Launched at Eastercon 2012, Rocket Science is not a traditional science fiction anthology. None of the featured writers are well known, but all are previously published and many have worked in space science or related fields, but the oddity in this collection, focused on the immediate past, present and future of space travel within our own solar system and staying within the limits of possibility, is that there are also a handful of essays written to the same specification.
It is inevitable attention will focus on our most accessible and hospitable neighbour, though the three authors who target Mars choose different approach vectors. Berit Ellingson’s lighthearted Dancing on the Red Planet captures the serious man’s fear of ridicule, but while the capsule arrives at its destination, the story fades just as the music starts; conversely while The Brave Little Cockroach Goes to Mars opens without enthusiasm, Simon McCaffery manages to shift trajectory to a satisfying destination, though more clarification of the resolution would have been helpful.
Mars is also the setting for A Biosphere Ends by Stephen Palmer, a fascinating archive from the records of a smart, driven and wilful artificial intelligence assigned to investigate the total loss of an outpost. Apparently similar to that is the clever misdirection of Martin McGrath’s Pathfinders, though that story gives no clear answers, only sadness, with resolution only through acceptance of the inevitable.
While Helen Jackson’s Earthbound Going, Boldly is a simple story of the conflict between the desire for change and the need for familiarity, other stories move further in search of resources, from local asteroids, inhabited comets and the fearsome desolation of the Kuiper belt, though Deborah Walker excavates a story of genetics, biochemistry, solar flares and fractured relationships from the more achievable lunar surface in Sea of Maternity.
It is not only the varying distance from Earth that sets some of these stories apart, as there is also a consideration of how far beyond known science each ventures, though the key technology of Craig Pay’s Incarnate is related to information rather than space travel, an abrupt and graphic tale of sorrow and loss. Equally radical is Slipping Sideways by Carmelo Rafala, a splendid example of how to tell a big story in a small space, pulling in parallel universes, betrayal, loss and second chances in five pages.
While bold imaginings of science fiction and the factual requirement of essays may seem uneasy bedfellows, the story of space is so exciting that on the whole they work well together, the essays enhancing the stories and demonstrating the importance of research in science fiction. Eric Choi’s Making Mars a Nicer Place balances an overview of Mars in literature and the story of the various probes and autonomous expeditions sent there, and while it points out many flaws in fictional strategies to terraform the Red Planet, it does so affectionately and knowledgably, with a strong focus on Robinson’s Red/Green/Blue trilogy and Pohl’s Mining the Oort and Man Plus/Mars Plus. Similarly, Bill Patterson illuminates the serious subject of dangerous radiation in A Ray of Sunshine, quoting Asimov, Michener, Clarke and Niven.
Unfortunately, there are also those who do not seem to know which side of the fence they wish to sit on, such as David L Clements with the empty narrative of Launch Day, the conceit of first person perspective adds nothing to the description of a satellite project which would have been more welcome as a comprehensive essay than a failed story, but it is preferable to Waverider Entry Spacecraft: A History, where Duncan Lunan recounts every meeting and diversion of sixty years of his specialist subject, but never gives a clear explanation of the innovation he is promoting, his prose failing to recreate his obvious enthusiasm in the reader as a consequence.
Because of the specificity of the guidelines, there are instances where two authors have approached the mandate with the same idea in mind, and inevitably, one will suffer in comparison, like Dr Philip Edward Kaldon’s The New Tenant. It is not a bad story of the possible final days of the International Space Station, but it is marred by odd choices; when asked to track a tsunami, rather than staying with the emergency, our protagonist becomes more involved with her restored internet access, and the story never returns to what to the reader is a more immediate concern.
Alternatively, while Nigel Brown’s Final Orbit is slow to take off, mired in tedious “I know the deckplans of the ISS” detail before jumping to an extreme conclusion unsupported by events in order to justify the narrator’s extra vehicular excursion for a tour of the exterior of the module, it surprisingly manages not only to rationalise what has happened, but to conclude with an emotional firecracker that celebrates the achievement of our species in space.
Even if Dreaming at Baikonur had been the only story telling the space race from the Russian point of view, Sean Martin’s offering would still be a chore. The chronicle of suffering of a Soviet scientist in brutal exile is a wilfully drab catalogue of torment and deprivation and, told as it is by a framing story of the same scientist at Gagarin’s launch, entirely redundant, as the outcome is already somewhat well known. Enjoy instead the twists and bluffs of Sam S Kepfield’s alternative history in Not Because They Are Easy, told through documents, interviews and transcripts.
Overall, the quality of the writing is consistently high, and while no authors immediately demand their other work should be sought out, only the individual responsible for the infantile Why Barnaby isn’t Aboard the ISS Today apparently wishes to end his career here. For the most part, this is a collection that looks beyond our world and the borders that govern it today, encompassing astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts and all who will one day come to call the wider solar system their home.
Rocket Science is now available from Mutation Press, and also features contributions from Karen Burnham, Leigh Kimmel, Iain Cairns, CJ Paget and Stephen Gaskell