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: “Night Shift” by Eileen Gunn

Review of Eileen Gunn, “Night Shift”, 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): 175-190 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

2032: An interplanetary gold rush has begun, and the prize is water, not gold. The miners are robots, with human intelligence and superhuman survivability.

The opening premise of this story resembles that of the previous one, “The Use of Things” (read the review), with a focus on the mining of asteroids by robots for water.

2032 no longer feels like that far in the future. When the author rehearses what has gone on in the 2020s, it all of a sudden has this uncomfortable feeling like this is right around the corner, except — and here I sort of slip into an uncanny valley — given how the world actually is, now, in 2018, I cannot quite fathom how it could be as Gunn describes in the 2020s. We’ve got a long way to go if we want to be populating near-Earth space with sophisticated mining technology by the end of the next decade.

This is all backdrop for what is a pretty ordinary story of coders and mining and slime mold (a lot of slime mold) which was enjoyable but unfortunately marred by one story thread that was probably thoughtless rather than intentionally hurtful, and yet is still problematic. When Tanisha, the manager, refers to Seth as “she”, and the narrator, Sina, one of the coders, “rolled my eyes. Tanisha thinks Seth is a girl”, my first thought was “if Tanisha is misgendering one of her staff, then I wish Sina would do more than just roll her eyes, but would speak up and correct her. But then it turns out that Seth isn’t trans, he’s an AI, and I found that deeply disappointing. What could’ve been the first instance of an openly queer character in this anthology instead became an example of the very problematic trope of othering trans people to the point where they are — literally — not even human.

I guess I had hoped that an anthology about visions of space and space exploration for the future would do better than that.

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: “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.

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: “Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby

Review of Madeline Ashby, “Death 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): 115-136 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The premise of this story is an experiment:

To see if women—with their lower caloric needs, their lesser weight, their quite literally cheaper labor, in more ways than one—could get the job done on Phobos? (p. 117)

Even now, when so much work has been done to address the lack of women in STEM (which is sadly all too much reflected in SFF, both amongst the writers and the written), the status quo is still such that I’m not surprised it is a woman that has written a story based on this premise.

This was not the only thing that separated this story out from the others I’ve read so far in this anthology. The other was that the science was not the focus; instead, it is the women and their relationships with each other, and how these relationships are disrupted by the arrival of a newcomer bearing unwanted news. They are the heart of the story; the science, their life on Phobos, these are all incidental.

This was a quiet, poignant story, well worth the reading. It’s hard not to cry at it, but at the same time it’s hard not to recognize the beautiful wonder of seeing these women “where we’re supposed to be. Because this is where we are at our best” (p. 135). What better death could one ask for, than to die knowing they died where they were supposed to be, being the best they could be?

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.