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: “The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder

Review of Karl Schroeder, “The Baker of 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): 83-102 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The story starts of juxtaposing the wild strangeness that must accompany colonising Mars with the quiet ordinariness of a Tampa diner. Myrna runs the diner as a sideline business, with most of her time taken up by catering to those who colonise Mars from afar — telecommuters who live on earth but function according to Martian days, Martian hours (forty minutes longer than our own), Martian timezones. It’s a trick balancing act, to live in one timeline but work in another, and Myrna’s catering service helps people live according to the timeline that they work in.

Schroeder’s story takes up the “public/private” matter that we’ve already seen in earlier stories in this anthology, because it is only through such ventures that such telecommuting colonisation can take place. The infrastructure is publicly supported, but much of what goes in to it is privately funded, by people like Wekesa Ballo, who had “sunk all his money into buying [a] bot and getting it transported to another planet, in the hope that what they build there will someday attract clients and customers beyond the launch companies and speculators” (p. 86).

It’s a story of many layers, though, not just this one, with ordinary humans living ordinary human lives while at the same time living lives upon Mars both virtual and real. The presence of these layers allows Schroeder to play with fact and fiction in a way that makes for a satisfying read.

REVIEW: “Grover: Case #C09 920, ‘The Most Dangerous Blend'” by Edward Edmonds

Review of Edward Edmonds, “Grover: Case #C09 920, ‘The Most Dangerous Blend'”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 159-183 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

A gory opening scene (don’t read if you’re squeamish) segues into what would be a pretty typical detective/mystery story except that within a page we’ve got a suspect and a confession and the only uncertainty left is whether the suspect is telling the truth — and what reason would someone have to lie about negligence-leading-to-death? But Detective Ishani Grover isn’t one to assume the easy answer is the right one, and her investigations continue…until someone else dies.

Detective/mystery stories aren’t really my type, but this one was solid enough to keep me reading, with a plausible resolution and a few twists along the way to it.

REVIEW: “The Heavenly Dreams of Mechanical Trees” by Wendy Nikel

Review of Wendy Nikel, “The Heavenly Dreams of Mechanical Trees”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 141-148 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

What a positively delightful title, and what a perfectly wonderful little story to go with it! I was captivated from the opening line, when we are told:

Trees were never intended to be sentient beings, or God would have created them that way, back in the Garden.

But suppose that they were — how would the course of human history have changed? What would the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil have to say, if it could speak?

The trees in this story that think such thoughts and dream the titular dreams are not descendants of the trees created by God, though; they are mechanical trees, created by man. Machines cannot speak; machines cannot procreate; machines can only dream of these things, and pray to their human creator-gods that a miracle occurs.

REVIEW: “Time and Space” by Laine Perez

Review of Lane Perez, “Time and Space”, Luna Station Quarterly 34 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This story starts off with a contradiction:

When Mira sees the library for the first time, it is exactly as she remembers it.

How can one remember what one has never seen before? But such contradictions are to be expected in a story where one character can see the future.

For all that this is a story about pushing the boundaries of time and space, this isn’t SF. Rather, it has a quiet, almost fairy-tale like quality, and what is at the forefront is Mira and Cy and how they navigate a relationship together: Not just how to fit together when one person sees the future and the other moves unexpectedly through space, but how to build a life within those confines that doesn’t end up feeling utterly fatalistic. The lack of free will or free choice that is apparently entailed by foreknowledge of the future — a problem that has been vexing not only science fiction authors but philosophers for millenia — is deftly handled here by Perez in this satisfying story.

REVIEW: “Morph” by Sarah Pfleiderer

Review of Sarah Pfleiderer, “Morph”, Luna Station Quarterly 34 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is in essence a first-contact story; although contact with the Phytomorphs was actually made some 30 years prior to when this story starts, this is the first time that humans and Phytomorphs have attempted to live together. It is also, the further you read, increasingly a horror story.

There was a lot I liked about this story, particularly the clever, educated, older, female protagonist. When we are introduced to Dr. Audra Grissom in the opening paragraphs, I was quite pleased to see what I don’t often see in stories — someone like me!

But there were also a number of things which I didn’t like so much. The way Dr. Grissom was set up to us made me optimistic for both her and the society in which she operated, which is why I felt even more caught out than I might have been when I read this:

She had started graying in her 30s, but had given up trying to dye it back to its original brown once she hit her 40s. She had no husband or children to keep up appearances for anyway.

That second sentence — what a strange justification to add! It just goes to show that no matter how hard we try to write stories centering women and leaving behind the problematic social structures of reality, it’s hard to escape persistent and invasive ideas about how and why women should act the way they do. (Why should it make any difference to her hair color if Dr. Grissom is married or not? I’m married, with a kid, started greying in my 20s, and the only color I dye my hair is purple. I have no need to “keep up appearances” for anyone other than myself.) The upshot of this one single sentence is that I come away from the story pitying Dr. Grissom, knowing that the freedom and authority it seems that she has is only seeming, and not, yet, real.

I also felt vaguely uncomfortable about a lot of the colonial overtones that were present in this story. When Dr. Grissom meets the Phytomorph that she has corresponded with the most, we find out that she doesn’t know their name, but has given them a nickname of her choosing; the Phytomorph, on the other hand, addresses her by name. Why? Why did she give her name to them, at some point in their communication, but never ask theirs? Similarly, when she is confronted with the possibility that this co-habitation is harming the Phytomorphs, her first response is to protect the science, rather than put the objects of her study first.