an Earth-crossing asteroid that comes within 28 million kilometers of the sun, well inside the orbit of Mercury; just this June it missed Earth by only 8 million kilometers. In 2000 Icarus’s record was surpassed by the discovery of 2000 BD19, whose closest approach on each orbit around the sun (perihelion) is roughly 14 million kilometers. There its surface reaches almost 660° C, hot enough to melt aluminum.
Comets called sungrazers routinely approach the sun much more closely, so closely that many break apart or completely disintegrate in the savage heat. When the newly discovered Comet ISON reached perihelion in November 2013 it was less than 2 million kilometers from the sun, but it didn’t survive.
The asteroid in Starfire, labeled 2021 XA, is not exactly like any of these. As astronaut Travis Hill puts it, “Jupiter grabbed that rock out of space, less than a year ago, and threw it practically right at us.” Travis notes that “one end of the rock is real black… The other end is kind of blackish red,” suggesting the welding of dissimilar objects. It’s as long as Mount Everest is tall, nine kilometers, and that’s what the crew eventually nicknames it. These elements play crucial roles in what becomes of the ship and its crew.
It may seem a coincidence that such a target came along just in time for a ship to take advantage of the opportunity for a visit. The collection of otherwise common features in a single small body—a comet’s orbit, an asteroid’s geology, a size big enough for the sun to boil away a goodly proportion of the rock without destroying it—may be unusual but far from impossible.
Few great adventures happen without some precipitating chance. In ancient times, Hellenistic and Roman authors thought Daedalus and Icarus’s feathered wings were a bit of a reach; they suggested Daedalus must have invented sails, not wings, and Icarus just fell overboard. Fortunately, the original myth makers well understood that too much rationalization spoils a good tale.