Inspiration: Shoulders of Giants

To celebrate the release of State, this week I will be posting about the inspiration behind each story. Today, ‘Shoulders of Giants’. There may be spoilers ahead.

State Front Cover‘Shoulders of Giants’ was my second contribution to Fauxpocalypse (the anthology I took over publishing).

I started writing my first submission, ‘Thieves in the Night’, in April 2013 and finished the third draft in mid-May. I hadn’t intended to write a second submission. However, the week Thieves was accepted was the same week that Commander Hadfield posted Space Oddity on YouTube. Which started me thinking about how the crew of the International Space Station might react.

The various space agencies make going into space as safe as they can, but ultimately everyone who does it must have accepted on some level that there is no easy way out if it gets sticky; conspiracy theories about secret military craft reverse-engineered from alien technology aside, there are some potential issues where there is no way to get the crew out of the tiny floating oxygen bubble in the blackness of space. Which meant that the crew of the ISS had already faced up to exactly the same situation, in miniature, as humanity facing the oncoming mega-comet.

So, I decided to write a story about astronauts who stayed on the ISS to gather data until the last moment.

Which became the hardest sci-fi I have ever written; in both senses of the word. The ISS is designed to survive most problems; everything has multiple redundancy. And one of the most obvious risks is debris, so there are even more protections and redundancies there. Which makes it hard to plausibly render uninhabitable at the best of times.

However, I had accidentally made it trickier for myself: the most obvious risk was running out of supplies before rescue happened, but with only two crew remaining (and no good ideas why more of them would) the air and food wouldn’t be an issue for a very long time.

So, I spent days finding every single technical specification I could to come up with a series of problems which could plausibly overcome all the back-ups, and shields, and sheer human ingenuity. And I found a way that wasn’t a series of unfeasible events.

Which was where the real hard work started. The hard end of sci-fi focuses on detail and adherence to physics, but even that is fiction first and science second. I had a plausible narrative for the perfect disaster, but it needed an understanding of astrophysics and engineering to see the threat. So I went through the manuscript over and over, trying to find explanations I could replace with shared nervous reactions, multiple events I could replace with a single conversation about nothing having worked; desperately hoping my knowledge that the plot was based on solid science would show through.

The one thing I didn’t set out to do, which is the second thing most readers say after praising the science, is set out to write a clear counterpoint to ‘Thieves’. Although, having travelled through Jason’s melancholy journey towards a personal faith, I suspect my unconscious was ready for some happy banter and tangible issues.

The title is a counterpoint to ‘Thieves’ though. The story was originally called ‘All Time Low’.

What did you think about ‘Shoulders of Giants’? Is the level of science right?

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