What does it take to write a story set in space?

Those of us who make our living as writers know the basics of storytelling: plot, character, conflict, build-up, crisis, resolution. With those tools in our kit, we can tackle any project. So telling a story that just happens to be set in space should be a piece of cake. Just move your usual characters onto a spacecraft or space station, pit them against an antagonist, and churn out your story. Easy, right?

Well, maybe if you’re writing a space opera in which real science and technology takes a back seat. In space opera, a writer’s only limit is his imagination. Space stations with artificial gravity? No problem. Spacecraft that travel at warp speed? No problem. Transporters and death rays? Old hat. Readers aren’t going to question the technology because they understand it’s all speculative. Readers are willing to suspend disbelief and accept that the Starship Enterprise and the Millennium Falcon are possible because they understand that technology isn’t the point. The story is, and any writer can tell a story.

But what if you are writing a space story set in the present or near future, a story told within the confines of real science, and your story is about the technology? That challenge requires far more than just a writer’s imagination; it requires a working knowledge of what’s possible and what’s not. Suddenly you’re not just writing a story — you’re also writing about, and translating, science. This is something you don’t pick up by just surfing the internet. It requires months, if not years, of specific research. Even with my advanced degree in science, the prospect was more than just daunting — it was frightening.

But that was precisely my challenge a decade and a half ago, when I wrote my book GRAVITY. In a 1999 interview with Barnes and Noble, I described how I approached the research. Here’s an excerpt from that interview:

Barnes & Noble.com: Tess, thanks for taking the time to share with us some of your thoughts and experiences with regard to your latest thriller, Gravity. The concept you’ve created here is both fascinating and horrifying and utilizes science from the fields of molecular biology, virology, medical technology, space exploration, and marine biology, to name a few. It appears you’ve done a great deal of homework researching both the facts and the possibilities. Without giving away the true horror behind the menace in Gravity, can you speculate on just how feasible the scenario you created might be in real life?

Tess Gerritsen: When I wrote Gravity, my No. 1 goal was to create a scenario that was completely plausible. With that in mind, I made certain that everything that goes wrong aboard the space station actually could go wrong in real life, from the escape of the organism into the space station’s air to the series of disasters that befall the station and later the orbiter, to the political crisis that envelops NASA as a result…
The details about NASA, the shuttle, and the space station were all based on months of research and conversations with NASA sources. The space station in Gravity is based on the blueprints of the actual International Space Station, which is now being launched in increments. The details about environmental control, orbital docking, commercial rockets, EVA’s are all based on fact. The book has since been read by a NASA engineer and a flight surgeon, and both of them have told me how amazed they are that I managed to get it right. As the engineer said about my scenes in Mission Control, “I’ve been there, done that, and that’s how it is!”

bn.com: It’s certainly effective! You’ve combined some very graphic horror — such as dead bodies, blood and guts, and a few hair-raising descriptions of some pretty nasty ways to die — with cerebral horrors like the anticipation of certain death, isolation, loneliness, helplessness, and fighting an enemy one can neither see nor understand. So what scares Tess Gerritsen?

TG: Airplanes! Heights! I’m definitely a land-based humanoid.

bn.com: Several of the characters in Gravity have had a lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut and traveling the stars. Would you go to space if you were given the chance?

TG: Okay, I confess. Despite my fear of heights, I wanted to be an astronaut! I think most of us have had that dream, especially those of us who spent many happy hours as children watching Star Trek… I can also say that the risks would make me think long and hard about it. Space is not a place for amateurs and certainly not a place for starry-eyed novelists. It takes training and skills to be an astronaut. To say that anyone can just strap himself or herself in and lift off is like saying anyone can perform brain surgery in ten easy lessons. Space travel, as it now exists, is a job for professionals.

bn.com: By placing a lot of your action on a space station where help and rescue are days away, escape is impossible, and the lack of gravity adds a new layer of terror to some of the more graphic scenes, you add a whole new dimension to the “ordinary” horrors of medicine and science run amok. Where did you get the idea to combine all these elements?

TG: I’ve always been fascinated by the space program. I vividly recall hearing the broadcast of Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon, and even now, just thinking about that moment can still bring tears to my eyes. Then, about two years ago, I was traveling in Europe when I heard news about the collision between Progress and Mir. I remember thinking: Three men are about to die up there. And it occurred to me that that must be the ultimate horror, to be facing the prospect of your own death, trapped in space, while the whole world can follow the final moments of your life. With more research came more elements of horror: What is it like to die of explosive decompression? How do you deal with a medical emergency in weightlessness? What happens to blood as it pours out of an exsanguinating body in a space station? Earthbound horrors are magnified in the hostile environment of space.

bn.com: They certainly are! Your descriptions of the way things behave in a weightless environment (some of them things we wouldn’t want to encounter in any environment!) were very vivid and often quite spooky. What sort of research did you do to create those scenes?

TG: I read everything there was to read about life in microgravity. I read astronauts’ accounts, NASA reports, space medicine textbooks. I combed research publications about microbial and tissue culture behavior in space. I spoke to flight surgeons about emergency medicine in orbit. After a while, I actually began to dream about weightlessness (those were amazing dreams, too!), and when writing a scene that takes place aboard the station, it became second nature to me to envision everything without gravity. After I finished the book, it took months for those dreams of weightlessness to go away.

bn.com: Obviously there was a lot of hard work and lengthy research that went into the writing of this book. What parts of the writing process were the most fun? And which parts were the most drudgery?

TG: The research for Gravity was absolutely the most fun part of creating the story. Since I have such a deep interest in the space program, digging into the details of NASA was like playtime for me. Getting the inside tour of Mission Control, having the chance to talk to people at Johnson Space Center — these are the sorts of experiences that remind me how lucky I am to be a writer!

For those of you who are interested in science-y novels like GRAVITY, I can recommend a particularly fun book that recently came out: THE MARTIAN, by Andy Weir. While it is speculative (it’s set in the future, when we have manned missions to Mars) and it proposes certain technological advances, all those advances are theoretically possible, and the research that went into Weir’s storytelling shines through on every page.

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