The Big Idea: Ren Hutchings
They say not to meet your heroes, but that’s exactly what Ren Hutchings’ protagonist, Uma Ozakka, does by means of time travel. Travel through the Big Idea behind Under Fortunate Stars and see how their fates intertwine.
I’ve loved time travel stories for a very long time. As a child, I was fascinated by the movie Flight of the Navigator, in which a kid returns from an alien encounter to find that several years have passed, and his little brother is now older than him. Truth be told, I was terrified by the premise, and I would sometimes lie awake at night wondering if that could ever happen to me. But I was also enthralled with the concept of time travel. I needed to know more.
And so, I went on to read every time-twisting story I could get my hands on, starting with a children’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. I read A Wrinkle in Time, A Handful of Time, The Starlight Crystal… My introduction to speculative fiction was inextricably entwined with stories that played with time, and it’s no surprise that I went on to write time travel stories of my own.
Time travel comes in many forms, but the unexpected kind has always been my favorite. I love stories where the protagonist is not a well-equipped adventurer stepping boldly into a time machine, but a regular person who gets thrown into a weird situation, totally unprepared. The book that became Under Fortunate Stars has always been about accidental time travel in space, but the premise was a little different in the beginning – it was originally going to be about a group of historical re-enactors who accidentally travelled back to the event they were re-creating!
The book is still very much about a history nerd – engineer Uma Ozakka – who meets heroes from the past after encountering a time anomaly, although her ship is now a corporate research vessel. When I introduce the book, I often focus on Uma and on the question posed by her plotline: What if you got to meet your historical heroes and they were nothing like you imagined? But there’s another character story in Under Fortunate Stars that’s just as central, one which turns the lens toward the would-be heroes. What happens when you’re told something about your own future and it’s not what you expected?
Eldric Leesongronski has always been Uma’s favorite historical figure. She collects his biographies, and knows him as the famous leader of the peace mission that saved humanity from annihilation. But at the point when Uma meets him, Leesongronski views his own life as a failure. He hasn’t done anything of note yet. He’s depressed, broke, and jaded, and he has no interest in being heroic. He’s just been convinced to join his best friend on an ill-advised smuggling trip, trying to escape from the very interstellar war he’s meant to be stopping. So when he’s faced with Uma’s version of his future, Leesongronski doesn’t know how to cope.
We’ve all had a moment when we wished we could see what our future holds. But would we really want to know? We might learn things we don’t want to hear – that our lives won’t turn out as we planned, or that we didn’t accomplish as much as we’d hoped. But how would someone deal with the knowledge that they were meant to do something extraordinary in the future, something that literally changed the trajectory of humankind? That, to me, is a really intriguing question in time travel stories.
There’s a moment in the Star Trek: The Next Generation film First Contact that has always stuck with me. The Enterprise crew travels back in time to Earth’s past, where they find Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of the warp drive and the instigator of humanity’s first contact with the Vulcans. But the version of Cochrane that the crew meets hasn’t made his historic flight yet. His life is in shambles, his ambitions shattered after his prototype warp ship was damaged. He doesn’t see a way forward to accomplishing anything.
In one scene, the Enterprise crew members approach Cochrane with awe, telling him they’ve seen statues of him and buildings named after him in the future. They’re starstruck with the sheer wonder of meeting him. And yet, Cochrane reacts to this information not with pride or excitement, but with visible discomfort. He never wanted to be a hero, he explains. He didn’t invent the warp drive because he wanted to change the world; he did it because he wanted to make money. In the aftermath of discovering his own historical significance, Cochrane panics and flees, overwhelmed by the prospect of living up to his presumed legacy. I’ve always found that moment so achingly believable. And the reality of this imperfect, fallible character was so much more interesting than the crew’s idealized vision of Cochrane.
When Eldric Leesongronski first discovers that the future exalts him as the captain of a peace mission, he reacts very much like Zefram Cochrane did. Under Fortunate Stars is, in a lot of ways, a story about the weight of that revelation and its aftermath. It’s about someone grappling with the idea that they’re supposed to do this heroic thing, while feeling absolutely certain that they’re undeserving of praise or redemption, much less adulation. It’s about how Leesongronski’s perspective on his life changes right alongside Uma’s when they enter each other’s orbit.
Sadly, most of us probably won’t ever get to experience time travel, or see historical events unfolding firsthand (never say never, there’s always a chance!) But the big idea, in the end, is that behind every ‘heroic’ action that history recorded, there was a living, breathing, complicated person. And if past and present ever do collide, it will be people’s humble, imperfect and flawed humanity that actually connects them.