REVIEW: “Reflections on the ‘Dual Uses’ of Space Innovation” by G. Pascal Zachary

Review of G. Pascal Zachary, “Reflections on the ‘Dual Uses’ of Space Innovation”, 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): 23-30 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This non-fiction piece is the companion to Carter Scholz’s “Vanguard 2.0” (read the review). Zachary highlights one of the most significant tensions that faces the development of space technology:

The expansiveness and idealism of the rhetoric of space exploration means that
technologies developed in pursuit of those lofty goals are open to a broad range of interpretations and applications, both military and civilian (p. 23).

On the one hand, we pursue space travel, space exploration, and space technologies because we think it is an intrinsically important end in itself; on the other hand, it is not always possible to prevent the technologies developed for being used for other, perhaps more sinister ends. The ‘dual-use’ that Zachary mentions in his title is the fact that any tool developed for outward facing purposes can also be used for inward facing purposes: A technology that can destroy an asteroid and prevent its collision with earth can also be turned upon earth to destroy rather than protect it: “Who actually could be sure that working on civilian applications would not help militarists in the future?” (p. 26) This is two-faced nature of space technology is not unique to it; there is a long history of technological developments which can both promote humanity’s wellbeing and safety and destroy it. Nevertheless, Zachary wants to argue that space technologies have a “special nature” (p. 25), because of the social context — the Cold War — in which they first developed in earnest, and because of the current social context which perforce is involved in “how public funds for innovation in space can support public goods” (p. 27).

What role, then, does fiction play in all of this? Fictional explorations work “best in filling critical gaps in human knowledge” (p. 29); they provide us with possibilities and potentialities that go beyond the state of knowledge that we are currently in. Focusing too much on what Zachary calls “targeting” — picking a specific problem or application and developing tools for that alone — is how we build gappy knowledge; fiction can fill those gaps.

REVIEW: “Vanguard 2.0” by Carter Scholz

Review of Carter Scholz, “Vanguard 2.0”, 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): 5-21 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The hero of this story, Sergei Sergeiivitch Ivashchenko, taps in to all sorts of “lone troubled male genius” stereotypes — his parents divorced when he was young; his father died of cancer soon after; his mother didn’t love him; he spent his late teen years in a drunken haze and yet still managed to get a scholarship and then “blazed almost contemptuously through math, compsci, and astrodynamics” (p. 5). Of course, all the genius in the world isn’t going to get you a job in a bad economy, so after graduating Sergei was lucky to be doing menial work off-Earth at Uber’s “Near Space Logistics and Asset Management” division, with the job title “Orbital Supervisor”.

Despite my initial ambivalence to Sergei, the story drew me in. Scholz uses his economy with words to great effect, using only a few phrases here and there to paint detailed pictures, of the earth sprawling below, of the colleagues Sergei shares his space and his life with, of the way the future could be just a few decades from now. There is nothing about the story that seems unrealistic — although I’m not a specialist in astro-mechanics or related fields so maybe to an expert things would look different — even though it is fictional.

Two things did let it down. First, Scholz does not mark direct speech with quotation marks, which along with often not tagging speech with the speaker makes it hard to keep track of what is being spoken, and by whom. I do not think the story benefited from the adoption of these techniques. Second, throughout Scholz uses words like “crazy” quite cavalierly — “Pace was crazy, but that didn’t bother him. Everyone in the world was crazy, no exceptions” or “To Sergei that [Pace’s belief in the Singularity] was bonus crazy” (p. 10). The casualness of this use makes it hard to ascertain whether Scholz is cognisant of this terms use as a slur, and that reinforcing this sort of usage is problematic.

On the whole, though, I found Scholz to be a very competent writer; I’d like to read a novel by him.

REVIEW: “Human Exploration of Mars: Fact from Fiction?” by Jim Bell

Review of Jim Bell, “Human Exploration of Mars: Fact from 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): xxiv-xxxi — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

One of the things that I find most fascinating about science fiction is that just as often as the fiction follows the science, so often does the science follow the fiction. What used to be the purview only of fiction — space travel to Mars — may not yet be in the realm of actual fact, but it is creeping closer and closer to it. Bell says that “ironically, science fiction may be at least partly responsible for this recent sea change in science reality” (p. xxiv), but this doesn’t seem to me to be ironic at all: This mutually symbiotic relationship between science and fiction is why sci fi has been such a fruitful genre for so long.

