Response to VVEV: Section IV – Exoplanets

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities

VVEV is illustrated by by Maciej Rebisz.

This is Part 4 of a six-part response to Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, which is available for free from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination thanks to a grant from NASA. I say “response” and not “review” because I intend to engage with the ideas presented from my own point of view.

Section IV of VVEV is entitled Exoplanets, and contains one short story and two essays:

  • Shikasta, by Vandana Singh
  • The New Science of Astrobiology, by Sara Imari Walker
  • Negotiating the Values of Space Exploration, by Emma Frow

This blog post contains spoilers!

If you’ve been following along at home with my series of responses, you’ll know by now that my opinion of the quality of the fiction in the collection so far might best be described as “widely variable.” I’m pleased that it varies widely in the positive direction as well.

Section IV starts off with a hit of excellence. Vandana Singh’s Shikasta is easily the best story so far by a mile. Judging by the the very nonfictiony names of the pieces that follow in the collection, I’m assuming that means Shikasta is the best fiction piece of the lot.

For starters, the writing is beautiful. Just check out this opener:

This is the first time I am speaking to you, aloud, since you died.
I’ve learned by now that joy is of two kinds—the easy, mindless sort, and the kind that is earned hard, squeezed from suffering like blood from a stone. All my life I wanted my mother to see her son rise beyond the desert of deprivations that was our life—she wanted me to be a powerful man, respected by society—but so much of what she saw were my struggles, my desperation. So when the impossible happened, when our brave little craft was launched—the first crowdfunded spacecraft to seek another world—the unexpected shock of joy took her from illness to death in a matter of months. She died smiling—you remember her slight smile. You were always asking her why she didn’t let herself smile more broadly, laugh out loud. “Auntie,” you’d say, “smile!” That made her laugh, reluctantly. You were always pushing at limits, including those we impose on ourselves.

Bam. Hooked. I couldn’t stop reading it once I started, and was late to an appointment. (As a reader with my critic hat on, I’m absolutely delighted. Selfishly, with my writer hat momentarily on, I just really wish I could write like that.)

Of course, some measure of infodump exposition on a technical subject in the abbreviated space of a short story is necessary; but Singh handles it with more grace than most, trying to embed it in the characters’ perspectives and stories they tell about the world they are exploring, and keeping the techspeak to (almost) the minimum necessary to the premise. (She also handles it by making Shikasta far longer than most of the other stories in the collection, giving herself more room to flesh these ideas out.)

I am used to boundaries. Ever since my exile from my people’s ancestral home, I have lived in in-between places. Living on a boundary, you know you don’t belong anywhere, but it is also a place of so much possibility.

The story of Shikasta, the name of an exoplanet roughly 4 light years away, is told through two points of view: Chirag, Annie and Kranti. They are three of the four original scientists who spearheaded an effort to fling a grassroots-funded, fly-on-the-cheap probe to an interstellar system. In the present day, it is years after the probe was launched, and the first signals are starting to come back, and those back on Earth can explore the planet Shikasta b, tidally locked with its star and thus a half-fire / half ice world, remotely through the data sent back.

Against the backdrop of a decidedly dark projection of humanity’s future on Earth, Shikasta raises in distilled form of a recurring question about spaceflight:

It was a mad idea, in the midst of all this, to dream up a crowdfunded cheap space program, to send an experimental robot as explorer on another world. So many friends left us in outrage, accusing us of turning our backs on the real struggles.

In other words, “Why should we fund science/spaceflight/astrophysics/cosmology/etc when there are so many problems here on Earth?” If I had a nickel for every time I was asked that question on a con panel or by a student… I don’t mind it though, in fact I welcome it. Because each time that question is asked, there is an opportunity to spread the good word about what we space nerds are really about. Singh captures my sentiment perfectly:

We look for life on other worlds because we want to deepen what we mean by human, what we mean by Earthling. As our own atmospheric and oceanic oxygen levels fall and species go extinct like candles winking out, year after year, we want to bring attention to the wonder that is life, here and elsewhere. It is an extension of our empathy, our biophilia. Build your approach, your business model, your way of thinking around that paradigm, and you’ve already built in respect for every human regardless of race or class or caste, connection between all life, and an enhancement of the collective human spirit.

Compare this statement to similar ones on the same subject by the likes of Carl Sagan or his modern-day disciple (reincarnation?) Neil deGrasse Tyson, and you’ll see how it fits right in. This is exactly the kind of writing about our future in space that we need… stories not primarily about the things or technologies we might have, but about the people who will live, die, suffer, and thrive on those technologies. Stories that make an argument why spaceflight is worth doing at all. Stories that don’t ignore the very real present trajectory that the world is on, but also help us see a way to find avenues of resistance, curiosity, and joy in the midst of darkness.

