A Reason for Optimism?

MS Convention 2015 Poster by Ed Sludden

Earlier this month I attended the 18th Annual Mars Society Convention, held at the Catholic University of America In Washington D.C.  It was my 7th Convention in 15 years, and much the same as the others in terms of tone and attendance, but I came away from it feeling much more optimistic than I had after past meetings.

Highlights included a visit during the Saturday banquet, via Skype, by The Martian author Andy Weir.  It was fun to hear his perspective on his stunning success of late, and I have high expectations for the film adaptation premiering October 2, though I also had high expectations many years ago when Mission to Mars (blech) and Red Planet (meh) debuted.

What made me more hopeful this year was the sense of modest expectations and goals taking root versus the bold yet unrealistic aim of a full-blown Mars exploration program.  Despite Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars program fading with hardly a whimper, at least in terms of a 2018 launch, support for a near-term Mars flyby is growing and I expect there will be a major push for such a mission in the upcoming election cycle.

A Mars flyby would be a major achievement, again showing the world what America and its allies can accomplish.  While no landing would occur, most of the “dragons” raised to oppose a near-term mission (radiation exposure, long duration life support, psychological challenges, etc.) would be slain in a single mission.  Best of all, compared to other proposed missions, this one could be launched before the end of a president’s second term and could fit well within NASA’s current budget.

Or could it?  Is NASA too bloated and risk-averse to be entrusted with such a task?  Harrison Schmitt, who spoke at the conference as part of a Moon versus Mars debate with Robert Zubrin, advocated the scrapping of NASA in favor of a new, focused agency with an average age of under 30 like the NASA of the 1960s (the average age in Mission Control when Apollo 11 splashed down was 28).  That raises some very interesting questions.  How would this agency be created?  How would NASA be reduced or eliminated simultaneously, to justify it as an offset or a reduction?  Is it even politically feasible, or is it a necessity?

The Adventures of Terra Tarkington

Hard to imagine this book getting published today. Especially if it had been written by a man instead of a woman – The Adventures of Terra Tarkington:

Terra Tarkington, a member of the Interstellar Nurses Corps assigned to a distant outpost in the constellation Taurus to treat the ailments of bizarre aliens, falls in love with dashing Dr. Brian-Scott and becomes a pawn in intergalactic espionage plots involving the KBG and the GIA.

I read this when it came out, having first read the review in Analog. I’ll have to dig out that issue and see what it said, but I don’t recall the reviewer focusing on/obsessing over sexism to the exclusion of everything else in the book a la Liz Lutgendorff. From what I remember, it was actually a silly but clever parody of the “sexy damsel in distress in space” pulp-era stories it appears to embody.

Related Works

When I think of “related work” Hugos, this kind of thing – and not someone’s videoblog/telethon regarding her offendedness at certain video games – is what comes to mind:

The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993

A companion volume to the author’s Island in the Sky, this new book covers 975 science fiction novels, stories, films, and television programs dealing with space stations. Each entry includes complete bibliographical data, and is usually followed by a detailed summary and commentary. A massive guide that will prove to be an invaluable resource for scholars, readers, and libraries interested in fantastic literature.

A work like this takes effort, and actually provides value to the genre as reference material for authors and readers alike.

Liz Lutgendorff Sieves SF/F Classics for Offense

And finds some, of course: I read the 100 “best” fantasy and sci-fi novels – and they were shockingly offensive 

Any more when a Progressive-type says “that’s offensive!” I prepare myself to laugh – their sources of offense have become so contrived and trivial in recent years that this gimmick is now the a setup for a joke, with their description of the purported offense a punch line delivered with a passion and seriousness that transform its simple ridiculousness into sublime absurdity. And when they add qualifiers like “shockingly” to the word to make up via emphasis for the shock value lost to their own chronic overuse, it’s even more lulzy.

Of course these books were shockingly offensive. If they hadn’t tickled her offense-detection lobe, she would have had nothing to say about them. Of course they were shockingly offensive. There is no place for mild disapproval or reasonable pass-giving when an opportunity for self-righteous moralizing is on the line. And of course she knew going in that she would find something to take shocking offense at. She was plainly sifting for outrage rather than giving the list an intellectually honest evaluation.

On the other hand, looking through her reviews of those books with which I am familiar suggests an intellectual evaluation, honest or otherwise, may be a bit much to ask. Don’t take my word for it, enjoy the absurdity for yourself: The List

The prose is that of a sixth-grader’s book reports. Which is no dig at sixth-graders; that quality of prose is fine when it’s age- and education-appropriate. Unfortunately the same can be said for her reading comprehension. I’m suspicious that she didn’t actually read these books, but instead read the Wikipedia plot summaries or simply scanned the e-book versions for certain keywords sure to mark rich veins of shocking offense to mine for her project.

Case in point: her review of The Mote in God’s Eye

It’s bad enough that she read (?) one of the most impressive works of world-building in the SF genre and thought this the most noteworthy part of the experience:

There’s also the delightful exchange between Sally and her alien counterpart talking about birth control. This book was written in 1974. 13 years after the pill was legalised. Yet, Sallys says this:

“But a proper woman doesn’t use them [birth control]. P. 247.

Omg. Fuck off patriarchy.

What’s worse is that she can’t even grasp one of the fundamental fictional premises driving the plot of the book. How rapidly the Moties reproduce and why is of central importance, and the quoted exchange can only be properly understood in the context of that premise. She also fails to understand that after a devastating interplanetary civil war that kills off humans by the planetload, people in this fictional future history might reasonably take a dim view of interfering with the method by which the human population might eventually recover. 

In other words, she is peeved because fictional characters in a story set a couple millennia into the future don’t share her worldview, and she lacks the imagination and empathy to understand these characters’ perspectives and lived experience and that they have valid and world-consistent reasons for their views. I’m not sure whether a feminist exhibiting such attitudes qualifies as irony or hypocrisy, but it’s pretty funny either way. 

(As this post is already running long, I’ll simply note with regards to her so-bad-it-must-be-read-to-be-appreciated review of Out of the Silent Planet that despite not having read it myself, even I know that describing it as “an early attempt at explaining space flight and encountering an alien race” with “some hilariously obvious religious overtones” rather misses the point.)

Ridicule aside, I’m honestly curious what she would make of In the Shadow of Ares. In feminist jargon, the story could be described as an empowered young woman choosing to embark on an adventure of her own design while exploring her own identity, challenging ageist assumptions, and exploding the corrupt lies of the male-dominated power structure in which she is immersed.

I’m sure she’d dismiss it as “misogynist” in some way despite the multiple differentiable and plot-relevant female characters, if for no other reason than that it was written by two straight white men. But hey, we pass her version of the Bechdel Test with flying colors, so…