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: “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: “The Heavenly Dreams of Mechanical Trees” by Wendy Nikel

Review of Wendy Nikel, “The Heavenly Dreams of Mechanical Trees”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 141-148 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

What a positively delightful title, and what a perfectly wonderful little story to go with it! I was captivated from the opening line, when we are told:

Trees were never intended to be sentient beings, or God would have created them that way, back in the Garden.

But suppose that they were — how would the course of human history have changed? What would the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil have to say, if it could speak?

The trees in this story that think such thoughts and dream the titular dreams are not descendants of the trees created by God, though; they are mechanical trees, created by man. Machines cannot speak; machines cannot procreate; machines can only dream of these things, and pray to their human creator-gods that a miracle occurs.

REVIEW: “The Call of the Wold” by Holly Schofield

Review of Holly Schofield, “The Call of the Wold”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 67-81 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

If you’re looking for a story of a futuristic commune where the role of King Solomon is played by a 70-year-old itinerant on the run from her environmental charity owning brother, this is the story for you! Julie Leung is an engaging and distinctive choice of main character, and I sympathise with how difficult she finds the balancing act of being an introvert in a world built for extroverts.

I enjoyed the story well enough, though it started off quite introspective, with the external events mostly serving to give Julie reason to pause and reflect on her own life, both past and future, and it never quite lost its slow pace.

(And I have to admit, every single time I saw this title in my “to review” queue, I misread it as “The Call of the Wild”. I have no intentional if the Jack London reference was intentional, but it certainly was inescapable, for me.)