VVEV: Reflections on the Collection (No Spoilers)

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

I’ve been posting a review/response to each of the five sections of 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. In this post, I’ll switch gears to some concluding thoughts about VVEV as a whole.

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Response to VVEV: Section V – Concluding Thoughts

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities

VVEV is illustrated by by Maciej Rebisz.

This is Part 5 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 V of VVEV is entitled Concluding Thoughts, and contains three essays:

  • The Luxury Problem: Space Exploration in the “Emergency Century, Kim Stanley Robinson, in conversation with James Bell
  • The Practical Economics of Space, Clark A. Miller
  • High Hedonistic and Low Fatalistic, Linda T. Elkins-Tanton

This blog post contains spoilers!

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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!

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Response to VVEV: Section III – Asteroids

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities

VVEV is illustrated by Maciej Rebisz

This is Part 3 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 III of VVEV is entitled Asteroids, and contains two short stories and two essays:

  • The Use of Things, by Ramez Naam
  • Toward Asteroid Exploration, by Roland Lehoucq
  • Night Shift, by Eileen Gunn
  • Rethinking Risk, by Andrew D. Maynard

This blog post contains spoilers!

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Response to VVEV: Section I – Low Earth Orbit

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities

This is Part 1 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.

VVEV is illustrated by Maciej Rebisz.

Section I of VVEV is entitled Low Earth Orbit, and contains two short stories and three essays:

  • Vanguard 2.0, by Carter Scholtz
  • Reflections on the Dual Uses of Space Innovation, by G. Pascal Zachary
  • Mozart on the Kalahari, by Steven Barnes
  • Past Empires and the Future of Colonization in Low Earth Orbit, by William K. Storey
  • Expanding Our Solution Space: How We Can Build an Inclusive Future, by Deji Bryce Olukotun

This blog post contains spoilers!

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Stories Can Lead the Way: More Policy-Relevant SFF Is Needed

FutureShift has a blog post up entitled Missing from our Speculative Fiction: Government that Works. Below are the leading paragraphs.

Speculative fiction and political intrigue go hand in hand, yet we tend to see the same few stories about the same governments, over and over. In fantasy, you have your monarchies (benevolent or corrupt) or the occasional oligarchy, mostly based on hereditary power structures. This is your Game of Thrones territory. In science fiction, there’s only slightly more variety: oppressive dictatorships like Big Brother (our nightmare), or weak and corrupt democratic republics (our criticism of our present situation), or more rarely, various takes on socialism, ranging from deeply critical to cautiously optimistic.

Only rarely do we see other systems of government represented in our fiction, and it’s distressingly uncommon to see government working effectively for the common good — especially governments that resemble our U.S. system. In pop culture, democracies are corrupted by moneyed influences, elected officials are power-hungry, inept, or both, and government employees are bureaucratic drones who’ve had the joy sucked out of their lives by their dull work and sterile offices.

I sympathize, both with those crying out for new ideas to lead us in a positive direction, but also with the writers trying to do so — because this is a tall order. In effect, this is what I am trying to do in the as-yet untitled sequel to Red Soil Through Our Fingers: depict the messy process of throwing off old systems that no long work and replacing them with ones that do, all the while staving off attacks from everyone who has a stake in the outcome… which is basically everyone. Summary: it’s hard. I find myself spinning my wheels often.

The double whammy is that not only is the substance hard, but at the end of the day it’s also got to be a good story or people simply won’t read it. How do you make socio-economic systems and the politics of structural oppression both interesting and accessible in a world where the bottom line is that readers/viewers want to be entertained with escapism, spectacle, character and adventure? It’s certainly not impossible, and the bloggers at FutureShift do point out a few examples.But we need to acknowledge that the bulk of the genre is not explicitly thinking this way, and we will have to make stories that not only have policy-relevant substance, but ALSO appeal to the masses to actually prompt change.

SciFi Policy posted a list of policy-relevant SFF markets which I think is a great start. However, I note that very few of the markets listed actually focus on this kind of story. We need more than incidental inclusion. I think more paying markets — even a single anthology to start — that specialize in constructive, forward-looking, policy-relevant fiction without sacrificing character and story would be a huge boon to this effort.

The topic reminds me of a panel at the last Arisia: Is Optimism Just Nostalgia in Disguise? The link there is to my panel post-mortem on this blog.

Why Space?

A few weeks ago, Icame across an article in the Houston Press about Buzz Aldrin and Mars. Headline: “Buzz Aldrin Says NASA Should Ditch the ISS and Make the Mars Jump“. Aldrin’s statement is hardly anything he hasn’t said before,  but any debate about NASA’s next steps needs to start by discussing a more fundamental question: Why should we go into space at all?

Category 1: Human Spaceflight

Aldrin would probably say something along the lines of “because we as humans are born explorers, and it is the greatest challenge of all to venture out into the great vastness of space.” Human space exploration of the solar system and beyond as the goal of spaceflight has a sizeable contingent of supporters, and plenty of lofty rhetoric to match (think JFK’s famous Moon Speech). Inspirational appeals to our sense of adventure and wonder aside, it is practically true that doing the hardest things we can imagine results in incidental gains in scientific understanding, technological development, national morale/prestige, etc.

Distinct from human space exploration is human space settlement. For some human spaceflight advocates, the goal is not exploration for its own sake, but toward the goal of eventually spreading human settlement from our planet to orbit, the Moon, other planets, and maybe even someday to other star systems. If this is your truly  primary goal, your favored missions are likely to be different from those in the exploration camp. For example, building a permanent human city in Low-Earth Orbit is a far more practical and useful goal than a Mars colony in context, for a number of reasons. There’s the proximity to Earth, for starters, which would allow for far lower mission risk and cost for an equivalent-size settlement, and we’d be able to learn vast amounts of useful information about living well in space before venturing out further.

