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***This is a Great Fiction Countdown 2015 post. I’ll be reading and responding to a new short story published or reprinted in 2015 every day throughout the month of December. If you have a recommendation, tweet at me or use the contact form.***
“Fun(draising) with Meteoroids” by Sarena Ulibarri
Originally published in Dear Robot: An Anthology of Epistolary Science Fiction, edited by Kelly Ann Jacobson
Pick up a copy here.
Sometimes I struggle with epistolary stories. The rigid formatting often feels contrived, as if the author threw it on top after the fact to artificially differentiate an otherwise bland story. This is not that. There are honest reasons for choosing an epistolary format. In order to harness the form’s potential an author has to use it to explore voice and representation in a way that merges with the plot of the story. I’m delighted to report that Ulibarri’s “Meteoroids” does just that.
This story follows a correspondence between Chad Kohler, a nondescript young male who works for a commercial carpet installation company, and Vicky Siskind, the NEO Public Awareness Manager for NASACorp. Apparently the government space agency of note gained the suffix after going private due to an absolute reduction in federal funds. Sadly, this speculative fate for NASA doesn’t require much of a leap to envision.
Vicky sends the initial missive along with a meteoroid sample to inform Chad that NASACorp’s near earth asteroid program recently spared his home a catastrophic collision, and would he please consider donating to the organization (in increments of $1000). The first letter feels as impersonal and slimy as it sounds.
Ulibarri shows off an impressive wit right from the get go. Chad’s scathing retort to NASACorp’s shameless corporate panhandling is so drenched with sarcasm that you wish you wrote it yourself.
Dear NASA People,
Thanks for the big-ass weird rock, but, no, I will not be sending you a donation. I will also not be returning the rock. Because, really? Who exactly thought this was a good idea?
As the story progresses both characters change their tone, a shift in character that has a palpable affect on the mode and voice of their communications. This is where Ulibarri’s skill at characterization really shines. Presumably fed up with the inane position NASACorp has placed her in, Vicky drops the curated corporate lingo and levels with Chad:
Listen, I get it. To be honest, I fought against this campaign, and so far we haven’t received a single positive response. I knew it was a bad idea when the memo was titled “Fun(draising) with Meteoroids.” I was just impressed they got the term “meteoroid” right.
You can feel Chad’s guilt in his next response and his sarcasm melts away:
I’ve had the weirdest couple of days. I guess I really started to believe that the rock could have been an actual threat. If it had hit, my living room would be a smoldering crater right now.
This feels like a story written for the age of crowdfunding. It’s now become common course for for-profit entities and amateur hobbyists to reach out electronically asking for spare change. In the past we would have called that an investment, and in return the investor would have received equity. Now that investor has been demoted to funder and goes home with “perks” instead of stock. Ten years after graduation, my university still sends me form letters eerily reminiscent of Vicky’s outreach letter even though they know I’m still paying off their first round of extortion. It seems like everyone has grown too comfortable asking for money even though there’s less of it to go around than ever before. Ulibarri expertly pillories the awkwardness inherent to this institutionalized begging.
But there’s another layer of meaning I found in this piece. Chad and Vicky/NASACorp feel like stand-ins for an older debate about the social value of space exploration. NASA was originally devised as a Cold War political volley, a counter to the USSR’s nascent space program. That real military and strategic value made sense to the American public and garnered widespread political support. After perestroika, that support waned and several senators sought to kill NASA. The opposition was not always partisan. One typically thinks of the Republican party as the anti-science party, and that’s usually true, but in this instance some of NASA’s most vocal critics were liberal Democrats concerned that the millions of dollars in the space agency’s budget might be better allocated at home (think public schools, roads and bridges, health care for all). Minnesota progressive Walter Mondale famously mounted perhaps the most aggressive anti-NASA campaign in American political history. The agency survived his assault, but the debate rages on with earthbound politicians sharing Chad’s concerns or at least their public equivalents.
I’ve got a mortgage, I’ve got root canals, I’ve got a bum back from too much heavy lifting. I’ve got *Earth* problems. What the hell do I need to know about some galaxy I’ll never see?
Don’t we all, Chad. An entertaining and thought provoking piece on so many levels.