My Favorite Things with Carey Ballard

They might not be raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens, but that doesn’t mean that we love them any less. Welcome back to My Favorite Things, the weekly column where we grab someone in speculative circles to gab about the greatest in geek. This week, we sit down with Speculative Chic contributor Carey M. Ballard! What does Carey love? Spoiler alert: midnight suns, puzzles for NASA, science fiction shows that don’t deserve to be canceled (no, really), and poets who are also Star Trek geeks. Curious? Read on for more!

Photo Credit: Buddy Nath,

My first favorite thing was August’s Great American Eclipse — the first total solar eclipse to pass over the U.S. since 1979, and that one was seen only in the Pacific Northwest; the rest of the U.S. experienced a partial eclipse. While I had seen a lunar eclipse, specifically a partial lunar eclipse at moonset, and another at moonrise a few years ago, I had never seen a total or even a partial solar eclipse. I live near the path of totality, and the eclipse was all anyone talked about, all summer long. Eclipse viewing glasses were a hot item as well. I took a vacation day on August 21, which turned out to be a fine, clear day. I joined people of all kinds and ages. Some spent two hours gazing up at the sky in wonder. It’s exciting, seeing the moon block the sun, and experiencing midnight in the middle of the day. It’s even better with a crowd. I met a few skeptics, who either hadn’t been able to ignore the buzz, or came to keep their friends company. About the time that only a sliver of sunlight was left, anybody who had been talking just stopped. We could all feel something special was about to happen. The sky turned to early evening; the temperature dropped (thankfully); crickets started chirping. Birds started singing, then went completely silent. Finally the Moon completely blocked the Sun, which meant it was safe to look at without our glasses. This was what we’d all been waiting for. The total solar eclipse was this tiny black dot in the dark-blue sky with short white rays shining around the edges. It was just so beautiful and fantastic. Everybody cheered at the sight of it; that kind of spectacle left everyone in good spirits — even the naysayers. Some people were able to photograph it and do it well. I didn’t try; I’m not great at photography, and I was worried about filters slipping so that I ended up with eye damage instead of a far-less-than-phenomenal memento. If anyone is looking for mementos, check out Dr. Tyler Nordgren. Nordgren is an astronomer who designed “Marsdials” (think sundials) for Mars rovers, and who’s written a book on the history of solar eclipses. He’s also created all sorts of Napoleon-Dynamite-sweet posters that commemorate the solar eclipse (also available as tee shirts, tote bags, and even fabric designs).

Seven years is enough time to figure out solar photography, right? I’m taking cues from Imelda Joson & Edwin Aguirre’s article on solar eclipse photography, and making plans to view (and photograph!) the next U.S. total eclipse in 2024.

I’m sure it’s also enough time for me to put together a few puzzles I bought earlier this summer. I like putting puzzles together, but I tend to consider ones that I might like to hang as wall art. (I like to feel that I accomplished something, okay?) I’d finished my very first solo 1000-piece puzzle and glued it for hanging, so I was in search of my next challenge when I saw The Grand Tour as a puzzle. Next to it stood Visit Mars as a puzzle.  You’d probably know these images by sight, especially if you’re a nerd.  In early 2016, the graphic design team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released a set of fourteen Visions of the Future travel posters for faraway worlds. These ingenious, imaginative posters encourage space tourists to visit Mars, Kepler-16b, Ceres, Titan, et al, or take a grand tour of the outer planets in our solar system. The best part? They are all free. JPL NASA hopes to inspire the next generation of explorers and scientists by providing the art and the downloads. Users are free to print however many they want and however they like. My course in life is already set, but I printed out a few myself. No scifi writer’s office is complete without gorgeous travel photos of alien planets.

Out of the entire poster campaign, “Mars” and “The Grand Tour” were two of my favorites. So I may have screamed just a tiny bit when I saw them on the shelf. Nerd heaven! But the puzzle shop did not have any other JPL puzzles. I came home and looked up the New York Puzzle Company to see if there were any more, and which JPL posters might have been adapted to puzzles. Not all of them would make good puzzles — some, like Titan, would be downright infuriating, and others, like Trappist 1e, have a lot of blank space in the design. I was happy to discover two more puzzles: Kepler 16b, and another called Farmers Wanted, which isn’t in JPL’s collection. I did a bit of research and found it belongs to a different set of NASA posters: Mars Explorers Wanted, originally developed in 2009 for a display at the Kennedy Space Center, and, I suspect, re-released around the time The Martian hit movie theaters last year. These posters are just as imaginative and playful as the JPL set.

I bought the other two puzzles. They will all look great on my office walls, right next to the Nordgren eclipse prints.

Speaking of space travel, Dark Matter just got canceled. DAMN YOU SYFY! I am very sad, because it was shaping up to an explosive fourth season. I own the series, so I can console myself by rewatching it (as I do Farscape). The premise followed six people who awaken on a spaceship with their memories wiped, only to find out they are regarded throughout the galaxy as fearless mercenaries for hire. The crew often pulled odd jobs just to make a buck and fill the galley cupboards, and in the process, eventually reinvented themselves as do-gooders, while making uneasy peace with their pasts — but sometimes that mystery wasn’t enough to keep viewers interested. It’s a great premise for a science fiction show, but in practice it meant people had a tough time connecting to characters who didn’t yet know who they were themselves, so the first season and a half was pretty rocky for both actors and viewers.  I liked it, mostly because I liked Zoie Palmer (Lost Girl) as the Android running the ship; because I’d liked Roger Cross in Continuum; because the crew included more people of color than usual and gave them voices; because more than a few episodes passed the Bechdel test, and some achieved or surpassed gender parity; and because I’m a total sucker for shows where people with vastly different backgrounds have to work together (I am so looking forward to Star Trek: Discovery).

