REVIEW: “Exploration Fact and Exploration Fiction” by Lawrence Dritsas

Review of Lawrence Dritsas, “Exploration Fact and Exploration Fiction”, in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017): 105-113 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The paradox of exploration is that it is expensive, and therefore it is only worth investing in if there’s a good chance that the investment will be repaid — this paradox is witnessed throughout the history of exploration from ancient Greece to the modern day. In recounting this history, Dritsas points out that “there are very few historical cases of intrepid individuals paying their own way to simply ‘see what’s out there'” (pp. 105–106). This can be taken as one of the titular “exploration facts”, and “how to pay for it” thus becomes one of the most important questions that any potential exploration must answer. There are a variety of answers out there in history, but “exploration fiction” can help us find even more, Dritsas argues:

The future of space exploration, and especially the exploration of Mars in the twenty-first century, can be informed, if not inspired, by a study of both the history of exploration and the science fiction of exploration (p. 107).

In fiction we find “public-private funding models for exploring space” (p. 107), as well alternatives to sending humans (with their frail bodies not designed for space) into space, such as “human cyborgs specifically built to survive the Martian environment” (p. 108). In the present anthology being reviewed, Schroeder’s “The Baker of Mars” (read the review) offers yet another option: telepresence.

Current space exploration is constrained by other facts, such as legal facts resulting from treaties that have bearing upon who — or what — can, e.g., lay ownership to non-earth land. One of the advantages of exploration fiction is that is has the liberty to ignore these constraints and consider ‘what ifs’; by expanding the space of possibilities, exploration fiction provides us with more opportunity for finding solutions that can one day be converted into exploration facts:

Studying the history of exploration and reading science fiction can help us predict the problems of getting there and the consequences of new discoveries (p. 111).

Exploration fact and exploration fiction are not opposed to each other: Rather, they each depend upon each other.

REVIEW: “Expanding Our Solution Space: How We Can Build an Inclusive Future” by Deji Bryce Olukotun

Review of Deji Bryce Olukotun, “Expanding Our Solution Space: How We Can Build an Inclusive Future”, in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017): 63-76 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

In this chapter Olukotun addresses face on the ways in which prejudice and stereotype threaten attempts to build an inclusive future, and ways in which we can combat these threats, recognising that “there is ample evidence of the benefits of inclusion, such as improvements in innovation, creativity, and resilience” (p. 64). Given that “inclusion can mean many things in space” (p. 64), an inclusive future is one that:

  • Attempts “to include as many people from their societies as possible, such as women and religious, ethnic, or sexual minorities” (p. 64).
  • Gives “people from all regions and nations of the world equitable access to outer space” (p. 64).

When Olukotun outlines the ways in which much of current space-exploration is set up to not be inclusive, he’s speaking from experience:

The idea of Africans walking on the Moon can sound absurd in light of the fact that many, if not most, images of Africa portray its wild animals and its poverty, and not its space-age technology. It’s partly why I named my first novel Nigerians in Space…The absurdity of Africans in space may just stem from our own prejudices (p. 63).

And its because of this experience on the receiving side of prejudice and stereotype that Olukotun’s advice carries the weight it does.

Given all this, what are practical things we can do to support an inclusive future, space-faring or otherwise?

  • Participate in what Cory Doctorow calls a “free, fair and open network” (p. 65) of ideas and resources, for example, by sharing data and tools license-free.
  • Promote inclusivity “inside country-level space programs…by aggressively hiring, training, and promoting marginalized people to become not just astronauts, but bureaucrats, too.” (p 66).
  • Enable more countries to join the exploration of space (p. 67), while recognising that the wealth of a country alone is not enough to make it able to participate — it is hard to justify space-programmes in countries like India and Nigeria that have such high numbers of poverty: “Space programs in developing countries face equally harsh public backlash for spending money when there are critical needs to address” (p. 68). Olukotun points out that the choice between investing money and space and investing money on earth is a false dichotomy: “Satellites are arguably the quickest and most proven path for countries to reap benefits from space technology, as they can open up entire swaths of countries to the digital age” (p. 70)
  • Influence “our vision of the future as expressed in the popular imagination” (p. 71); “science fiction entertainment doesn’t have to just mirror the status quo” (p. 72). When we read inclusive SF, when we write it, when we watch it on TV and in the theatres, when we talk about it with others: That is no small thing to do in helping make a more inclusive future happen.
  • Promote inclusivity in our SF entertainment not just at the level of actors but also in the “enormous apparatus behind each entertainment product” (p. 72).

This may seem like a big ask, but it isn’t: Each one of us can find something on this list that they can do.

REVIEW: “The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder

Review of Karl Schroeder, “The Baker of Mars”, in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017): 83-102 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The story starts of juxtaposing the wild strangeness that must accompany colonising Mars with the quiet ordinariness of a Tampa diner. Myrna runs the diner as a sideline business, with most of her time taken up by catering to those who colonise Mars from afar — telecommuters who live on earth but function according to Martian days, Martian hours (forty minutes longer than our own), Martian timezones. It’s a trick balancing act, to live in one timeline but work in another, and Myrna’s catering service helps people live according to the timeline that they work in.

