The Big Idea: M V Melcer
I’ve always been drawn to puzzles, to books that keep you guessing what’s really going on, that make you try to decipher the hidden currents under the surface. Fittingly, the idea of Refractions started as a simple puzzle: a colony planet gone mysteriously silent. But as I probed deeper, the story developed into a nesting doll of puzzles, each new question revealing a deeper truth about the characters and their world.
On the outside, there is the colony: after two decades of apparently thriving, Bethesda, the first human settlement in another solar system, has ceased all communication. With multiple colony ships already on the way to other planets, each carrying thousands of hibernating passengers, a volunteer crew rushes out to investigate what happened on Bethesda, lest the same fate befalls the other settlers.
But that brought me to another, more compelling puzzle. With the colony light years away, the volunteers will spend decades in hibernation. By the time they return, everybody they knew and loved will be gone. Who would volunteer for such a mission? Or maybe what they are really doing is running away?
The answer to this question was the spark that gave life to the idea: a crew of strangers, each harbouring their own secrets, each running away from their past, hoping that by the time they return their sins will be forgotten.
Now I was keen to figure out who they were and what they were leaving behind. I’ll be honest, it took several tries. I’d known early on that the story will be near-future, set in a world transformed by the effects of climate change and unchecked capitalism. But finding the right protagonist to carry the story took me several tries—until I found Nathalie.
Nathalie Hart is one of those trying to escape—her pain, her grief, and her guilt for the events that killed her family. A skilled orbital pilot, she has no trouble securing a spot on the rescue mission—especially since she is Canadian, a neutral nation in a world divided by a new cold war between fundamentalist Christian America and China, the space-technology superpower.
Her hopes for a respite are shattered when she wakes from hibernation to find the captain killed in a sabotage and the international crew descending into accusations and conspiracies. Traumatised and desperately under-qualified, she is now in command of a crew divided along the lines of national loyalties and personal conflicts. And it is up to her to bring them together before time runs out for the five thousand passengers on a dying colony ship waiting above Bethesda.
Nathalie must dig deep to find the strength and skill she will need—and in the end, it’s her pain and her guilt that help her rise to the challenge. She joined the mission to forget and atone, and she will do everything to save the lives now in her hands.
Yet there are more layers still in this nesting doll of puzzles. Why would anyone hire such a volatile crew? Was it an unlucky oversight—or were they preselected for some sinister purpose?
And with that question, I have found the kernel, the big idea at the heart of Refractions. There are secrets on Bethesda that someone is desperate to protect—and they will use the crew’s own animosities and prejudice to sabotage the mission. At its thematic core, it is a story about manipulation, about people being set up against each other so they are too busy infighting to notice the strings that pull on them. It is also a story of unchecked capitalism and weaponised prejudice, of propaganda and disinformation used as tools to divide and control.
I wish I could say this was a purely science-fictional idea, far from the realities of today’s world, but it’s enough to turn on the news channel to find the same story played out live in front of us. When I first conceived the idea, I was a Polish immigrant living through the anti-immigrant Brexit propaganda in the UK. This is a story as old as time: the powerful manipulating the populace into blaming the “other” for all the ailments of the society they control, fabricating conflict through lies and prejudice so we’re too busy fighting our neighbours to notice who really benefits from the discord.
It’s difficult to write about prejudice without showing prejudice. This is a challenging subject, especially as the national lines coincide with ethnicity—even though the same heritage may be shared by people now serving under different flags. It was important for me to show how easy it would be to succumb to disinformation preying on real fears.
In the end, it’s up to Nathalie to transcend her flaws and prejudices. Only then will she be able to see the larger truth, notice the strings of manipulation, and find a way to cut herself free. And if she manages to bring the feuding crew together, they might yet solve Bethesda’s puzzle.