REVIEW: “High Hedonistic and Low Fatalistic” by Linda T. Elkins-Tanton

Review of Linda T. Elkins-Tanton, “High Hedonistic and Low Fatalistic”, 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, 293-296 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Why is it so easy to write about disaster, and so hard to write about hope? (p. 293).

This is the question that frames Elkins-Tanton’s essay that concludes the anthology. Writing about pain and disaster and fear and darkness brings with it a certain release, an Aristotelian katharsis, which itself can be beneficial. But what about the light? Some people argue that writing hopeful utopias is to ignore reality, to hide our heads in the sand, or, as Elkins-Tanton puts it, “hawking snake oil” (p. 293). Elkins-Tanton argues the opposite: that it is only by exploring images of a hopeful future that we can make that future a reality.

In a number of reviews from this anthology, I’ve focused on this idea, how we need the imagination of SF writers and stories to provide us with an image of how the future could go. Elkins-Tanton focuses on the flip side, which is how to get people involved in building that future image:

If science was taught as a series of questions—which is truly what it is—then finding the next unanswered question would be easy, and there would be openings for anyone who is interested to participate (p. 294).

The question then, is how do we teach the skill of asking the right questions — something every good educator faces. Here is where, again, fiction can provide a very specific set of distinctive tools, a way to coalesce the “What if?”s into something concrete and real.

REVIEW: “The Practical Economics of Space” by Clark A. Miller

Review of Clark A. Miller, “The Practical Economics of Space”, 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): 275-290 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The concluding pieces of the anthology focus on practicalities and pragmatics. Miller’s contribution addresses two questions:

  • “how human activities in space will get paid for” (p. 275).
  • “What—and who—will we value in the human future in space?” (p. 275).

And it does so in two ways: One, by focusing on the specifics of the economic aspects that go into space and space-travel. The way Miller goes about addressing the questions assumes no background competencies in economics in the reader, and yet manages to present the basic mechanisms underpinnning human financial transactions in a way accessible. Two, by showing how each of the stories in the anthology highlights different aspects of these factors, in a lovely summing up way.

The important take-home message is that if we are going to be able to fund near-earth space travel, and travel beyond, then we need to find things in space that people value, and are willing to give money to obtain. The stories in this book already offer a wide variety of options: Space-tourism, water and minerals, safety leaving behind a planet that has been destroyed, intellectual curiosity, satellites and communication infrastructure; planetary defense systems; souvenirs. Miller’s discussion of all the aspects that feed into the economics of space and space travel itself reads like a laundry list of ideas for SF authors to explore in future stories.

One of the “great strengths” of science fiction, Miller claims, is that it “reminds us that all kinds of people inhabit the future, not just those with a job to do” (p. 287). It’s not just the scientists and the governments, and the rich business owners. It’s the bakers, the cleaners, the AiIs, the people who look to the stars and dream. “Let’s make sure we write them, and all of humanity, into our future plans” (p. 290).

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: “Negotiating the Values of Space Exploration” by Emma Frow

Review of Emma Frow, “Negotiating the Values of Space 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): 253-259 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

In this second non-fiction companion piece to Vandana Singh’s “Shikasta” (read the review), Frow focuses on the ways in which which personal narratives are essentially intertwined with the “facts” of science, even when these narratives tend to be lost in the academic (or journalistic) presentation of these scientific findings. This is where collections like the present one can play such an important role: Fiction is always eternally, inescapably personal.

Frow argues that recognising the central role that personal narratives play in science shines a line on a “critical topic” for future science:

how to orient our scientific investigations and expeditions so as to further our social and cultural values, alongside our scientific priorities (p. 253).

The desire to learn more about the universe, the desire to determine whether we are alone in it, the desire to find resources to exploit, the desire to build or augment a position of military power — these are all priorities that one might have in space exploration, and they are, quite naturally, often competing. One of the things Frow is keen to point out is that it isn’t enough to recognise that these end goals may be in conflict with each other; we must also understand that the ways in which we reach these goals can end up orthogonal. For instance:

Because the 2035 space mission being run by Chirag, Kranti, and Annie is motivated by a different set of core values from the space science establishment, they turn to a different model for funding their work: crowdfunding (p. 254)

On the flip side, the reasons we have for pursuing certain goals can in themselves shape those goals; and in discussing this we see Frow picking up a similar theme as Walker (read the review), namely, that how we search for life depends on how we define life.

Frow covers a lot of ground in this quite short article, but each point she makes is one worth making.

REVIEW: “The New Science of Astrobiology” by Sara Imari Walker

Review of Sara Imari Walker, “The New Science of Astrobiology”, 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): 243-250 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

I love the title of this piece. “Astrobiology” by itself is a fascinating word full of potential; when you put “science” in front of it, you get something tangible and concrete, not merely imagination. When you add “new” to the front of that, then you’re back in the border between fiction and fact again, forging a way from what we can imagine to what we can actually know.

Astrobiology seeks to address one of the most difficult open questions in
science: Are we alone? (243)

Walker cuts right to the chase: The reason this question is hard to answer is not merely because of the technological complications involved, but because it requires us to first answer another, more fundamental, and much more difficult question:

What is life? (243)

Scientists have no answer to this question; even philosophers stumble when they attempt to; but are we surprised that it is the tellers of stories, the fiction authors amongst us that have the best attempts? Waker analyses how Singh in “Shikasta” (read the review) manages to present a fictional planet which is both exotic i>and realistic, where the concepts of ‘living’ and ‘life’ are realised in ways radically different from how they are realised on earth.

This is the key point that Walker makes in her paper: When astrobiologists team up with space exploration projects to find signs of life in the universe — so-called “biosignatures” — they are looking for biosignatures like ours (Walker goes into a lovely amount of detail in the biochemistry of earht-like biosignatures, for those who are interested). How can we even know what a biosignature not like ours would looke like? This is where the imaginists, the authors, the speculators come in. Stories like Singh’s, Walker argues, provide us a means for conceptualising a different approach to what it means to be alive, and hence different paths to answering the questions “are we alone?”, and, more fundamentally, “who are we?”

REVIEW: “Shikasta” by Vandana Singh

Review of Vandana Singh, “Shikasta”, 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): 207-240 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This was one of the longest stories in the anthology, and it has one of the most distinct voices. It opens in the 2nd person — a narrative mode I often struggle with, but which works here because the reader is explicitly cued in to the fact that we are not the addressee, but rather Chirag’s dead cousin:

This is the first time I am speaking to you, aloud, since you died (207).

The narrative switches between Chirag, Kranti, and Annie, the three friends that remain of the four that met at university at Delhi and imagined what it would be like to crowdfound a space exploration project. Chirag’s cousin, though dead, is as present as anyone else in this story, as the narrative keeps circling back to a central question: What is life? What does it mean to be alive?

Like “Death of Mars”, earlier in the anthology (read the review), this is first and foremost a story about people, and only secondarily a story of space exploration; it reads more like a memoir than anything else. This is not to say that the science is in any way incidental, but rather that Singh focuses on the human aspects, and highlights that the human and the scientific need not be opposed to each other:

You taught me that a scientist could also be a poet (208).

This story, more than any of the others in the anthology, merges fiction and science in a way that shows how truly intertwined they are; how we cannot escape the need to create stories in order to understand facts. All of these factors came together so that this story really spoke to me.

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.