The Big Idea: Kali Wallace
Science fiction often holds up a mirror to the present day when it imagines what happens in the future. For Deep Space, author Kali Wallace has imagined a scenario that, while specifically impossible in the here in now, involves personal and social dynamics which might feel very familiar to us anyway.
This book didn’t start with a big idea. My books never do. I start with very small ideas, and only in the process of writing and rewriting and revising and editing do those ideas grow into something more. I have to write a novel to figure out what it is I want the novel to say, which is very inefficient writing process, but it’s the one that works for me.
So when I first started Dead Space, back in the ancient times of 2018, my only idea was that I wanted to write a creepy, exciting book about a lesbian cyborg space detective. A space detective requires a space crime, and a space crime requires a space setting, so I stuck a murder on an asteroid mine and ran with it.
The other thing I knew when I started Dead Space was that it took place in the not-so-distant future, when the world is a bit different, but not too different. We have spaceships, but we can barely travel beyond the asteroid belt. We have better technology and advanced medical treatments, but they aren’t available to everyone. We have clever AIs, but they’re still built and trained by flawed humans. We have the ability to give people better lives, but those opportunities are largely reserved for the rich and powerful.
Sci fi writers are always writing about the fucked-up present when we write about fucked-up futures, but sometimes we don’t know what flavor of fucked-up we’re digging into until we get into the heart of the story. And the heart of the story is, always, its characters.
When I was in college, twenty-some years ago, I took a class about Mars. The professor, planetary scientist Pete Schultz, asked on the very first day, “Who would go to Mars if you had the chance?” Most people raised their hands. Then he asked, “Who would go to Mars if you knew it would be a one-way trip?” Nearly everybody put their hands down.
Professor Schultz smiled. He knew exactly what he was asking and how a bunch of college students would respond. He raised his own hand and said, “I would. I would go even if I knew I would never come back.”
That’s what I was thinking about when I created Hester Marley, the main character of Dead Space. Hester used to be a scientist, one who eagerly signed on to what could have been a one-way trip to Saturn’s moon Titan. But a terrorist group attacks the mission en route, kills most of its participants, and leaves the few survivors stranded far from home and indebted to the powerful asteroid mining company that rescued them. So now Hester is working a shitty security job for a shitty company, trying to pay down her vast medical debts and figure out a way to get her life back on track, not quite wanting to admit to herself that her dreams and her plans and her ambitions have all been completely crushed.
Most of us haven’t been victims of catastrophic spaceship attacks that leave us stuck in a grim cubicle job 300 million kilometers from home, but far too many of us do know what it feels like to be forced to reckon with the fact that the universe doesn’t care about our dreams and plans and ambitions. It was this commonality that slowly evolved in the big idea in Dead Space.
Fairly early on in writing Dead Space, I realized I was writing about how much corporate capitalism sucks. I was writing about how we place our trust into systems–governments, companies, economies, religions–that are deeply flawed. The most interesting sci fi is often about exploring and stress-testing our systems in new and exciting ways; in Dead Space I approached this as a sort of nesting doll of flawed systems. It’s all about surveillance systems inside of artificial intelligence systems inside of mining systems inside of law enforcement systems inside of corporate systems inside of economic systems inside of political systems inside of, well, the solar system. Living in space is dangerous. Communicating and traveling across space is not trivial. AIs are often kinda stupid and terribly biased. No life support is foolproof. In a world where everything is expensive, human life can be very, very cheap.
Depending on who you ask, Dead Space is a sci fi novel, a thriller, or a horror novel, but I kinda think of it as mostly a crime novel. (It just happens to be one in which the crimes are science fictionally thrilling and/or horrifying.) The main character really wants to be living in a sci fi novel; she wants to be exploring new worlds and discovering new things and going where no one has gone before. But her life doesn’t work out that way. She did everything right, played by all the rules and met all the goals, and the universe didn’t care.
I probably could have written a novel about a cyborg detective at any point in my life, but I could only have written this novel between 2018 and 2020, when every single day was an object lesson in how very badly things go wrong when the trust we place in our systems is so terribly misplaced. That’s why at the book’s heart, down in the gritty, grimy, angry center beneath all the cybernetics and spaceships and spacesuits and action, it is about desperate, damaged people whose choices are limited by the circumstances in which they live.