Schroeder’s story takes up the “public/private” matter that we’ve already seen in earlier stories in this anthology, because it is only through such ventures that such telecommuting colonisation can take place. The infrastructure is publicly supported, but much of what goes in to it is privately funded, by people like Wekesa Ballo, who had “sunk all his money into buying [a] bot and getting it transported to another planet, in the hope that what they build there will someday attract clients and customers beyond the launch companies and speculators” (p. 86).

It’s a story of many layers, though, not just this one, with ordinary humans living ordinary human lives while at the same time living lives upon Mars both virtual and real. The presence of these layers allows Schroeder to play with fact and fiction in a way that makes for a satisfying read.

REVIEW: “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” by Sarah Monette

Review of Sarah Monette, “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 21 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” is a slow-burn, literary, magical murder mystery. The narrator, Mr Booth, is placed in charge of papers written by a celebrated literary figure. Among the papers, he finds a poppet, which he believes has been used to murder the author – Geoffrey Usborne Bryant. Concerned that the perpetrator of this magical crime will hurt others, the narrator sets out to discover who put the poppet in Usborne Bryant’s boxes. While engaged in this detective mission, Booth reflects on the troubled, fleeting association he had with Usborne Bryant when they were at school.

Sarah Monette’s story delicately expresses how Booth’s sleuthing allows him to come to terms with the real shape of a relationship long-past. His quest to find the poppet maker is littered with small, stabbing pains of repressed past hurts and old emotions. Booth’s conversations with Usborne Bryant’s friends, as part of his amature detective work, show that he has developed a clear understanding of how people work. However, he has never quite understood the shape of his own past with Usborne Bryant. As he slowly works his way towards the criminal, Booth untangles the small-scale, but complex, web of interactions and emotions left unaddressed since school. This story is as much a work of emotional detective work as it is a detective story.  

“The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” is also about the importance of acting morally in the face of difficult personal feelings. In keeping with the tone of the story, Monette expresses this theme without any flashy signposts that her narrator is morally compromised, and yet still manages to strongly convey that doing what is right is not always a lot of fun. From the fact that the narrator ‘fled’ when the criminal faints at the end of the story, and the way that ‘something of my emotions bled through in my voice’ at the end of the story, the reader gets the sense that while the narrator’s quest was a success it did not lead him to any kind of satisfaction (beyond a certain understanding of his past).

Strangely, this story reminded me of a favourite Philip Larkin poem – “Dockery and Son“. There’s the similar subject matter of someone thinking back on their school days. And there’s something about the pace of the story, content to dwell on scraps from the past on its way to its destination, which evokes a similar tone to the poem; as does the simple poignancy of the story’s final line. “The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” was weird, and quiet, and slow, and I loved it, readers.

REVIEW: “Grover: Case #C09 920, ‘The Most Dangerous Blend'” by Edward Edmonds

Review of Edward Edmonds, “Grover: Case #C09 920, ‘The Most Dangerous Blend'”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 159-183 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

A gory opening scene (don’t read if you’re squeamish) segues into what would be a pretty typical detective/mystery story except that within a page we’ve got a suspect and a confession and the only uncertainty left is whether the suspect is telling the truth — and what reason would someone have to lie about negligence-leading-to-death? But Detective Ishani Grover isn’t one to assume the easy answer is the right one, and her investigations continue…until someone else dies.

Detective/mystery stories aren’t really my type, but this one was solid enough to keep me reading, with a plausible resolution and a few twists along the way to it.

REVIEW: “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise” by Sarah Pinsker

Review of Sarah Pinsker’s, “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 21 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

Sarah Pinsker’s “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise” uses subtle, repeating images, colours, or references to emphasise the connection between the lives and work of different American artists, writers, and musicians. For the reader to be able to engage with the story, they needs to be familiar with the cultural references Pinsker includes. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about the American 1920s art scene, or the works which were mentioned, to grasp the full significance of most of the references. I didn’t understand this story, and couldn’t really connect with it. And, because I wasn’t sure what had happened in real life, and how each section related to the whole, I had trouble working out what made this story science fiction, fantasy or speculative fiction.

What I can say, is that Pinsker’s writing style is very elegant and it’s easy to get swept up in the rhythm of her prose. The device of using references to connect each section is intriguing. And the selection of scenes that the story presents are detailed and interesting. I’d encourage anyone who knows about the 1920s American art scene to give it a try, because I’m sure that someone who can spot all the references, and understand how story fits together as a whole, will find a lot to delve into. This story wasn’t for me, but it’s bound to be a better fit for other readers.

REVIEW: “A Different Kind of Place” by Tobias Buckell

Review of Tobias Buckell, “A Different Kind of Place”, Apex Magazine 109 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Zadie just wants to distract herself from the zombies. She goes to the salon to escape from the news stories, but the subject just keeps following her as she deals with the residents of her upper class small town who don’t trust the new vaccine or see the need for any sort of zombie protection. After all, Chester isn’t that kind of town.

I think zombies work best as an allegory, and they work particularly well in this story about the early days of a zombie apocalypse. This is a sharp commentary on how people, especially the well-off, assume that bad things only happen somewhere else, whether that’s another town or another country.

The undercurrent of racism serves to both ground the story in reality and further define the sort of town Chester is. As a brown-skinned school teacher in a mostly white town, Zadie is never sure if she can trust the intentions behind the smiling faces she sees everywhere. These aren’t the sort of people to express overt racism, but they express themselves in small, subtle ways that neither she nor the reader can mistake.

All in all, this is a thoughtful zombie story whose themes are highly relevant to our times.