REVIEW: “Past Empires and the Future of Colonization in Low Earth Orbit” by William K. Storey

Review of William K. Storey, “Past Empires and the Future of Colonization in Low Earth Orbit”, 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): 51-61 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This non-fiction piece is a companion both to Steven Barnes’s “Mozart on the Kalahari” (read the review) and to Carter Scholz’s “Vanguard 2.0” (read the review). In it, Storey picks up on the dark side of space-exploration — that one cannot explore and settle new lands without colonizing them. Storey argues that “the U.S. has never been entirely comfortable with colonizing or dominating other societies” (p. 54) — a somewhat surprising thing to say, I’ll admit — but also points out that the aspects of colonisation that are picked up in each of the stories “reflect the times that we live in and the aspirations that we have, rather than being problems that are somehow inherent in the stories” (p. 55). And this, after all, is one of the great joys of fiction, that in it we can explore issues of the present under the guise of issues about the future, and that we can choose what to foreground and what to background. When Storey says “the future of the nation and the world are linked, in these stories, to decisions about colonization” (p. 60), the “in these stories” phrase could just as easily have been omitted: What is explored as fiction in Barnes’ and Scholz’s stories is, in its barest form, true for reality as well.

As Storey makes clear, the colonisation inherent in space-exploration cannot be understood except against a political backdrop, a context where private (often capitalistic and corporate) and public aims are in conflict with each other. These tensions are seen quite clearly in Scholz’s story, but Storey wants to highlight these same tensions in Barnes’s story, albeit perhaps less front-and-center:

Both stories contrast a bleak future on Earth and the possibilities of exploring in Low Earth Orbit (p. 54).

Storey also highlights another, internal, tension of both stories: If things on earth are going so badly that our only hope is to head out into Low Earth Orbit, who is it paying for the development of technology that allows us to do so? We already have first-hand experience of how unlikely it is that such developments are government funded; but it also isn’t clear that private corporations will be able to provide the financial support necessary. Looking to history to see how large-scale explorations have been funded in the past gives us many examples of public-private partnerships. On one measure, these joint endeavours are wildly more successful than any only-public or only-private venture. But on another measure, they were the cause of some of the worst acts of humanity: “public-private partnerships in the form of chartered colonial companies helped to produce some of the worst cases of misrule in modern history” (p. 57). All of these threads come together in Storey’s concluding remarks:

If NASA has a role in the future colonization of Low Earth Orbit, it is not only to promote and develop technologies; it is to articulate a vision of what that colonization might look like. The stakes are high. One can only hope that the Earth’s health will be greater than the authors of these stories suggest (pp. 60-61).

Let us hope.

REVIEW: “Conversation, Descending” by Richard Dansky

Review of Richard Dansky, “Conversation, Descending”, Space and Time #130 Winter 2017 pp. 25-28. Purchase here. Review by Ben Serna-Grey.

Reading Richard Dansky’s profile in the magazine, I fully expected to like this story. He’s a veteran video game writer and has seven novels and a story collection under his belt as well. Do I think this is a bad story? Not necessarily. All I can say for sure is this one was a bit of a dud for me, but I’d still recommend reading it yourself and forming your own opinion.

“Conversation, Descending” is a steampunky fantasy that opens with a fellow falling through the sky after he’s ejected from an airship. As tends to (in my opinion, unfortunately) come with the territory there’s a lot of pseudo-Victorian/Romantic era stilted language that in other subgenres might be pegged as thesaurus abuse. The first page is almost all repetition of the fact that our main character is falling and he’s just in his underwear.

There is a conversation with another character further in, as well as a few moments that would have struck me as particularly humorous or clever if the writing style, particularly that of the main character didn’t remind me so much of Harold Lauder from The Stand, chock full of m’lady-ish phraseology that I could all but see this character in a trench coat and fedora, fingerless gloves grasping the edge of his hat as he talked to other damsels along his way.

There is a nice sort of bait-n-switch toward the end but I hate to admit by that point I’d sort of half checked out. I do still recommend checking this one out for yourself, as hopefully you don’t have my hangups. There is humor and wit in here, so I hope you are able to appreciate that more than I was.

REVIEW: “Mozart on the Kalahari” by Steven Barnes

Review of Steven Barnes, “Mozart on the Kalahari”, 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): 33-48 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This story lends itself well to a bullet point review:

  • I really liked the title, and I liked that we got an explanation of it by the end.
  • The author appears to have missed the memo (most eloquently outlined by Writing With Color on Tumblr that describing skin tones with food terms is maybe not the best route to go.
  • I found it hard to connect with Meek, the MC, in those initial, all-important, opening pages; if I wasn’t reading this for review, I’m not sure I would have persevered. But I did, and he began to grow on me (pun not entirely intended).
  • The lack of women with real agency irritated me; those that were in the story seemed placed there to drive forward Meek’s story, not live out any story of their own.
  • Even though more of the points above are negative than positive, I liked Barnes’s views of how human adaptation in the near future might go.

REVIEW: “The End of the World on the Cutting Room Floor” by Fraser Sherman

Review of Fraser Sherman, “The End of the World on the Cutting Room Floor”, Space and Time #130 Winter 2017 pp. 17-23. Purchase here. Review by Ben Serna-Grey.

Remember Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or that one movie with Brad Pitt and the cartoon cat. This story is a lot like that, though definitely better than the Brad Pitt movie. The world has ended and everyone seems to have “come back” as movie characters of some sort or another. There’s some cheesiness involved, but it comes with the territory when some of these realms are straight out of B-movie schlock.

There are black and white B-movie horror characters, blacksploitation nods, film noire, but not so much by way of “modern” cinema nods other than a few name drops. Still if you grew up watching schlocky films, especially if you watched some of those by way of Mystery Science Theater 3000, then you’ll get a few chuckles out of this.

The story is fairly clever and tongue in cheek, though for me personally it doesn’t stand out as much as other Space and Time Magazine stories I’ve read before. However, like everything else put out by this publication, it’s still an interesting and well-written story and I’d still recommend giving it a read.

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.