As a series, Dark Matter owes a lot to Firefly and Farscape; its universe was gritty, industrial and corporate, and the crew often found themselves either on the run or caught in a war between the Galactic Authority, mining conglomerates, and spacefaring empires. Dark Matter tackled all the scifi tropes — overreaching authoritarian regimes; space traders out to make a buck; war between empires; conflict between conglomerates; corporate science; secret cyborg armies; androids v. humans; time travel; a variation on FTL travel called the blink drive; even parallel universes, body doubles, and mind-controlling aliens. It really had a lot going for it.

My favorite character is Three, the “scruffy nerfherder” of the Raza, played by Anthony Lemke, because he has undergone the most change. Out of all the crewmembers on the Raza, he best embodies the conflict between his past, his present, and his future (and his parallel universe body double). In the beginning, he’s a wisecracking asshole who doesn’t care about anything other than money or anybody except himself (“When you say grateful, what kind of gratitude are we talking about?”); by Season 3, he’s the loveable wisecracking jackass, who’s still out for money, but has expanded his self-first philosophy to a Raza-first philosophy. He’s also wracked with guilt; Three discovered that his previous mercenary activities caused the death of his wife — who, in a twist, is revived first as a cybernetic consciousness, giving him a chance at redemption, then as an android, recruited to the brewing android revolt (I told you this show was going places).

Image taken from TV Fanatic

This brings me to my next-to-last current favorite thing. Episode 3.4, “All The Time in the World,” showcases Three’s humor, sensitivity and complexity in what could have been a requisite time-loop episode. Time-loop episodes are a staple of all science fiction shows, but it’s not easy to do them well anymore.  Halfway through an, ahem, “standard” time-loop, the stuck person decides to do what they want, because the only consequence is waking up and repeating the same day all over again. But 3.4 starts in media res; Three’s obstacle is not discovering he is experiencing a time-loop, but proving it to the crew. He enlists the Android to teach him about her recent repairs to the ship, but day after day, he messes up the technobabble. Three next asks her for an adrenaline shot, thinking that if he doesn’t sleep, time will start moving forward again. In the process of staying awake, he annoys a particular crew member in the wee hours of the morning: “Go bother someone else.” “I can not bug anyone who can knock me unconscious. That leaves you.” Finally he gets the Android to teach him French. She talks to him in French while repairing the ship, so Three ends up absorbing both the French and the technobabble in French. (Fun fact: Anthony Lemke speaks French, but Zoie Palmer does not, so he taught her the French to make the scenes work.) After he proves to the crew what’s been happening, they try to help him get unstuck. Three attempts to change his routine and visits his wife’s cybernetic consciousness — after which he discovers an assassin on board the ship. Next port of call? Getting the crew to believe he’s stuck in a time-loop AND that there is an assassin on the ship. And then the show ups the ante by getting a second crew member stuck in the time loop. They defeat the assassin (in an homage to Star Wars) and get out of the time loop — but not before the Android herself ends up jumping into the future as a teaser of things to come.

The hallmark of a good time-loop episode is how funny they are, how they are resolved, or how much character development they put on display, usually from a character who’s rather one-sided. “All the Time in the World” hits all of those marks. As time-loop episodes go, this could be its own time-loop; I’ve already watched it three times.  (For hilarious highlights, watch After Dark, the Dark Matter talk show hosted by Zoie Palmer.)

Photo Credit: Mike Katzif/NPR

Last, but definitely not least, is the rewardingSet Phasers to Poem,” or NPR’s episode ofAsk Me Anotherwith poet Rita Dove, at the Virginia Literary Arts Festival. Dove, on faculty at the University of Virginia, was the first African-American woman and the first woman to serve as the U.S. Poet Laureate. She has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry, and she’s also a total Star Trek: The Next Generation fan. So the showrunners tailored famous poems to Star Trek trivia and quizzed her on them. The result is hilarious and worth a listen both to Dove, who’s entertaining as all get-out, and to the poem-parodies themselves.  You can read the transcript here, but I highly recommend listening to the whole episode.

Those are my current faves! Tell me what you think, or tell me yours — I’m always looking for more!

Carey M. Ballard delights in sniffing books and telling people where to go. These activities often coincide with wandering the Midwest and snapping the best ill-timed photos ever. Carey thinks Chris Evans makes the best-ever Captain America and that Captain Janeway was totally badass, can’t wait for the Black Panther film, loved Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman film, and thinks that the world needs a Black Widow film series, now.


  • Shara White September 19, 2017 at 9:24 pm

    I have so much love for those NASA JPL posters. SO MUCH LOVE. And the eclipse was gorgeous. I feel so fortunate to live where we had 100% totality!

    • Carey Ballard September 20, 2017 at 10:09 am

      Yes! Same here. That eclipse was gorgeous. There’s a guy who wrote a book about “eclipse chasers”–people who travel around the world to see eclipses–and I did not understand that pull before. I do now (although I’m not headed to Brazil anytime soon)!

      I adore those JPL travel posters. There are so many to choose from!


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