By and large, Ian Sales seems like a Good Thing. Not only am I an admirer of his novella, “Adrift on the Sea of Rains,” as an excellent example of how to “do” data-driven hard SF; not only is he energetic and engaging on Twitter, endlessly contributing to the microblogged genre; he is also the man behind the SF Mistressworks project, an honorable effort to provide reviewing space dedicated to the work of women writers. That’s why, when he approached me to review his edited collection Rocket Science for this august organ, I didn’t refuse—even though I’m far more comfortable with the at-arm’s-length character of receiving an ARC from a publisher.
He’ll forgive me, then, if I start this review with a quibble.
Rocket Science is a collection of both fiction and non-fiction which seeks to make exciting literature out of those pesky laws of physics that at times conspire to render science fiction’s spacefaring precisely the opposite of entertaining: all those limited velocities or inconvenient constants which make the most popular of science fantasies, from Star Wars to Stargate, nothing short of the merest fluff. The Millennium Falcon will never make the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.
This is a noble aim, but is it a necessary one? “I wanted to demonstrate that science fiction didn’t need implausible gosh-wow special effects and OTT space-operatics in order to be good science fiction,” Sales writes in his introduction (p. 9), but is there really anyone reading serious science fiction today who believes that it does? When Sales informs us that, “Writing sf doesn’t mean that you can make it up as you go along” (p. 10), it feels a little as if Rocket Science is setting itself in opposition to an Aunt Sally. In making a claim for the importance of his book, Sales may be guilty of creating a problem where there isn’t one.
What perhaps is refreshing about the approaches taken by Sales’s writers, however, is their abandoning of the jargon of SF. The genre’s tropes—its space stations and anti-gravity, its FTL drives and jetpacks—are a wordhoard of unique potency, a shared sandbox which offers a toolkit for anyone working in the field. There is nothing wrong with writing meaningfully and creatively in the science fantasy mode—but the challenge of not falling back on these easily recognized clichés is also artistically interesting. It also represents a far more engaging—and arguably more urgent—project than merely restating the same argument for the laws of physics that is trotted out routinely by writers of such prominence and standing as Greg Bear or Kim Stanley Robinson. Few any longer equate the virtues of science fiction with the demerits of space opera (indeed, M. John Harrison has enjoyed throwing the two together and watching the explosions in his Kefahuchi Tract trilogy); many writers, however, are still reluctant to uncouple themselves from the generic training wheels.
Such was my skepticism about Rocket Science‘s professed preference, but my hope for its contents. The first story in the volume, Leigh Kimmel’s “Tell Me a Story,” simply teases, however: in it, the classic children’s book The Astronaut and the Man in the Moon is read by a succession of children—the first settling into bed at a point in time close to our own, the last snuggling down on Lovecraft Station in the Kuiper Belt some indeterminate centuries hence. Kimmel’s point ultimately seems to be that the tropes of SF, however hackneyed, will remain with us always: the Lunar module of the picture book speaking to generations of children for whom it is as arcane and distant as a medieval gargoyle might be to us. The juxtaposition of the “fluid watercolour illustrations of the little house of moonbeams” with the “sharp, careful ink, reminiscent of . . . architectural renderings” in which the astronaut is depicted (p. 11), seems central to Rocket Science‘s conception of SF and of science—and yet the volume cheekily sets off with a sort of elegy to the romanticism of a previous age.
This affection for precisely the SFnal inaccuracies Sales purports to eschew is also present in Eric Choi’s “Making Mars a Nicer Place, in Fiction . . . and Fact,” a critical tour around the terraforming sections of the science fiction library. “In some ways, Mars is like a celebrity that one finally meets and discovers is shorter and less attractive in person than on screen,” Choice writes (p. 74), and his contribution proceeds with the same charm and humor, without ever quite deciding if it is science fiction criticism (“Robinson’s idea of altering the physiology of the human settlers to suit the Martian environment harkens back to Frederik Pohl’s novel Man Plus” (p. 85)), or whether instead it wishes to be science-fact corrective (“Perhaps the conclusion of Martyn Fogg’s seminal paper in The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society is a fitting capstone to all of the works of science fiction that have imagined how to make Mars a nicer place” (p. 89)). In fairness, it seeks to be both, but in doing so embodies the dilemma faced by Rocket Science in general.
Consider, for instance, “The Taking of IOSA 2083,” C. J. Paget’s transplantation of the hoary old siege story to space. What about an energetic story which features the Ganymedian Republic and something called a “cubane bomb” can really said to belong to the rigorous collection which also includes Karen Burnham’s gloriously detailed—and thoroughly awe-inspiring—”The Complexity of the Humble Spacesuit” (“In [Low Earth Orbit] sunlight, the temperature can get as high as 121˚C (250˚F), and in the shade it can quickly fall to -157˚C (-250˚F)” (p. 169))? If nothing else, Rocket Science shows how hard it is to write the kind of fiction it evangelizes—the power science fiction has over our technological imaginings, the pull of that wordhoard, is revealed to be strong indeed, with captains, commanders, and control cockpits all raising their regular heads.
Nevertheless, Sales has collected some stories which read like genuine attempts to reimagine science fiction as a literature of the possible rather than the merely plausible. If Craig Pay’s “Incarnate,” one of the collection’s most piquant stories, doesn’t quite fit this model in focusing on human responses to technological developments rather beyond our own current genetic and neurological science (in this case the continual and seamless revival of deceased individuals), and if David L. Clements’s account of his real-life involvement in the launch of a satellite is as gripping as any fiction, it is in the frequent visits Rocket Science makes to our closest interplanetary neighbors that the collection earns the unique place on our shelves it seeks.
