The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor
In his Big Idea piece for Portal, a series-ending novel that he’s written with Eric Flint, Ryk E. Spoor delves into two things critical to today’s modern science fiction writers: The secret to writing hard SF, and the secret to bringing a hard SF series to a realistic but (hopefully) satisfying close. Curious? You should be.
RYK E. SPOOR:
Back in 2004, I’d just published my second book with Baen – the short novel Diamonds Are Forever, as the first third of the Mountain Magic collection. This had been written based on an idea sketched out by Eric Flint, and the two of us had both been pleased by the way that turned out. I now had no books under contract and, while Digital Knight hadn’t done terribly badly, Jim Baen wasn’t quite ready to give the go-ahead to another solo work by me.
So Eric mentioned that there was this idea he’d had, and tried to write twice, about a weird fossil being discovered on the K-T boundary that also turned out to have a connection to an alien structure found by space probes (his original plan, as I recall, had it be on Ceres). He’d never gotten very far, because he felt it needed something that would give it the “hard edge” of real SF in some manner that was also accessible… and he thought that the kind of stuff I liked to do with characters like Jason Wood and Clint Slade was exactly what he was looking for.
For me, this was kinda scary. HARD science fiction wasn’t an area I’d contemplated getting into. Oh, it wasn’t entirely out of my feasible zone (like Eric’s big moneymaker, alternate history, which I wouldn’t touch with a forty-foot adamantium pole) but my preference lies definitely in the Space Opera and Fantasy realms. And Eric wanted real hard SF – near-future, using extrapolations of real technology, with parts of it solid enough to ring like steel when someone hammered on them.
Despite my nervousness over this, I realized this was a big opportunity, so I took a deep breath and said “Sure, sounds great!”
The result was Boundary. Published in 2006, Boundary followed a varied cast of characters including paleontologist Helen Sutter, engineer Joe Buckley, sensor genius A.J. Baker, and superspy Madeline Fathom in a pure-science adventure that started in a dusty desert fossil dig and ended in an alien base on Mars. In some ways this was one of the hardest pieces of work I’d ever had to do, because I had to study up on a lot of technology and science that I’d only known peripherally – NERVA rockets, spaceship design considerations, Martian landscape and characteristics, and others – and then figure out two crucial things:
1) How to present all the necessary, hard-science details to the reader without boring the living hell out of said reader, and
2) When to STOP.
That second bit is a crucial, and very scary, part of writing hard SF. You cannot get it all exactly right, not without writing textbooks on each and every subject, and you don’t have hundreds of pages to make your technical points. If you’re lucky, you have two paragraphs to make the point before the reader’s attention begins to wander down the page, looking for the next thing that isn’t an infodump. And even if you think you can get away with a few paragraphs on everything, to learn everything you might need well enough to write authoritatively on it… well, it’ll take you a lot longer than your contractual deadline allows you.
At the same time, you have to get enough right that the reader’s willing to either trust you, or overlook your flaws later on. A feeling of versimilitude has to pervade a hard-SF work. One of the tricks to do this, of course, is make sure that something you as an author do know something about is brought to the foreground frequently, so anyone who reads it will say “hey, this guy knows his stuff”. For me, that was various sensor technologies, and A.J. Baker was my go-to guy to provide commentary – and realistic technology with gee-gosh-wow capabilities – that helped provide a foundation to build on.
But there were – and still are – areas in which I had to decide that I would ignore details of reality for the sake of dramatics; for instance, many space-travel times are based on idealized distances and circumstances in many cases. Even there, though, you’ve got to be careful; disregard the wrong aspect of reality, or do it too cavalierly, and you’ve lost all the solidity and trust you might have had.
Boundary sold quite well, so I guess Eric and I didn’t do too badly on that score. So Baen contracted for two sequels. With various delays, it wasn’t until 2010 that the second book, Threshold, was released. Threshold took our heroes from Mars to Ceres and eventually to the Jupiter system, in ships both new and very, very old indeed. Threshold also contained the only real interpersonal violence and combat in the entire trilogy, mostly caused by the actions of one particular individual.
The original plan for the series had been for the adventures of our crew to arrive at Saturn’s moon Enceladus for a final great discovery and wrap-up; but the ending of Threshold marooned them on Jupiter’s moon Europa, and we came to two realizations: first, getting them off that moon and home was going to take most, if not all, of the third book. And second – these guys are starting to get kinda old to be traipsing around the solar system. Over thirteen years elapses between the opening of Boundary and the ending of Threshold. The youngest member of the main cast, Jackie Secord (a teenager at the beginning of Boundary), is over 30, with former boy genius A. J. Baker just about reaching his forties and his wife Helen well over 50. While I assumed that their future had improved medical care and lifespan, that’s still pushing it for people heading into the most dangerous and remote areas of space.
