"More Adventures on Other Planets" by Michael Cassutt: An Appreciation by Rich Horton
But for this project in celebration of SCI FICTION, I thought to write about a story that has gotten less notice than some of my other favorites. Michael Cassutt is a successful television writer who has published a moderate amount of print SF, always interesting, and, it seems to me, not quite as well known as it might be. He published two fine stories at SCI FICTION, "Beyond the End of Time" (6/20/2001) and "More Adventures on Other Planets" (1/10/2001), one of my favorite SCI FICTION stories.
I'm a sucker for stories that seamlessly combine wonder-inducing science-fictional ideas with affectingly realized characters whose personal stories would fit in any "mainstream" character study. This is one such. It's set in 2026. Space exploration is conducted by remotely-controlled robots: manned space travel has proven to be simply too difficult, too hard on astronauts. The robot controllers interact via a much-faster-than-light virtual link. Each controller tends to handle only one robot, and it is rumored (though the techies deny it) that the robots take on the personality of their controllers.
The main characters are two somewhat battered late middle-age folks. Earl Nolan is a former aerospace engineer for Lockheed Martin, spending his last few working years (he's in his late 50s) controlling a robot on Jupiter's moon Europa. Rebecca Marceau is a French-Canadian woman who joins the program to control a robot intended to help in the search for life on Europa. Both the robotic Earl and Rebecca and the organic Earl and Rebecca "meet cute". And so the story follows the rocky but mostly sweet path of both relationships, and their inevitable bittersweet endings.
The heart of the story, really, is the careful portrayal of Earl. He's a crusty old man, used to always being right, which has often been true in an engineering sense, but not in a personal sense. He's been through two marriages, and he has three children, only one of whom tolerates him. Rebecca is somewhat similarly built, it would seem, so it is natural that they first meet unpromisingly. And it is mostly contingence--or perhaps the "intervention" of their robotic other selves--that leads them to a closer relationship. Which then plays out against the backdrop of Earl's discovery that he has cancer and won't likely live long.
But perhaps the heart of the story is the depiction of Europa's landscape, and the hard work and danger encountered by the robots and their controllers. And the ambiguous hope of discovering some hint of another sort of life on this distant moon.
And, in the end, the final journey of the robot Earl . . .
Link to story.