Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Backward Lens of Compromise, by Octavia Cade

★★☆☆☆ Not Recommended

(Science Fantasy) Rosa, an astronomer at a neglected observatory wonders if the transformations she sees under the dome are real or the product of her mental illness. (11,033 words; Time: 36m)

"The Backward Lens of Compromise," by (edited by Sheila Williams), appeared in issue 07-08|18, published on by .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: Much of the science history in the story is accurate. Chandrasekhar really did get racially-motivated pushback over his big discovery.  Henrietta Leavitt really did make major contributions to astronomy despite the serious restrictions a woman scientist labored under in the early 1900s as well as her gradually worsening health. Maria Margaretha Kirch’s story is genuinely sad and disappointing, even though it’s not familiar to most people today.

The parallel between Rosa (who lies to the kids about the observatory being shut down so she can get a job with medical insurance) and Galileo (who lied about his observations to avoid being tortured) is apt and makes her deception seem less of a betrayal. She’s a victim too. It’s gratifying that the kids manage to change her lie into the truth.

Con: The story treats science as mysticism, and that makes it difficult for anyone who takes science seriously to enjoy. For example, I don’t believe Henrietta Leavitt ever imagined that the stars on photographic plates were talking to her, nor did she spend much time wondering what sort of constellation shapes she’d have come up with on her own. And she definitely didn’t think the stars in the sky were in such rapid motion that things changed dramatically from day to day. (Her big contribution was her study of Cepheid variable stars, which do change in brightness [not position] from day to day, but those are rare.)

The bigger message of the story seems to be to rail against the "fact" that only white men are allowed to make discoveries in science—even today—and that’s simply not true. The message that not enough is done in the US to support minority students who want to learn science is a worthy one, but the story hammers at it too hard. Worse, it preaches a gospel of despair, leaving no room for hope at all.

Given all that, the happy ending is hard to believe. The idea that the mayor would be held accountable for his lies seems harder to believe in today’s environment than anything else in the story.

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Octavia Cade Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline

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