Boldly Writing What I Hadn’t Written Before: Science Fiction – The New York Times


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When Mary Robinette Kowal asked me to help write a fictional space news story for her latest novel, I was happy to pitch in. It turns out painting Tom Sawyer’s picket fence is pretty fun.

Credit…Robert Beatty

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I’m a character!

I mean, in a novel. OK, a minor character, more like a cameo, but still — my name is the first that you see in the first chapter of “The Relentless Moon,” the new novel in Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Lady Astronaut” science fiction series. The novels are set in an alternate timeline that has the world, after a devastating meteorite strike and the resulting runaway global warming, greatly accelerating its space program to get humans off the doomed planet.

John Schwartz, Special to the National Times
KANSAS CITY, March 28, 1963 — If all goes as it should — and in space, that is no sure thing — then sometime today, thirteen brave voyagers will cross a Rubicon that no man ever has: the halfway point between our home planet and Mars.

Ms. Kowal, who has won Hugo and Nebula awards and who is president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, makes her novels something of a group project by relying on the expertise of others for thorny passages: She gets help with orbital mechanics and spacecraft piloting, for example, from actual astronauts. She puts the names of real people into her work, including astronauts.

But she tucks in other names, as well. Reporters in her novels are sometimes named for real people. The legendary New York Times science writers John Noble Wilford, Robert Reinhold and Gladwin Hill are among the authors of the news stories that she has stitched into her narrative; some of the articles were adapted from actual stories they wrote, she told me.

Real reporters show up in fiction more often than you might think: Harrison Salisbury of The Times has a cameo in the delightful Amor Towles novel “A Gentleman in Moscow.” In one of my favorite examples, the Washington Post reporter Ken Ringle’s last name appeared in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, as the name of a speedy little schooner beloved by Jack Aubrey. Mr. O’Brian must have really appreciated that profile that Mr. Ringle wrote of him.

So how’d I end up in an astronaut novel set just a few years after I was born? It started in the Caribbean. I’d met and interviewed Ms. Kowal aboard the JoCo Cruise, a grand gathering of nerds I wrote about last year. We stayed in touch.

One evening in October, she contacted me through a private message on Twitter: “Oh, I named a reporter after you in the new book,” she wrote. “I should have checked. Is that okay?”

I replied, “I love it!” I’m a science writer, and I’ve always loved science fiction. The opportunity to be a part of it, even in a minor way, enticed me.

Ms. Kowal then said she had been thinking about asking real reporters if they wanted to try writing the news stories in her novels, though she added, “I just realized that looks like a veiled ask.” I told her if it was a request, my answer was yes. We talked about what she needed: a news article that picked up the story of the astronauts from the second novel in the series. As the new novel begins, they’re halfway to Mars.

I started spinning out sample lines from a news story that might have appeared in the 1960s, relying on my close reading of old clips and persona paraphrase, or verbal mimicry — along with references to the first two novels, which I had enjoyed. She loved it. I polished up that piece, as well as another one about melting ice in Greenland revealing the body of an early 20th-century explorer, Alfred Wegener, who had died during an expedition in 1930. Several months later, Ms. Kowal sent a copy of the first chapter.

Ms. Kowal told me that putting real people into fictional works “has a long history in science fiction and fantasy,” and even has a name: “Tuckerization,” for the author Wilson Tucker, who frequently gave minor characters the names of his friends. Today, many science fiction writers put each other in their books as a kind of inside joke; John Scalzi’s latest novel, “The Last Emperox,” includes a “Captain Robinette” named for Ms. Kowal. (Very bad things happen to him, which Ms. Kowal finds amusing.) The philanthropic group Worldbuilders (“Geeks doing good”) auctions Tuckerizations to attract donations for its causes. Ms. Kowal said she kept a spreadsheet to track her Tuckerizing obligations, “otherwise I would just lose track completely.”

Now that the book is out, I got to read the whole thing. It’s great, and I’m not just saying that because I’m in it. One thing I absolutely loved about it: Because it’s an alternate history set in the early 1960s, there was no Apollo 1 fire; that occurred in 1967. The three astronauts who died in that tragedy in real life, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, are part of the space program in the novel — and they get to the moon. That plot point choked me up a little; it’s my second-favorite detail in the book.

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