Category 2: Space Science

But detractors of the first philosophy tend to claim that the incidental advances we get out of human spaceflight are just that: incidental, and nowhere near worth the enormous expenditure required for human spaceflight. If we really want scientific understanding of space and our solar system, then robotic and uncrewed systems can get the job done for orders of magnitude less money. They don’t need oxygen, water, food, and pressure, for starters, and moreover they don’t need to come back.  Purists of this camp see multi-billion-dollar, rocket programs like the Space Launch System (SLS) as astronomical wastes of money, noting (correctly) that the bulk of the cost of such systems goes into making them human-rated. Instead, why not  take all that money and double or triple the number of robotic probes we send out to explore the universe on our behalf?

Category 3: Earth Science

The two camps described above tend to generate the most noise in space policy debates, and it’s tempting to think of them as ends of a linear continuum. However, a third major category of answers to the “Why Space?” question focuses closer to home. Space-based systems are essential to understanding, protecting, and improving life on Earth. Satellites help us understand a whole gamut of Earth-based knowledge, including climate change, weather and storm monitoring, atmospheric and ocean science, forestry land use, navigational and communication systems (such as GPS and the Internet), and even tools that enable sustainable and productive farming and fishing.

So which one should we choose?

As all three of these categories contain worthy pursuits in their own respects, it shouldn’t be surprising that NASA does all of them. (I should add that NASA also does significant and valuable aeronautical research that improves aviation and atmospheric flight around the world, but as this post is entitled “Why Space?”, I am setting this portion of NASA’s portfolio aside.)

It’s no secret that NASA is underfunded, given its wide mandate. NASA’s $19B budget is relatively small by federal standards, coming in at only around half of one percent of total federal spending. The perennial debates over where its missions should be going and what else it should be doing can devolve into fighting over scraps to preserve stability in legacy programs, and the tens of thousands of highly-educated jobs that these programs support.  These debates often miss the big picture.

While few people are arguing that NASA should pursue one of these aims to the exclusion of the others (Buzz Aldrin comes pretty close), the divides in the space community reveal a fundamental disconnect about what people find valuable, if anything, about going into space at all. This mismatch of values means we’ll continuously be talking past each other when it comes to deciding the “best” allocation of NASA’s portfolio. I think a good, public, and reasoned debate over the value proposition of each path would be a healthy thing for the agency, the space community, and the nation.

 

Panel Postmortem: Is Optimism Just Nostalgia in Disguise?

This post is the first in what I intend to be several recaps of some of the most thought-provoking moments during this weekend’s Arisia science fiction and fantasy convention.

First of all, I have to thank Andrea Hairston. As a panelist and audience member, moderators have consistently been the most significant factor affecting the experience of con panel. Andrea was our fearless leader during this panel and I think we all owe her thanks for her energetic and positive management of the conversation.

Panel Description: Is Optimism Just Nostalgia in Disguise? – Marina 2, Literature, Sun 11:30 AM: We are hearing, after a long sojourn in dystopia and postapocalypse, that optimistic SF is making a comeback. Is it really the case or is the optimism of yesterday just another type of nostalgia? When climate change, postantibiotic medicine, and resource depletion are major factors in our lives (topics that are not always as well addressed in optimistic SF), is there a way to temper our optimism and inspire those who might be able to face these problems? Panelists: Andrea Hairston (mod), N.A. Ratnayake, Matthew Kressel, T.X. Watson, M.J. Cunniff

I was happy that the conversation could begin with every panelist answering the titular question in the negative: no, optimism is not just nostalgia in disguise. We had different perspectives as to why and how to move forward, but it was great to have that connecting thread. I won’t (and really can’t) give a transcript or summary of the conversation as it happened, but here are some of my key conclusions that I took away.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet seen Star Wars: Rogue One, skip the section “Positive Stories in Negative Spaces.”]

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About the Issues in Red Soil

SciFi Policy has posted an in-depth interview with N.A. Ratnayake about the issues in Red Soil Through Our Fingers.

Human expansion into space is happening. Where previous generations imagined the push into space driven by government programs such as NASA, we are seeing now that it is likely to be corporations or private interests staking claims out there at least as much as governments. In fact, multiple companies have already declared near-term space intentions such as orbital tourism, mining lucrative asteroids, extracting fresh water and hydrocarbons, and settling on the Moon and Mars.

There is likely more platinum and water in the asteroid belt than there is in all of planet Earth. To whom does this wealth belong? Commercial enterprise and private interests will need to play a large role in opening up space for humanity, but strong public space policy now is essential to shape and guide the coming age for society as a whole. Writers, scientists, engineers, and policymakers have been talking for decades about what our future in space will look like.  The public at large needs to enter this conversation, so that we can make sure our expansion into space results in an equitable, sustainable, and responsible distribution of the truly staggering amount of resources right here in our own solar system.

SciFi Policy Interviews Me on the Issues in Red Soil Through Our Fingers

SciFi Policy has posted an in-depth interview of me about the social, political, and economic issues in Red Soil Through Our Fingers. SFP is a group that seeks to review, discuss, and advocate for science fiction that helps us explore issues of political, social, and economic importance. Check out this interview for discussion of Red Soil‘s plot and characters, human spaceflight, space settlement, corporate space, Mars, and my favorite policy-relevant fiction!