The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space:
a Collection of Stories by Pippa Goldschmidt
Freight Books, 2015; 178 pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
I like to imagine that what differentiates astronomers from other scientists is their determination to only announce findings that are inherently evocative. It’s certainly unfair to cancer researchers that most people would find a comparative analysis of genomes to be more overwhelming than enthralling. What scientist wouldn’t prefer to study the data from NASA’s New Horizons probe and be the first to announce that tholin particles scatter pale blue light in Pluto’s atmosphere and turn parts of its icy surface red? Any audience of laymen would be captivated by the awesome prospect of a sunset that burns blue. Or perhaps that’s just the experience of this layman. There’s no question that Pippa Goldschmidt’s professional background as an astronomer triggered my interest in her fiction. However, I am pleased to discover that Goldschmidt isn’t content to let the cosmos do the heavy lifting in her first short story collection, The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space.
Early in the collection, she introduces readers to Catherine, member of the team of scientists that has tracked what will be the “closest documented near-miss yet by an asteroid.” Catherine is one of several characters in this collection to be underwhelmed by her profession, despite the awesome knowledge it yields. When her colleagues nominate her to represent their team in media interviews, Catherine seems to resent the way they look at her. She notes that looking at objects is “what they all do, as part of their work.” Most of Goldschmidt’s female scientist characters, whether they tend to be bold or timid, experience this kind of objectification. As a result, it’s not difficult to take this collection as an indictment of the scientific community that is in many ways still struggling to accept women into its ranks. However, Goldschmidt is clearly concerned with much more than the effects of sexism. If this collection is organized by a primary theme, I believe it’s the one suggested by the title.
The narrator of “The voice activated lift” isn’t a scientist as much as she is a bored bureaucrat who’s been tasked with writing a report proposing a legal definition for the term “outer space.” Or, as the narrator puts it, “The managers and the Minister need to know where outer space is so they can regulate it. All I can say for certain is that outer space is a long way above this Government department.” Goldschmidt enjoys playing with the idea that our fundamental questions about the universe can be either profound or absurd depending on the context of the lives we lead. She writes often about gifted scientists with toxic professional relationships and bureaucrats who use science only to advance their petty interests. Government officials are usually portrayed either as bumbling functionaries or sinister agents of oppression. The latter tend to appear in Goldschmidt’s forays into historical fiction. These stories center around geniuses who have complicated relationships with government, such as Bertolt Brecht, Alan Turing, and Robert Oppenheimer.
The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space is a surprising story collection more notable for its abrupt tonal departures than its obvious themes. Like the universal laws she often draws on for inspiration, Goldschmidt’s writing can be both dynamic and dispassionate, fearlessly illuminating some realities while only suggesting the deeply mysterious nature of others. The titular story, which reads like an astronomer’s fever dream, probably best embodies the ambivalent nature of this collection. It’s a piece of flash fiction in which all of the satellites and vessels humanity has launched into orbit begin crashing back to Earth in a steady deluge, prompting the narrator to wonder “why it had been so important to launch a coffee cup or a retractable pencil into outer space in the first place.” I get the distinct impression that this question reflects a nagging disillusionment, as if charting the cosmos sustains the human need for order but sadly does nothing to alleviate it.