REVIEW: “Lowlife Orbit” by Rich Larson

Review of Rich Larson, “Lowlife Orbit”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact July/August (2020): 94–95 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Earth is slowly dying, and in an effort to provide a new home for humanity, the governments of Earth have started terraforming Mars. Unbeknownst to many, however, this process will take a long time: up to 1000 years. That is why a team of smugglers – uncle and nephew – have decided that it is OK to steal some of the terraforming materials in low-Earth orbit and sell them in the black market for profit. The uncle has no moral qualms about the operations since he believes the Mars terraforming project is nothing but a pipe dream. On the other hand, the nephew is more apprehensive about the future. However long it takes, he argues, one day Mars might be the new home of Humanity.

A thousand years means nothing to the human brain […] We evolved to deal in seconds. Minutes. Days. Years. A millennium, we’re not equipped to imagine that.

Despite its brevity (~1000 words), “Lowlife Orbit” is a story with a lot to unpack. It simultaneously deals with human shortsightedness, as well as the human tendency to ignore the problem at hand. In Larson’s version of the (near) future, Earth is presumably ravaged by climate change and humanity has given up trying to fix it. Instead, they’ve piled all their hopes on the possibility of a habitable Mars. At the same time, the protagonist of the story can’t help but point out the futility of that hope.  Whether it is because of indifference, pessimism, or simply pragmatism for the present, he resigns into a sort of unhealthy apathy that satisfies neither side of the argument. As usual, Larson is able to imbue a lot of personality into his characters in a brief and concise manner. The story ends with a glimmer of optimism, before circling back to the same status quo.

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