REVIEW: “A Spark in a Flask” by Emma Johanna Puranen and Patrick Barth

Review of Emma Johanna Puranen and Patrick Barth, “A Spark in a Flask”, in Around Distant Suns, ed. by Emma Johanna Puranen (Guardbridge Books, 2021): 73-84 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

It’s been ages since the last humans left this base on the moon, but SPARC, a Self-sufficient Primordial Atmosphere Robotic Caretaker, knows its duties: to keep the lab, and especially the Flasks, safe and clean and running — and to test the Flasks for signs of life. Computer knows how to adjust the contents of the Flasks as needed, but Computer can’t fix a physical problem if one occurs, only SPARC can. When Computer is no longer able to detect the contents of Flask H40, it’s SPARC’s job to go in and find out what’s wrong — or, in this case: What is wonderfully right.

I found myself responding to SPARC, left behind, sending messages back to an Earth that doesn’t respond, very much the way that people across the world have respond to the Mars rovers, to the satellites sent off to explore asteroids; it’s astonishing how easy it is to anthropomorphise the little machines we send into space. There were moments in this story when I was desperately afraid that SPARC wouldn’t get his happy ending. Because discovering life isn’t enough; one must sustain it too…

A very satisfying read!

REVIEW: Around Distant Suns edited by Emma Johanna Puranen

Review of Emma Johanna Puranen, ed., Around Distant Suns (Guardbridge Books, 2021) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The premise of this anthology is “what would happen if the creators of science fiction had dedicated science consultants that they could go to with all their scientific questions?” The scientists in question are based at St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science, and the writers in the School of English at St Andrews University, and Emma Johanna Puranen, science consultant and member of the Centre, is the one who brought the pairs together and edited the collection. The result is nine stories that emphasise both how important it can be to “get the science right” (even if not all the science needs to be right in fiction) and how similar the scientific and creative processes are, especially in science fiction: Both the scientist and the author are making models of how the world could be.

Each scientist/author pair met multiple times over the course of the creation of the stories that are published here. The stories were intended to be science driven — initial meetings were for the scientists to speak to the authors about their own research, to collectively and collaboratively find ideas that lend themselves to fictional exploration — but the goal was not to cloak science communication in a fictive guise, but instead to use the power of fiction to explore new ideas, new questions, new lands. The result is this anthology of stories, poetry, and plays, each of which is accompanied by reflections on the creation of the piece by both the writer and the scientist. A fantastic collection representing the very best of collaboration, this is the sort of book that makes me go “I want to do that” — I want to read stories like this, write stories like this, edit collections like this. I hope Puranen does another volume next year!

As is usual, we’ll review each story individually and link the reviews back here as they are published.