REVIEW: “Rethinking Risk” by Andrew D. Maynard

Review of Andrew D. Maynard, “Rethinking Risk”, 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): 193-201 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

In this nonfiction companion piece to “The Use of Things” (read the review) and “Death on Mars” (read the review), Maynard advocates a new approach to conceptualising risk that focuses not on behavior that can be characterised by so-called “risk-aversion” but rather on “the things that people find too important to risk losing” (p. 193). The goal is to

open up a deeper conversation around risk that explores the trade-offs that are often necessary to create the future we desire (p. 193).

I found this an interesting piece to read not only for what it has to say concerning the risks we do and must take in near-earth space travel but also how this can be applied to other facets of “the future we desire”. In the context of SFF fiction (as opposed to fact), one facet of that future that we desire is the increasing representation of marginalized voices, taking their stories seriously both in reading and responding to them, and for less marginalized voices to ensure that their characters and worlds are suitably representative (we don’t really need any more cis-het-white-male “#ownvoices” stories…) What are the risks we take in moving towards that future? And what are the things that are too important for us to risk losing?

The only way these questions can be answered is individually; the answers that I came to are not the answers anyone else will come to. As Maynard points out, “what we consider to be important…is not always obvious” (p. 196). So I recommend reading this piece not because of the answers I got out of contemplating these questions, but because of the value others can find in answering the questions themselves.

REVIEW: “Toward Asteroid Exploration” by Roland Lehoucq

Review of Roland Lehoucq, “Toward Asteroid Exploration”, 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): 165-172 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Mars is usually the destination that captures our collective imagination in the context of human-possible space exploration. Asteroids are, if anything, objects of destruction of humanity, not objects of their preservation. And yet, as Ramez Naam explored in his story “The Use of Things” (read the review), asteroids may in fact provide us with the crucial stepping stones humanity needs. In the nonfiction companion piece to Naam’s story, Lehoucq explores the conditions under which asteroid exploration can be undertaken.

First, there is the paradox that any asteroid to be close enough to be of use may also be, potentially, close enough to be of danger. To determine which are threats and which are not, we “must be able to…accurately predict their flight path” (p. 165). Only the “near-earth asteroids” (NEA) are suitable for the type of exploration that Naam writes about; but there are plenty of options within that subset: “As of 2016, around 15,000 NEAs are known” (p. 166), and it is quite likely that there are many, many more, especially ones of smaller size which are harder to detect.

In addition to knowing where they are and how big they are (and how fast they are rotating!) we also need to know their geological make-up — what kinds of minerals are present, how dense is the asteroid, how porous, how much water does it (possibly) contain? The difficulty here is that “this kind of information is very difficult to accurately determine using Earth-based surveys; it will require physical sampling” (p. 166). Because of their near-earth status, however, it is possible to send surveying equipment to the asteroids and back, and a handful of such missions have already been successful.

Once the likely candidates have been identified, they must in fact be mined — for water, for gold, for nickel-iron alloys. Lehoucq is optimistic about the technological possibilities here:

Such ambitious plans may seem like the mirage of a far-distant future, but the groundwork for a realistic implementation of asteroid mining is already being laid. In 2012, NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts announced the Robotic Asteroid Prospector project, which will examine and evaluate the feasibility of asteroid mining in terms of means, methods, and systems (p. 168).

The mining activity will have to be run by robots, programmed not only to run the mining equipment but also to separate the output, and to box it up for use elsewhere. All of this activity requires energy, which raises the next issue: How to provide that energy. Lehoucq offers two feasible options: solar power, for below 100 kilowatts (p. 170), and small fission nuclear reactors, for more efficient energy production (p. 170).

The remaining question, then, is what to do with the materials once mined: Do they get sent back to earth (probably the more likely, at least in initial stages), or are they processed on the asteroid to provide the materials for further space exploration (as in Naam’s story)? That question is one only the future can answer.

This may seem a tall task: But the point of Lehoucq’s article is that each individual step is not only feasible, but we already have been taking steps towards achieving it. When it comes to asteroids, mankind needn’t make one giant leap all in one go, but can many small steps, one by one.

REVIEW: “Life on Mars?” by Steve Ruff

Review of Steve Ruff, “Life on Mars?”, 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): 139-145 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This is the non-fiction companion piece to both “The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder (read the review) and “Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby (read the review). Ruff, a Mars geologist who describes himself as a virtual Martian like the homesteaders in Schroeder’s story, was part of the Spirit and Opportunity rover teams in 2004, and has as close to “personal” experience of life on Mars as is currently possible.

Ordinarily, scientists write up their knowledge and experiences in scientific papers, which come complete with their own vocabulary, constraints, and norms, with the result that even to scientists in other fields, these papers can be inaccessible. (Just because I write and publish in logic doesn’t mean that theoretical physics makes any sense to me. And I challenge any biologist to pick up one of my specialist papers and make heads or tails of it.) The opportunity to hear the insights and experiences of people like Ruff, as they relate to both science fiction and science fact and in a way that makes them accessible to the non-specialist, is one of the highlights of this anthology.

While his focus is on what would have to change, technologically, in the real world in order for Schroeder’s and Ashby’s futures to come about, what struck me most about Ruff’s account of his experiences on the rover team was how important the human-robot relationship is. The robots “are immune to jet lag and free from human frailties” (p. 140), unlike their human commanders back at home, some of whom struggle to adapt to the different length of the Martian day. But on the other hand, our mechanical counterparts on Mars often lack the mobility we have, and no amount of our trying to control them can change this. It is easy to anthropomorphise these mechanical contraptions, these first colonists of a foreign world. Here, fact and fiction blur, and who are we to say that intelligence can’t be created simply by treating the machine as if it were intelligent? Maybe the first life on Mars will turn out to be artificial, not biological.

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.