Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures
by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich (eds.)
Arizona State Univ., 2017
ebook, 314 pp., illus.
The synergy between spaceflight and science fiction is both long lasting and well known. But, as the saying goes, what have you done for me lately? Is science fiction influencing, and being influenced by, a new era of government and commercial spaceflight, ranging from searches for extrasolar planets to companies that want to mine asteroids?
That issue is explored in an innovative new volume, Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities, published by the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University under a NASA contract. The book, freely available in PDF and ebook formats (a print-on-demand version can be purchased for about $20) is an anthology of both science fiction short stories, set in the near future, and essays on related topics about the exploration and commercialization of space.
The book is divided into four destination-based themes: low Earth orbit, Mars, asteroids, and exoplanets. (The Moon is left out, an odd omission given both renewed government and emerging commercial interest in our celestial neighbor.) The science fiction short stories, from authors such as Steven Barnes, Eileen Gunn, and Ramez Naam, range from tales of commercial space facilities in LEO to asteroid mining ventures. The essays explore some of the themes raised in the stories, like the potential and perils of public private partnerships and the viability of various commercial space industries.
The short stories are, overall, entertaining, with the authors seeking to make them “hard” science fiction by rooting them as much as possible into what is feasible either now or in the next few decades. Sometimes the authors go too far down that road, taking up precious pages to explain how a particular technology works, rather than telling the story and inserting the technology as needed—as if they had as assignment to incorporate a technology and a requirement to show they understood it.
Some of the essays take a critical view of some efforts, like public private partnerships and the growth of companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX funded by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. “Sadly, the future domination of Low Earth Orbit by grasping capitalists is all too easy to imagine,” William K. Storey writes in one essay.
Others are worried that such ventures may lead to greater inequity and a lack of diversity. “NASA should even require that private space agencies that win NASA contracts—which now include companies like SpaceX—include a credible diversity plan,” Deji Bryce Olukotun writes.
The editors, in their introduction, see the book as a way to examine how modern space initiatives can recapture a sense of the Apollo era. “The idea of space as a canvas for human possibility has proven compelling to those in the nascent commercial space industry, but the vision has not galvanized broad public engagement in the same ways as the iconic era of Sputnik and the Apollo missions,” they write. A bigger issue, though, is whether such broad public engagement, which in that earlier era was also linked to concerns about the Cold War, is required in an era where the motivations for many are more financial and geopolitical.
Near the end of the book is an interview with science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Red Mars novel about Mars settlement, published 25 years ago, provided some inspiration for this book. Robinson is pessimistic about space exploration and settlement in the interview, arguing that in this “emergency century” society needs to focus on preserving the biosphere.
“We don’t need space,” he says. “We need sustainability in this biosphere. Space is a luxury problem and a luxury opportunity. It’s what we get to explore in some detail, in the centuries after we succeed in inventing permaculture here, if we do.”
But, perhaps, space is part of the solution to “permaculture” on Earth, through energy or other resources or technologies that emerge from space exploration. Robinson doesn’t think there are too many such possibilities, but maybe that’s just a lack of imagination—a potentially fatal shortcoming for a science fiction author.