Why are we so fascinated with Mars, and wish to travel so desperately to it? Because we desperately cling to “evidence that Mars once was, or perhaps still is, habitable” (p. xxv). Bell traces the history of our search for such evidence, from interpretations of the channels first viewed through telescopes as artificially rather than naturally made, to Martian asteroids crashing into earth with fossils supposedly embedded inside. Sure, no one now believes that its populated with little green men, but the possibility that Mars was, does, or could again in the future host life is a tantalising promise: It’s a promise to those who desperately wish to not be alone in the universe, and a promise to those who fear the loss of our own home planet and want to plan for the future. The ability to make good on one or both of these promises is what drives our desire to go to Mars, Bell argues.

What then, is the relationship between science, fiction, and the exploration of Mars? Bell points out that “science fiction has created positive feedback loop that is influencing the future of space exploration” (p. xxvi); but what happens when the fiction runs ahead of the science? We are still a long way from light sabers, warp drives and transporters; how does it affect the development of space travel technologies when our fiction stories continue to include them? Bell’s reply is that:

Considering the potential for the exploration of space in the far future (hundreds to thousands of years from now or more), it is easy to suspend the need for accuracy and assume that we can’t possibly predict technological advances or innovations that far into the future (p. xxvi).

On the other hand:

If a story is to have a significant influence on the near-term future of space exploration (within the next few decades, for example), I believe that it needs to be grounded in a defensible pragmatism about what is actually achievable — technologically, scientifically, and politically (p. xxvii).

“To have a significant influence” on the development space travel in is precisely the goal of this anthology, and Bell briefly summarises the fiction pieces to explain how they fit into this goal. His conclusion is ringingly positive: “inspiration can be turned into advocacy and action, and that fiction can indeed presage fact” (p. xxxi). It’s an exciting time to be alive, doing science, and reading fiction.

REVIEW: “The Spider and the Stars” by D. K. Mok

Review of D. K. Mok, “The Spider and the Stars”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 8-28 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This is a story about telling stories, the stories our parents tell us, the stories we tell others — not the “stories” that are lies, but the stories that provide us with a glimpse of truth that can only be reached through fiction.

Mok’s tale traces Del’s life through snapshots, every few decades or so, from when Del is five and her mother tells her a bedtime story that causes her to decide the course of her destiny, to when she is fifteen and experimenting with a local boy — experimenting with modifying the genes of insects, arachnids, and plants, that is — through her adulthood and all the steps along the way to achieving that destiny.

In concept, the story reminds me of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, a book which impressed me quite a bit. In its essence, though, it stands apart from ordinary tales of space-faring through the inclusion of something that is lacking in so many speculative-fic hero-quest stories: Loving and supportive parents. The story is dotted through with moments where a character was uncertain or apprehensive, and a parent stood by their side and gave them the strength to do what they needed to do. What small moments they were, but what important consequences they had. It made me thoroughly love reading this story.

REVIEW: Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich

Review of Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, eds., Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017) — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

When I’m not reading and reviewing speculative fiction, I can be found writing it. But that’s only at night — by day, I am an academic logician, devoting my time to research and teaching. When I took the step a few years ago to start devoting serious time to my fiction writing, I found myself in a bit of a vocabularistic bind: If I distinguish my writing between “fiction” and “not fiction”, that’s as if I’m distinguishing it into “fiction” and “fact”, and if there is one thing any good scientist knows, it’s that today’s “facts” are tomorrow’s “fictions” — and “today’s fictions” are tomorrow’s “facts”. (So instead I try to contrast my fiction writing with my academic writing, which hopefully doesn’t carry the connotation that everything I say in my academic work is true. I try. I regularly fail.)

It is from this position that I find the present anthology, funded by NASA, so fascinating. The spring point of the anthology is Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1992 novel Red Mars, because Robinson’s “visions of the future…have helped to shape our broader cultural imaginary for human endeavors in space, both in science fiction and technical communities” (p. xv). In their editorial, “The Flag and the Garden”, Finn and Eschrich ask “Why should we go to space?” It’s a question whose answers have changed significantly over the past 70 years, as both the methods of space-travel and the means for funding those methods have changed. It would be to quick and facile to say that two generations ago our reaching for the stars was a cultural goal that we reached for collectively and that now, with the fragmentation of space-travel funding devolving from government bodies to private corporations, it is an individualistic pursuit, but this the former is the “flag” and the latter is the “garden” of the editorial’s title. What Finn and Eschrich argue is that we need to incorporate both the public and the private aspects of space travel into a “new collective understanding” (p. xx) of why we should go to space:

Until enough people buy into a public and private narrative of space, commerce can only take place in a very limited way (p. xx).

