REVIEW: “The Use of Things” by Ramez Naam

Review of Ramez Naam, “The Use of Things”, 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): 151-163 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

[Ryan] was going to die in this ripped space suit, die thinking of Beth Wu, a hundred million miles away, and how right she’d been (p. 151).

I’ve never wanted to be an astronaut. The combination of a space suit and the expanse of space was both too claustrophobic and too agoraphobic for me to ever comfortably consider this as an option. Everything that I find scary about this is encapsulated in the opening scene of Naam’s story. Nevertheless, there is still a fascination about what would it be like, and Naam taps into that as well: The very different physical experience of being in space comes across clearly in this story, and even though I wouldn’t want to be in Ryan’s shoes myself, I really enjoyed reading about him being in them.

I also enjoyed the more theoretical thread of the story, which explores what use human beings are, or can be, in a future of increasing automation. We aim for the stars because it is human nature to explore — but increasingly our best means of exploration involve leaving ourselves behind on earth and sending automated explorers out instead. As Naam points out in the story, it’s just too expensive to send out the humans: “Humans have to go quickly, or not at all” (p. 159), and quickly means expensively. So where does that leave us? Building better and better means of exploration to satisfy a specifically human need and in doing so making it increasingly impossible that we will ever get to explore ourselves.

You might think, given all this, that this is a depressing story. It isn’t. It’s a hopeful, happy one.