The Big Idea: Alan Smale
Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a NASA spacecraft! Come along in Alan Smale’s Big Idea, as he tells you about his new novel, Hot Moon, where an alternate history involving Russia and the moon has occurred.
I’m writing this blog post on one of my very favorite anniversaries: July 20th. Which, in this noble year of Two Thousand and Twenty-Two, is the 53rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing.
My love for the Apollo Program has been deep and abiding, and has played a critical role in my life. It strengthened my interest in science from a very early age, influenced my most significant career decisions, and has given me some of my most powerful memories and experiences. And, given the various groups I hang with these days, I know I’m not alone in that. Show of hands?
When Neil and Buzz walked on the Moon I was an eight-year-old living in Yorkshire, England, fascinated by every detail. I studied up and memorized everything I could about the Apollo astronauts (from all the missions), the Saturn I and Saturn V rockets that took them into orbit and beyond, and all of the technical details of their Lunar Modules and Command and Service Modules that were available to me. I was gripped by the dramas, like Apollo 8’s orbits of the Moon, the Apollo 11 landing, and the Apollo 13 Lost Moon mission, but also had an insatiable appetite for the small stuff: the meticulous and extensive engineering testing they did on the earlier Apollos, the minutiae of the spacesuits and the ALSEP experiments, the dorky aluminum golf carts of the Lunar Rovers, the routes of their surface excursions. The rocks. The rolling. The entire package.
Back then I really, really believed I’d be living in space by the time I reached the age I am now. I mean, why wouldn’t I?
In 1969, some of the pundits were saying we’d be on Mars by the 1980s. And even back then I knew that might be a stretch, but hey: I didn’t need to go to Mars, exactly. I just wanted to slip the surly bonds of Earth, meaning its gravity, and get up there to live and work in space.
Well, dang it, that didn’t happen, and I’m still subject to those surly bonds, but I gave it my best shot. Took physics and astrophysics at college. Even ended up working for NASA, though not on human spaceflight – I do astrophysics research, manage one of NASA’s Big Three astro data archives, and help others to do science. But, bottom line: here I am, still stuck on Planet Earth. Le grand sigh.
What I’m leading up to is this: Hot Moon was the book that I always wanted to write. My labor of love, my tribute to the Apollo Program that inspired so many people way back there in the dark ages, shortly after the dinosaurs perished and just a few moments before Vietnam and Watergate crushed the idealism of a nation. Because: it was Space, people!
My Big Idea was not that the Soviets get to the Moon first, although in Hot Moon they do, and I do believe it would have changed everything if it had happened that way in real life. The Big Idea is that the Apollo program continued. And it was ambitious, and glorious, and exciting. And of course there’s conflict: the book features war in space, this world’s first ever space battle, between clunky Apollo and Soyuz craft, maneuvering around a Skylab in lunar orbit. Honestly, a lot of things don’t go well for my characters. But the technology, science, orbital maneuvering, and just the sheer risk and excitement of spaceflight: all of that is as accurate as I could make it, and I hope the heady thrill of those years comes across.
Just like me, the commander of Apollo 32, Vivian Carter, loves the Moon. She’s utterly dedicated to her ten-day exploratory mission to the Marius Hills area. A mission that … she ends up losing, due to the Cold War turned hot. In space.
Hot Moon is a thriller with a nerd’s beating heart, and perhaps a hint of competence porn. It’s MacGyver on the Moon, trying to figure out how to beat back an armed-and-dangerous Soviet threat with rocks and model rocketry, ingenuity and improvisation. And once everything hits the fan, there may be a touch of Andy Weir in the math that will keep Vivian Carter alive, and eventually help her solve the book’s deeper puzzle about What’s Really Going On. How to defeat the relentless KGB/Spetsnaz cosmonauts arrayed against her, on the surface and on the captured Columbia Station in orbit. And, how to survive the hostile Moon itself.
Have there been other alternate-space-program stories recently? Yes: it feels like this is our moment. You should obviously check out Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series. Rosemary Claire Smith has a nifty story in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of Analog, “The Next Frontier”, which you should read too. There’s also a certain TV show with a similar premise. I started writing HOT MOON in 2017, long before I knew anything about For All Mankind, and had delivered a complete draft to my agent and beta readers before the first episode aired (publishing is a slow business, especially when you toss in a pandemic). But Hot Moon has a very different feel and direction than other alt.space stories I’ve seen. For one thing, it takes place entirely on and around the Moon. And it’s very much a technothriller rather than a soap opera, though hopefully one with heart. Suffice to say that there’s room for a few different alt-Apollo takes, and those listed above are all very different.
I’m here for all of it. I have a thing for the Moon, and so do Vivian and her crew, and the astronauts at Columbia Station and Hadley Base, and those tough guys from USAF Special Ops, and some of the more sympathetic Soviet characters whose viewpoints we get to see along the way. I hope you’ll join us all for high jinks in one-sixth gravity.
Obligatory PSA: if you’re about to fire off a social media post along the lines of: “The Moon landings were fake! How do we know they really happened?” I’d ask you to pause, take a very deep breath, and consider: the 400,000 people who worked on Apollo were all lying? And the Soviet Union, our adversaries in the Space Race, would have let us get away with such a brazen deception?
Nah. NASA really did it. And if they’d kept on doing it, maybe we’d now be in the future that I assumed I’d be living in, having passed through a 1979 something like the one in Hot Moon along the way.
And that would have been really cool.