We’ll call this a series. I’ve been making notes on how I came to discover that I wanted to be a science fiction writer so that I might share that story with you all at some point. I ask the question of origin in my interviews and I always find the answers fascinating. So I was laying on the couch with the dachshund, thinking about Rome, and wondering if sleep was a near-at-hand possibility and as it is not, I’ve decided to take a break from lists and share a bit about my own journey toward writing science fiction. Like most great life journeys, it begins in childhood.
I grew up in a spaceport. That’s what Cocoa Beach was after all. As a little kid I would play in the sand on the beach and look north to where a thin arm of land reached out into the sea and I knew that was where the rockets were. I remember my mother waking me up in the still dark hours of the morning and telling me it was time and I would put on a shirt and shorts and groggily climb up the trellis to the roof and watch the shuttle turn the dark horizon
momentarily to daylight. I would watch the news for launch notices. I had a photo of the shuttle landing on the back of the 747 on my wall. One birthday I got to go out onto the cape and visit the launch pads, see the crawler and the weather planes. The shuttle was encased in a cocoon of steel and pipe with only the left wing poking out. I was mightily disappointed. For me the shuttle was best seen as an almighty torch, the ultimate symbol and manifestation of humanities struggle to light the darkness forever- from fire to fire.
I loved the beach at Patrick Air Force Base. The old coral reefs, ancient relic reefs really, stuck out of the water and at lowest tides the pools they formed teamed with life, the missile like shadows of small fish, crabs, once even and octopus. The jets would roar overhead, and the cape was so close. I would sometimes walk out in the water as far as I could and imagine that there was no beach behind me, tethering me to the world. In those times I thought about space, what it would be like to turn your back on earth and imagine it gone forever.
The John Young science center was not far away and, as most science centers are really just cheap light shows that trick parents into thinking they’re educational so that they’ll spend three dollars (1980) on Neapolitan astronaut ice cream, I spent as much time as possible in the
mock-up of the Apollo command module. There was a something electric in the click of the toggle switches that filled the forward space in such profusion. I imagined what it would be like to know the systems, to make them work. I also got a lot of astronaut ice cream.
My last summer in Cocoa I lived on the island with my dad. He was the project manager on one of the great mile and half long span bridges connecting the mainland to the barrier islands that string south of the cape. His office was quite literally on a tiny island in the middle of the vast Indian River. I spent that summer fishing, throwing my nets, and digging clams while just to the north of me the engineers were trying to figure out why the great torch of technology had just exploded in the sky. The Challenger, and the tragically mundane cause of its demise, forced a major reorientation in thinking at NASA, and it caused me to question the capability of human technology to save us. Nuclear holocaust, a fear that many of my friends suffered under, did not bother me until that summer. The jets from Patrick, the satellite payloads, it all turned sinister after that. These perceptions of the world don’t logically conclude in one another, I know, but to a child the logic of order and reason finds its own path, its own reasons. That summer, that last summer, I changed from an innocent weaned on Apollo, into a much more weary child of technology. The magic of space was bound to disappoint. The great things were no longer attempted. Mercury, Gemini, Apollo the old gods- but my god was just a shuttle.
This is origin story material. We all have it. Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth can easily find thematic roots in Tevis’ own relocation from a seaside existence in San Fransisco to rural Kentucky at age eleven. It was a move that left the author feeling isolated and out of place much like his protagonists in Fell to Earth, and the earlier novel The Hustler. Outsiders that survive by their wits and native strength, these are themes in the experience of that writer. I have my own themes, primarily they involve false metaphysics and the search for transcendence within a technological landscape… also lots of stuff about dark eldritch horrors, but my origin tale is not finished. So this will be my advice for the writer, old as Greece, Know Yourself. Ask the question, tell yourself your own origin story and figure out where you came from. There are themes in there and you need to find them. It is a level of self awareness that will aid your writing. My faith in human artifice came into question because a shuttle exploded- and at the same time my nuclear family life was going nuclear. The walls came tumbling down, and all I got was a bunch of pathos to draw on. Great stuff!
Today I hear that NASA is scrapping its return-to-the-moon Constellation vehicle program. I suppose this means the Ares rocket is gone too. The only rocket capable of interplanetary travel was the Saturn V rocket which, amazingly, NASA threw away the plans for. So the Ares was to be the first interplanetary capable vehicle since Saturn. What a great thing to have on hand. Instead, NASA is going to focus on new technology and utilize, “private sector space flight” for its missions. Thank you for taking away the dream- you Princes of accrued accounting, you kings of bean counting. Instead of a new god, we get Richard Fucking Branson.