REVIEW: “The Luxury Problem: Space Exploration in the ‘Emergency Century'” by Kim Stanley Robinson and Jim Bell

Review of Kim Stanley Robinson and Jim Bell, “The Luxury Problem: Space Exploration in the ‘Emergency Century'”, 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): 265-273 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This fascinating piece is a conversation between Jim Bell, “project collaborator, planetary scientist, ASU professor, and president of The Planetary Society” (p. 265), and SF author Kim Stanley Robinson. The goal in the interview is to

get [Robinson’s] take on how the last few decades of Mars exploration have unfolded, and what that might mean for the realization of the kind of human exploration endeavor that will hopefully unfold in the next few decades (p. 265).

At first, Robinson’s answers seem relatively pessimistic; while we have made incremental advances in knowledge and technology, “not very much of fundamental importance to the humans-to-Mars project has changed” (p. 266). While human interest in Mars and travel to Mars remains strong, “too much fantasy projection onto Mars and it obscures the project as it really exists” (p. 268).

But layered underneath that seeming pessimism is a fundamental optimism. Even when funding is low and opportunities even fewer, our interest in and our desire to travel beyond the confines of our own planet, to places like Mars and beyond, has not waned. It is that — human desire and persistence — more than money or technological advances that will determine whether we eventually make it, argues Robinson. We must still sort out the fantasy from the reality, true, — and in Robinson’s view the reality is that “we don’t have an intrinsic interest in places where lots of people can’t live” (p. 272), so that Mars, rather than being an eventual replacement for Earth will more likely be a second Antarctica — but the reality will then become something that is in fact feasible.

It’s a fascinating conversation, and Robinson pulls no punches in answering Bell’s questions. In the final question, Bell asks Robinson to reflect on why he has spent so many decades writing science fiction, and trips to Mars in particular. It’s an interesting answer that he gives:

I think now that space science is an Earth science, and getting things right on Earth is the main task for civilization (p. 273).

So there you have it, people. The best way for us to sort out how to get to Mars is to sort out the problems here in Earth first.

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: 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.