In my newest book, story collection The Ship Whisperer, I've added a brief intro to each of the stories, sometimes hinting at their origins. Interviewers or beginning writers often ask about ideas: Where do they come from? How does one distinguish a good idea? How do you see whether an idea is good for a short story or can carry something longer?
The selected intros below don't spell out the answers... but they'll give you a hint.
To See The Elephant
This story began with a zebra finch. More precisely, with me at the “Evolution of Phenotype” class, learning about an interesting piece of research on one particular interesting specimen of zebra finch. I’ll give you the scientific paper reference, but without the title (that would be a spoiler): Agate, Robert J., et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100.8 (2003): 4873-4878.
Imagine listening to a university lecture and getting a story idea. But as it usually is, the result is an amalgam of multiple ideas, from the zebra finch across elephants to wanting to write “something about an animal psychologist”. The genesis of a story is different for each and every author. Some tend to start with characters; a piece of dialogue; building a world; naming spaceships… I can start in any way, although scientific inspiration is one of the usual ways for me. Heroes of “Nightside”, which you’ll encounter later on, can tell.
Animal psychologist Adina Ipolla, ranger Robert Ndiege or the elephant Mgeni don’t have to grapple with such extreme circumstances like them, but their journey is by no means easy…
This story was borne out of a study exercise. A requirement for completing an astrochemistry class I took at the university was to prepare a short talk on a selected topic. A chose atmospheres of exoplanets and what we know about them so far. One planet I focused on was CoRoT-7b, a short-period planet slightly bigger than the Earth. It is likely a chthonian planet—remains of a gas or ice giant stripped of its atmosphere and any other volatiles. What remains is rock and metal, melted on the dayside of the likely tidally locked planet—a world that always faces its sun with one side, with the other drowned in perpetual darkness.
The study I focused on most was Léger et al. (2011), describing the dayside’s lava ocean and its low-pressure rocky vapor atmosphere. Imagine various silicates and ores snowing behind the terminator (edge of the day and night) in a neat natural fractionization by their solidification temperatures. Oh, just imagine the weather forecast on such a planet—the forecast its protagonists Linus and Mirada are getting.
Was there a better possible setting for a next story? As a scientist, I was fascinated by the bizarre world; as an author, I had a place to make the characters truly suffer.
We authors are weird, I know. But you readers seem to like it… so I guess you’re even weirder?
Go on and enjoy it. Linus and Miranda won’t.
Reset in Peace
Ah, Bruges. It’s a magical place (pun intended). Like a fucking fairytale (pun also intended, although this reference will probably only be caught by fellow Martin McDonagh fans).
But it’s not where this story originated.
It was born in Amsterdam, while I browsed its streets with a Mexican conference backpack tossed across my shoulders, severely jetlagged and caffeinated after flying from the IAC in Guadalajara (where “Martian Fever” was born). I started mentally comparing the two Benelux cities during my stroll, and then I sat in the rose garden of Vondelpark and started scribbling the first paragraphs on a coffee bill. Later I sat in a local pub with stew and Amstel and wrote some more. Klaus Voort was born out of a “neither” full of amazing possibilities. Neither a professor nor a businessman, though he looked like that. I’d wondered who he really was… and here you can find out on what option I’d settled.
Dreaming Up The Future
In a way, this story is a wish-fulfillment fantasy and trepidation at the same time for me. I mean, who wouldn’t want improved peer review? Or an automated assistant to scour the databases of scientific papers to see if you’ve missed anything in your manual search?
But would you want an AI to generate hypotheses? Devise ways of testing them? Actually conducting the tests, writing the papers (and excelling at it?) and reviewing them?
While arts and science both belong to fields where human input is unlikely to be replaceable by AI anytime soon, it would be foolish to think that they are forever immune to it. The vision of replacement of humans in science seems definitely dystopian to me, but hopefully we’ll go more in the way of augmentation—working side by side, getting the better of each. That’s more the direction of the following story… which, I admit, I’d like to see happen in the real world.
Soon, perhaps. We’ll see.