Not to mention that Singh also hits planetary geology, AI sentience, a truly “alien” take on what alien life could be like, and explores alternative socio-political relationships between science and the public along the way. My one criticism is that, with shades of the stories in Section III, the many interweaving sub-threads make the overall story a touch dense and unwieldy for a short.  However, Singh ties it all together with the concept of how alien and artificial life help us understand Earth and human life in a larger context… the Universe itself as a living thing. Given a choice between not enough substance to be interesting versus slightly too much substance to be digestible in one read, I’ll gladly take the latter.

One of the best short stories I’ve read in a long time. This one is on my Hugo nomination list for next year.

The New Science of Astrobiology, by Sara Imari Walker immediately follows Shikasta and picks up cogently on the thread of the potential alien-ness of aliens:

Currently, nearly all research into signs of life on other worlds —so-called biosignatures—would overlook Shikasta b as a candidate for an inhabited world: we only know how to look for life as we know it. This does not imply we are looking for aliens who like to spend Saturday nights at the movies. Rather, what astrobiologists mean by “like us” is alien life that shares common biochemistry with life on Earth. We look around us and see a huge diversity of living things—trees, puppies, moldy cheese—but all of these things (and any example of life discovered so far) share the same basic biochemistry (DNA, RNA, proteins, etc.). This is incredibly limiting for astrobiology.

True. But as a fellow science panelist at a con last year put it, “Well, we have to start somewhere, and Earth is what we know.” I get where that argument is coming from, and it certainly can’t be disputed that we only have one data point to work with so far on what a planetary biosphere might look like.

That said, I appreciate Walker’s exhortation to get more creative about what alien life might look like, and how we might be able to detect it given all the complications of measuring biosignatures, etc. She describes some intriguing efforts to think outside the box in terms of astrobiology, but also points out the underlying problem: we don’t really know what we mean by the term “life”:

in the absence of guiding principles for what life is, or a motivating theory to describe life from first principles, these ideas remain conjectures based on properties of life on Earth.

In other words, we can’t look for something effectively if we don’t know really know what we’re looking for. Unfortunately, such “motivating theories” about scientific phenomena usually arise from observation of systems. And so we loop back around again to the point that the only way we know for sure that life can exist is what we ourselves are. And around and around and around we go.

I don’t, however, believe that our path to discovering truly alien life is doomed to be a hopeless circle. The twin efforts of exploring and theorizing as much as we can of the universe around us, and simultaneously using creative stories like Shikasta to spur our imaginations, can lend a forward tilt to the circle, enabling us to hopefully spiral towards a better understanding of life in the universe.

Section IV closes with Negotiating the Values of Space Exploration, by Emma Frow. The essay ranges over a variety of topics, all interesting and with points well argued. I’ll hone in on one particular thread in the article:

Moreover, [Shikasta] reveals an important tension regarding human activity in space. Our protagonists adamantly wish to avoid accusations of colonialization, but is it possible to identify or observe life without interfering in it? The very practice of science revolves around “taming” nature, trying to bring it into our realm of understanding and categorizing or managing it in some way. As he roams the terminator zone, we see Avi’s behavior start to change. If there is life on Shikasta b, Avi may be interacting or engaging with it. As such, he is not practicing the “radical observation” approach of the rest of the project team, who are seeing at a distance, but rather is intervening in and perhaps influencing the course of life on this planet. How does the research collective grapple with the notion that in their search for life they are inevitably intervening in that life?

Ah, the ol’ Prime Directive question… If and when we do first discover life, what is our responsibility to it and the ecosystem within which it resides? It’s a theme touched on by science fiction stories from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars to the film Avatar., though the forms of extra-terrestrial life envisioned by these works is of course significantly different.

But that’s sort of the point isn’t it? We have to contend with the possibility of it being more like bacteria (we should hope!) or even odd swirls of magnetic dust on a desolate world like Shikasta b… as opposed to the aliens from Independence Day or, say, beings like Chewbacca. Our tendency to anthropomorphize aliens in science fiction is perhaps useful from an ethical argument standpoint (“if they are like us, they should be treated as we would wish to be treated”), but also doesn’t do anything to prepare us for the profound strangeness that may be awaiting us on the frontiers of astrobiology, and the equally challenging ethical considerations that will come along with such discoveries. Or, the very real possibility of a first contact going accidentally and horribly wrong, as in, for example, The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell.

I applaud the authors of the works in this section for tackling these complex and fascinating topics as well as they did. Section IV was a treat to read, and easily the strongest of the collection so far. Well done.

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