REVIEW: “Exploration Fact and Exploration Fiction” by Lawrence Dritsas

Review of Lawrence Dritsas, “Exploration Fact and Exploration 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): 105-113 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The paradox of exploration is that it is expensive, and therefore it is only worth investing in if there’s a good chance that the investment will be repaid — this paradox is witnessed throughout the history of exploration from ancient Greece to the modern day. In recounting this history, Dritsas points out that “there are very few historical cases of intrepid individuals paying their own way to simply ‘see what’s out there'” (pp. 105–106). This can be taken as one of the titular “exploration facts”, and “how to pay for it” thus becomes one of the most important questions that any potential exploration must answer. There are a variety of answers out there in history, but “exploration fiction” can help us find even more, Dritsas argues:

The future of space exploration, and especially the exploration of Mars in the twenty-first century, can be informed, if not inspired, by a study of both the history of exploration and the science fiction of exploration (p. 107).

In fiction we find “public-private funding models for exploring space” (p. 107), as well alternatives to sending humans (with their frail bodies not designed for space) into space, such as “human cyborgs specifically built to survive the Martian environment” (p. 108). In the present anthology being reviewed, Schroeder’s “The Baker of Mars” (read the review) offers yet another option: telepresence.

Current space exploration is constrained by other facts, such as legal facts resulting from treaties that have bearing upon who — or what — can, e.g., lay ownership to non-earth land. One of the advantages of exploration fiction is that is has the liberty to ignore these constraints and consider ‘what ifs’; by expanding the space of possibilities, exploration fiction provides us with more opportunity for finding solutions that can one day be converted into exploration facts:

Studying the history of exploration and reading science fiction can help us predict the problems of getting there and the consequences of new discoveries (p. 111).

Exploration fact and exploration fiction are not opposed to each other: Rather, they each depend upon each other.

REVIEW: “Expanding Our Solution Space: How We Can Build an Inclusive Future” by Deji Bryce Olukotun

Review of Deji Bryce Olukotun, “Expanding Our Solution Space: How We Can Build an Inclusive Future”, 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): 63-76 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

In this chapter Olukotun addresses face on the ways in which prejudice and stereotype threaten attempts to build an inclusive future, and ways in which we can combat these threats, recognising that “there is ample evidence of the benefits of inclusion, such as improvements in innovation, creativity, and resilience” (p. 64). Given that “inclusion can mean many things in space” (p. 64), an inclusive future is one that:

  • Attempts “to include as many people from their societies as possible, such as women and religious, ethnic, or sexual minorities” (p. 64).
  • Gives “people from all regions and nations of the world equitable access to outer space” (p. 64).

When Olukotun outlines the ways in which much of current space-exploration is set up to not be inclusive, he’s speaking from experience:

The idea of Africans walking on the Moon can sound absurd in light of the fact that many, if not most, images of Africa portray its wild animals and its poverty, and not its space-age technology. It’s partly why I named my first novel Nigerians in Space…The absurdity of Africans in space may just stem from our own prejudices (p. 63).

And its because of this experience on the receiving side of prejudice and stereotype that Olukotun’s advice carries the weight it does.

Given all this, what are practical things we can do to support an inclusive future, space-faring or otherwise?

  • Participate in what Cory Doctorow calls a “free, fair and open network” (p. 65) of ideas and resources, for example, by sharing data and tools license-free.
  • Promote inclusivity “inside country-level space programs…by aggressively hiring, training, and promoting marginalized people to become not just astronauts, but bureaucrats, too.” (p 66).
  • Enable more countries to join the exploration of space (p. 67), while recognising that the wealth of a country alone is not enough to make it able to participate — it is hard to justify space-programmes in countries like India and Nigeria that have such high numbers of poverty: “Space programs in developing countries face equally harsh public backlash for spending money when there are critical needs to address” (p. 68). Olukotun points out that the choice between investing money and space and investing money on earth is a false dichotomy: “Satellites are arguably the quickest and most proven path for countries to reap benefits from space technology, as they can open up entire swaths of countries to the digital age” (p. 70)
  • Influence “our vision of the future as expressed in the popular imagination” (p. 71); “science fiction entertainment doesn’t have to just mirror the status quo” (p. 72). When we read inclusive SF, when we write it, when we watch it on TV and in the theatres, when we talk about it with others: That is no small thing to do in helping make a more inclusive future happen.
  • Promote inclusivity in our SF entertainment not just at the level of actors but also in the “enormous apparatus behind each entertainment product” (p. 72).

This may seem like a big ask, but it isn’t: Each one of us can find something on this list that they can do.

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: “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: “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.