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Ariel Waldman’s book ‘Out There’ feels like a commercial for her YouTube channel

It is all too easy to reach the edges of human understanding, but people shy away from that terrifying thought. Instead, we mostly huddle around the small fires of our tribal truths and yell into the darkness.

That’s why curious, brave people like Ariel Waldman are so important. There are many ways to describe the creative work she does in imagining what is beyond our world or below our feet and representing it in print, on screen and in committee (including for NASA), but few descriptions capture it as well as her showreel caption: “space activist and author.”

Out There

In Out There: The Science Behind Sci-Fi Film and TV, Waldman engages with 19 different topics facing science and the imagination as soon as we think about space exploration. In each capsule chapter she breaks opens the topic and raises questions that her guests then respond to in the following dialogue. These expert guests discuss topics as diverse as spacesuit design, loneliness, and alien language and, as a result come from backgrounds in fashion, fiction, NASA, and cognitive neuroscience.

The book explores the gap between what we know about space exploration from (mostly) American science fiction movies and what we know about space exploration from science. Although actual science informs a lot of science fiction, much of it is only speculatively related and even those works of fiction that were careful with their science can now be quite outdated.

Dr. Mae C. Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel into space, wrote the foreword. She hits the nail on the head explaining the need for Waldman’s entire career, but specifically in talking about the book she says: “By and large, the story being delivered by NASA and the news media wasn’t nearly as compelling as what’s found on page and screen. That’s why this book is so exciting.”

In some ways space is a safe place to be ignorant: To quote former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, it’s a “known unknown.” At the same time, though, national space programs — unlike space shows — have been the elite preserve of white men. As Jemison points out, despite a “progressive shift… only about 11 percent of all astronauts have been women, and only about 4 percent of all American astronauts have been Black.”

What Waldman and Jemison find exciting is the possibility of inviting everyone to visit this frontier of imagination and knowledge. And, as NASA astrobiologist Dr. Chris McKay points out — in projecting his experience of Antarctica onto the fields of Mars – teamwork and an ability to bring together diverse skill sets is primary, “What matters most is how well the team comes together when things go bad, and they always go bad.”

Of course, every time the book starts talking about what’s out in the rest of the universe or how we might manage to head out into the cosmos to explore, it ends up talking about human nature and the strangeness of the world we actually live in. But, though Waldman is fascinated with the alien nature of Antarctica and though satire is often the point of the science fiction films she discusses–criticism of a fascist state on Mars is still criticism of a fascist state–our actual world is not the focus of Other Worlds.

The only drawback, really, to this collection is the brevity of each chapter. There’s barely time to scratch the surface of the technology, the ethics, significant distinctions, or other substantial aspects of the topics raised. For example, in the “Cyborg” chapter, there’s barely time to mention Star Trek’s Mr. Data and the Borg, Doctor Who’s Cybermen and Daleks, Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons, River Tam from Firefly and Serenity, let alone anything more than a quick nod to Westworld and Black Mirror, or discuss the ramifications or representations of androids, cyborgs, or augmented people in any way.

In its superficiality, the book feels like an ad for–or a summary of–Waldman’s Offworld show on YouTube. And, like the book, Offworld itself, often feels like an ad for the science fiction shows and movies it discusses. It’s not surprising, though, that our attention veers back from science to fiction because as Dr. Jemison points out, those are the professionally compelling narratives.

It feels mealymouthed to wish that, given the topics and the commentators (including, among the astrobiologists and entomologists, Adam Savage from MythBusters and Annalee Newitz from Our Opinions Are Correct) the book was twice the length. But, Waldman had all the people and all the questions – why only write a measly 130 pages?!


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Dan Friedman

Dan Friedman is the former executive editor of the Forward and the author of an ebook about Tears for Fears, the 80s rock band. He has a PhD from Yale and writes about books, whisky and the dangers of online hate. Subscribe to his newsletter.

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