Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Have Space Suit – Will Travel

When I was a child, I owned a copy of the Marvel Treasury Special adaptation of 2001 by Jack Kirby. I can't recall how I acquired it, though I suspect it was a gift by a well-meaning relative who knew that I liked science fiction. I am certain that I read the comic before I ever saw the movie (which wasn't released on home video until 1980). The combination of Clarke's story, Kubrick's visuals, and Kirby's art was a heady mix and I was equally enthralled and frightened by what I saw in those large newsprint pages. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I became a fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey when I finally did see the film and it remains one of my favorite movies. I recently re-watched it; my feelings toward it are unchanged: I consider it not only one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, but one of the greatest films regardless of genre. 

Even if you disagree with that assessment, it's hard to deny how influential the movie is. Without even paying close attention, you can recognize imagery, set designs, costuming, even plot details that have clear echoes in subsequent motion pictures. Ash from Alien owes a lot to HAL 9000, for example, particularly in his having been given a hidden agenda at odds with those of the human characters. Likewise, the Enterprise's encounter with V'ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture would have been impossible without the final act of 2001, "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite."

Growing up in the immediate aftermath of the Apollo lunar lanading, astronauts and space suits were everywhere. 2001 has particularly stylish and iconic space suits – so much so that I am convinced the multi-colored thruster suits from the aforementioned Star Trek film are a tribute to those in Kubrick's masterpiece. Come to think of it, Alien also had remarkable space suits, but those are the work of French artist Jean Giraud, better known by his nom de plume, Moebius. 

On the other hand, science fiction like Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica didn't have a place for space suits – flight helmets, yes, but not full suits of the sort seen elsewhere. It's probably for this reason that I've subconsciously come to divide space-oriented sci-fi into space suit and non-space categories, with the former being more "serious" than the latter. The lack of space suits is something I associate with action-oriented space opera rather than idea-based science fiction. Obviously, this is a completely unfair distinction, one largely based, I imagine, on the prominence that space suits had in 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

Nevertheless, it's a distinction that's been lurking at the back of my mind since childhood, affecting even my feelings about science fiction roleplaying games. One of the most basic and ubiquitous skills in GDW's Traveller is Vacc Suit (though I've never discovered the origin of the second "c" in the word). Consequently, I've always seen the game as a sober, serious, and indeed thoughtful game, compared to, say, TSR's Star Frontiers, which, while I have a great fondness for it, didn't even mention space suits or their equivalent until the release of the Knights Hawks expansion a year later. Ironically, it was Star Frontiers that saw an adventure module based on 2001: A Space Odyssey, not Traveller, which only goes to show how arbitrary distinctions like this can be.


  1. I believe Marc Miller explained Vacc suit as the lack of spellcheckers in 1976. And, those human editors, Vaccum Suit sounded right. So it stayed. Then it became a laugh and legacy much as death during chargen.

  2. As far as Traveller being akin to the Space Race. The Traveller retro-clone Cepheus has several settings that address that shortfall. Chief among them is Orbital followed by Hostile and perhaps a little more lighthearted Kosmos 68 by Zozer Games. And by Stellagama Publishing, Near Space & These Stars Are Ours!