The goal of the collection is to rise to that challenge of melding the public and the private. As the editors describe it, the anthology is the result of “the act of putting writers, natural scientists, engineers, and social scientists into dialogue around the near future of space”, an act which “has effects on those collaborators themselves, who have grappled with—and we hope, learned something useful from—the exercise of working across disciplinary and creative boundaries” (p. xxi). This is not so much a book of authors trying to imagine future science but of scientists trying to imagine the future. The result integrates narratives and nonfiction, so that science and fiction are so closely blended that it’s hard to see where one begins and the other stops. While ordinarily the focus of this site is on reviewing SFF fiction, we don’t feel we’re going out on too much of a limb when we assume that readers of SFF fiction are also interested in SFF fact. As a result, I will be reviewing all the chapters of this anthology, both the narrative ones and the science ones.

It’s not clear from the editorial introduction how stories were solicited for this collection, but whatever method they used, they ended up with a disappointingly low score on the “non-male author” metric. (At least the collection does better on the “non-white” metric.) The book is divided into six sections: The editorial frontmatter, which includes an editorial as well as a non-fiction piece “Human Exploration of Mars: Fact from Fiction?” by Jim Bell (which we review in a post of its own), and then stories grouped under the headings of “Low Earth Orbit”, “Mars”, “Asteroids”, “Exoplanets”, and “Concluding Thoughts”, which includes an interview with Robinson. (There is also an 8 page bibliography, and if there is one thing that I love more than an informative footnote, it’s a bibliography.) Each section is prefaced by a brief excerpt from Red Mars, providing a framework for the entire book. The book is beautifully illustrated throughout by Maciej Rebisz.

Below is the table of contents; each chapter will be reviewed individually, with links added to this post as the individual reviews are published.

  • Editorial frontmatter
  • Low Earth Orbit
  • Mars
    • “The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder
    • “Exploration Fact and Exploration Fiction” by Lawrence Dritsas
    • “Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby
    • “Life on Mars?” by Steve Ruff
  • Asteroids
    • “The Use of Things” by Ramez Naam
    • “Toward Asteroid Exploration” by Roland Lehoucq
    • “Night Shift” by Eileen Gunn
    • “Rethinking Risk” by Andrew D. Maynard
  • Exoplanets
    • “Shikasta” by Vandana Singh
    • “The New Science of Astrobiology” by Sara Imari Walker
    • “Negotiating the Values of Space Exploration” by Emma Frow
  • Concluding Thoughts
    • The Luxury Problem: Space Exploration in the ‘Emergency Century’ by Kim Stanley Robinson, in conversation with Jim Bell
    • “The Practical Economics of Space” by Clark A. Miller
    • “High Hedonistic and Low Fatalistic” by Linda T. Elkins-Tanton

REVIEW: “A Field of Sapphires and Sunshine” by Jaymee Goh

Review of Jaymee Goh, “A Field of Sapphires and sunshine”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 105-116 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and I suppose the relevant adage for a short story is that you shouldn’t judge it by its title. But I’m too avid a follower of Your YA Fantasy Series on twitter for the title of this one not to make me smirk (in fact, the day I wrote this review, the most recent tweet suggested the title A Bungalow of Sapphires and Earthquakes).

Snark and smirks aside, parts of the story I really enjoyed, with its eclectic mix of steampunk elements, with their slight sense of antiquation, and rather more traditional futuristic sci fi. On the one hand, there’s almost-entirely-electronically-conducted business, while on the other hand there are airships that take a week to cross the Pacific and are kitted out with suraus for Muslim passengers, and which farm their own fuel so that they never need touch the ground. Parts of the story, I found a bit didactic — there was a lot of “history” being rehearsed in a way that felt rather dry and detached, backstory being added for the sake of backstory rather than for the sake of the actual story, and we are informed rather bluntly that Alina’s mother “knew she was bisexual, of course”. In the end, I felt the story was a little let down by the delivery — and the title ended up not having that much to do with the story itself.

REVIEW: “Hideous Flowerpots” by Susan Palwick

“Hideous Flowerpots,” by Susan Palwick. Fantasy & Science Fiction 135, 3-4 (2018): [[pages]] — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Standback.

In “Hideous Flowerpots,” Palwick imagines a supernatural cure for cynicism and jadedness – particularly when those are fused to toxic shame and self-criticism. The focus is less the cure itself, and much more who a person needs to be in order to submit to it.

This reviewer can identify all too easily with the portrayal of criticism as distancing, isolating; the sense of growing ever more bitter about the creation you’re ostensibly there to celebrate.  The way this arc develops, the steps towards remedy, and the respect and admiration for people who soldier on even absent perfection, ring true to me.

At the same time, the story is very clear on not being just about jaded criticism. That’s what protagonist Lauren is dealing with, but every woman she meets has had her own travails and traumas. Cynicism works nicely here, because it turns the process into something very adversarial — but this applies to other moments of despair and doubt just as well.

A quietly powerful story.