I would never have written the following story in my native Czech. You’ll see soon that the protagonist is somewhat distinctive and basically uses three different pronouns—they (most often), he and she. Writing that in English, it sounded completely natural (I hope!). In translating it into Czech, it became a problem. Czech lacks the singular they, and also lacks the option of trying to omit pronouns by saying e.g. “Inspector Gaillard knew there would be trouble. … Gaillard’s experience was different.” In English, you can’t tell the person’s gender from these sentences—but in Czech, the verb you use in a sentence flexes differently depending on the grammatical gender even if you leave out the pronoun, so the gender is always there (and therefore switching pronouns sounds especially weird, not in a good way). Not speaking of the fact that when you use a person’s surname, failing to add the suffix “-ová” to a woman’s surname can sound very strange in Czech, sometimes even to the point of disrupting the reading experience. There were no good solutions, only the task to choose the least wrong option: To switch pronouns anyway? Refer to Gaillard in a neologistic singular they? Use plural they? Use the neutral “it” (not as bad as in English, but still not good)? Change the tense to make it sound less weird?
There is a reason why I enjoyed Ann Leckie’s Radch series much more in the original, even though a very skilled and experienced translator is responsible for the Czech version. No wonder people so rarely conceive stories such as these in Czech. One is temped to think of the weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The language we speak and think in influences the way we act to some extent. I usually find that I’m more open and sociable in English, which lacks the social linguistic nuances such as the “formal you” we have in Czech, German and other languages, and I’ve heard similar statements from others.
I only wish I knew more languages as well as Czech and English. I can easily understand Slovak, but not speak or write in it without sounding like a Czech desperately attempting to speak Slovak. Polish, more distant in the Slavic language family, already eludes me. My German is rudimentary and my attempts at Spanish, Portuguese, French and Russian have always stopped soon. Yet there are many reasons to learn new languages—beside exercising one’s brain and broadening one’s horizons (even to the extent of being able to write something barely conceivable in the native tongue), there are more practical ones too. Like when my luggage got lost in St. Petersburg on a series of flights from Manila to Riga. Neither of the workers at the International Transfer Desk spoke a word of English. We had to try to manage through Google Translate (which didn’t lead anywhere, and I still had no idea where my luggage had gone). The first person I’d found there who spoke English (beautiful BBC English, which had never sounded better!) was the Baltic Air flight attendant. Her voice could have been mana from heaven (but my luggage was still lost).
I swore I’d never travel to Russia without learning the language first.
Note: This intro was partly paraphrased from my contribution to Rachel Cordasco’s academic book on modern translated speculative fiction, Out of This World: Speculative Fiction in Translation From the Cold War to the New Millennium (University of Illinois Press, expected publication in late 2020).
The Symphony of Ice and Dust
I have a fond, nostalgic relationship with this story. In a way, it’s what propelled me to really start writing in English. In spring 2013, I decided to try if I can do it. Once I’d finished it, I sent it to Clarkesworld… and after some anxiety-filled waiting, it was accepted. Beginner’s luck, I guess—but it was great motivation to continue, which ultimately landed me in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Analog and other magazines repeatedly.
I combined two motifs that had occurred to me independently in this story: a ship whose crew’s life purpose is music, and setting a story on the dwarf planet Sedna, whose revolution around the sun takes nearly ten thousand years. Just imagine the exploration missions divided by the vast gap of time…
As Douglas Adams wrote in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.
And it’s true not just about interstellar or even intergalactic distances, but also within planetary systems. Sedna is a prime example of that.
When Mike Brown and his team discovered it back in 2003, it was 90 au from the Sun—ninety times as far from it as the Earth. Thrice as far as Neptune. But on its extremely elongated orbit, it reaches over 940 au away. What could have caused its eccentric orbit? Some options are mentioned in the story. Another appeared a few years ago in a paper by Batygin and Brown: A potential ninth planet on the periphery of our system. Sedna is only one of a larger group of highly eccentric and/or inclined bodies hinting at its presence. However, it hasn’t been spotted yet, and the search continues.
In 2076, Sedna reaches its perihelion and will be “mere” 76 au from the Sun. A wonderful opportunity to send at least a flyby spacecraft there, don’t you think?
Also relatively recently, the New Horizons probe surprised us by magnificent images of Pluto and its moons. No one had expected such a diverse landscape on the icy world before. Pluto has shown us that even objects were far from the Sun can host interesting active geology, caused either by changes of insolation during the eccentric orbit (not speaking of Pluto’s inclined rotation axis), or for instance the presence of a freezing subsurface ocean leaving a thin layer of brine deep within the dwarf planet. Sedna could be a much more extreme case. What would its exploration tell us about the history of the solar system?
One thing is certain: Some people will inevitably be as lured to it as Theodora, Dimitri or the crew of Orpheus, and hopefully, this curiosity will lead to dispatching a mission toward this strange dwarf planet.
I wonder what we’ll see there.