So now – May 7th – the third and final adventure of the Boundary trilogy, Portal, will be released, and I think it is the best of the three, because it draws on everything I’ve learned in the ten years since I was first published and gives our heroes what I think is their grandest, purest adventure of all – finding a way to not only survive disaster, but find a way to return home on their own, despite all odds… and with one last, wonderful discovery for all mankind.
The realization I had to finish their adventures was, itself, a bit daunting. Yet in a hard SF universe, your heroes can’t really be immortal, can’t be dashing hither and yon throughout the cosmos without a care for the fact that reflexes dull, bodies age, dangers suffered take their toll. Even cosmic chew-toy Joe Buckley has to get cut a break in the end; the latter is, of course, a running joke at Baen, in which characters named “Joe Buckley” suffer various amusing demises at the hands of multiple authors. Eric and I had decided that we would not, in fact, kill Joe – just make it look like we were going to kill him off.
As of this writing, off the top of my head, Joe has survived three spaceship crashes, a fall off the top of an arroyo, a spacesuit puncture, being marooned below Europa’s ice, and shot with a spaceship’s main cannon (which was intended for shooting large vessels or stationary bases). Of course, he hasn’t been alone on all of these, and the entire main cast has gone through various deadly situations.
Despite all the dangers, though, Eric and I painted a positive world, and one I liked visiting; here the excesses of the past couple of decades had been finally moderated, the world had not fallen into some kind of dystopia, the USA had been joined by multiple other countries as true superpowers, and the new space race was helping to fuel a new technological renaissance with the help of the clues left by the alien “Bemmies” in their deserted bases. Medical science was advancing, international cooperation was working, and people were basically living their lives as well as could be expected.
I feel extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to write these stories with Eric’s help. He did a lot of handholding – and writing, and rewriting – in the early days. As time’s gone on, he’s given me more and more leeway in writing them, to the point that Portal’s mostly my work from end to end… but based on an idea that Eric had, and infused to a great extent with his viewpoints and always, always guided by his advice on how to handle various aspects of the story.
I’m a bit sorry to say goodbye to most of these characters; I’ve spent a lot of time with them over the last eight years, and most of them are good people. Some I knew from the beginning, and saw where they were going – Helen Sutter and A.J. Baker’s relationship was clear to me pretty much as soon as I had them meet, for instance – while others decided they were going to surprise me. Dr. Nicholas Glendale was supposed to be a very minor character, appearing in a couple of scenes and then disappearing. Instead, he insisted on staying around, and became a strong secondary character in all three books. General Alberich Hohenheim was originally slated for death… but not only Eric and I, but a number of the beta-readers as well, felt that he deserved better than an unseen, unsung death on that floating tomb, so he gets a chance at survival and redemption. Larry Conley was supposed to just be a Tuckerization and handwave – and instead he ended up being a continuing character who plays significant parts in Threshold and Portal.
Madeline Fathom was originally meant to be an antagonist, colder and deadlier, but Eric wisely remodeled her and she instead became the rock on which most of the characters could lean… while she leaned on quiet, patient Joe Buckley when she had a rare moment of doubt. I hadn’t seen that one coming at first, but once it started the relationship became obvious in hindsight.
All things do come to an end eventually, though, and in this case I had to work hard to bring that end to a conclusion that I really felt good about. In a hard-science context, I had a huge challenge in arranging the events of the last major sequences – anyone who reads it will see the really tough part probably right away. The principles of everything that happens from the time that our heroes descend into Europa until the time they leave are correct, but how well the details of certain events would really hold up… I don’t know. Heck, I don’t have the scientific background or the computer resources to even set about trying to model a lot of it.
But dramatically they work, and for the sake of a story… probability has to just take a bow and get out of the way. In my works, the heroes triumph over their odds, and they get to come home, and come home they all do in the end, with the few bad guys having gotten their just deserts and the heroics recognized and rewarded.
You’ll note that I said I’m sorry to say goodbye to the characters, but not to the universe. That’s very deliberate. For while the adventures of one set of people may be over, as long as there are people, there will be others picking up that torch and carrying it, outwards to wherever humanity travels, to the edge of possibility… and perhaps beyond. As Helen says at the end of Portal: “To the end… of the beginning.”
The universe of Boundary is not over, and you will see it again… in a different light, through different eyes, but, perhaps, not all that different, after all, when the universe challenges ordinary people to do their best … and they become extraordinary.
And all of it started when Dr. Helen Sutter looked at a single little fossil…