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.