In two stories, “Final Orbit” and “Dancing on the Red Planet,” Nigel Brown and Berit Ellingsen respectively posit near-future milestones in space marked by unlikely PR events made possible by simple physics: in the first story, a declining USA abandons space with a silent bang, illuminating Earth’s sky with a huge fireshow in the shape of the stars and stripes, whilst in the second an international team of astronauts arrive for the first time on Mars—and pull clumsy shapes to some of humanity’s finest music, “enjoying the ease of motion” (p. 73). These vignettes represent a sort of realistic wish-fulfillment, a rigorous hoping in the face not just of the technological challenges of spaceflight, but also the political and economic difficulties of our coming century.
Science fiction of the pulp mode was born in an optimistic, growing and aggressively expansionist cultural context: the America which gave rise to Star Trek, however, will not exist for much longer if it still flies its flag at all. “Final Orbit” is an elegy for all this boldly going—”The Chinese had denied it was a deliberate humiliation tactic against the West but, the week the ISS was being sent to destruction, the Chinese were launching a permanent colony to Mars” (p. 47)—and if one ignores the vaguely bitter xenophobia in that passage it’s possible to perceive one of the most interesting aspects of Rocket Science: its change of geopolitical gears. In “Conquistadors,” for instance, Iain Cairns offers, in addition to a rather plainly stated ecological message, a future for Earth’s resources centered on the emergent nations of South America; in the sadly rather shapeless “The New Tenant,” Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon nevertheless looks at what it might mean for the declining orbital resources of states to be sold to private companies; even Sam S. Kepfield’s entertaining and convincing alternative Soviet history, “Not Because They are Easy,” and Sean Martin’s love letter to Sputnik’s Sergei Korolev, “Dreaming at Baikonur,” demonstrate, in looking back at a lost period of space races, an awareness of how politics as much as science has informed and will inform whatever future we face in the stars.
One of the collection’s most inventive stories is Stephen Palmer’s “A Biosphere Ends,” a whodunit featuring an AI as the detective. Set in a future dominated by an increasingly acrimonious relationship between China and Korea, the failure of an attempt to plant a working biosphere on Mars becomes wrapped up in, and slowly eclipsed by, diplomatic wrangling. In this future and many of the others in Rocket Science, technological development is led by geostrategic necessity: “The Korean development of nuclear weapons,” we read, “was as much bravado as anything else; at least initially” (p. 119). When proof that Mars was once home to life is discovered by a nominally multi-national team, the first concern is that “the Koreans would not like the fact that a Chinese had found the fossil” (p. 126). The mixed media of “A Biosphere Ends”—its news bulletin-like sidebars, its transcripts of conversations, its depiction of how an AI might investigate an incident—make it one of the volume’s most memorable stories, but in its recognition of how a radically altered world order will necessarily warp space exploration in ways quite different to the Cold War’s curious stop-start one-upmanship, it is of a piece with the collection’s wider concerns.
For instance, Martin McGrath’s “Pathfinders” returns us again to Mars, and again to an international team of scientists. As in “A Biosphere Ends,” a catastrophe leads to intense political fallings-out: “The Russians hugged one wall, the Americans the other. The Europeans sat at the table. No one spoke” (p. 101). Meanwhile, China is elsewhere, seeking to outdo the rest of the world. There’s something in McGrath’s admittedly tense and well-turned tale, however, which speaks to a weird lack of inclusivity in Rocket Science: not only is China’s emergence as a power in the space game routinely depicted as something to be feared, but space travel is still largely seen as the province of square-jawed men. McGrath attempts to allow space for queer voices—his main character, Chen, is conducting a homosexual affair with one of the Americans—but even this takes place in light of the fact that “Brad was married with children and neither of them had ever pretended that the relationship had a life beyond the mission” (p. 93). Needless to say, things do not end well for the lovers. There is a real clumsiness about McGrath’s efforts which are very much embedded in a broader set of assumptions evinced at almost every stage of Rocket Science, from its characters to its roster of writers, only five out of twenty-two of whom, for example, are women.
In Sales’s defense, he could only pick the best of the stories which were submitted, but this is nevertheless a weirdly old-fashioned collection given its trail-blazing intent. There are, it must be re-emphasised, good stories here: Carmelo Rafala’s “Slipping Sideways” is a beautifully written love triangle featuring the Large Hadron Collider, and Helen Jackson’s “Going, Boldly,” confidently embedded in nerd culture, is a quirky and humorous look at what might dissuade rather than encourage human beings to leave their home (“It’s hardly a good way to start a relationship, all this travel” (p. 165)). There is also, alas, a lot of similar, and some stiff and even clumsy, writing—Rocket Science is not the most exciting collection of short stories you will read this year, much less the most diverse. It is, however, a diverting attempt not so much to reimagine silly old science fiction and its continuing attachment to a Jetsons paradigm, but to consider what spaceflight means to us today, in our changing and challenging world. A new Rocket Science will be needed in due course—perhaps sooner rather than later—to write over the assumptions of this one, but retooling the cosy clichés of SF’s inherited spacefaring imagination is a worthy cause, to be championed, with luck, both more often and ever more successfully.
Dan Hartland blogs at http://thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.