I did NaNoWriMo for the first time in close to a decade this year. I won too! Yay! It’s been fun and weird and massively vindicating. Fun because the act of getting this story out of my head and onto the page is a deeply enjoyable one. Weird because I am BAD at outlining or, perhaps, very good at zero drafts. The book as it currently stands is going to share characters and a central premise with the version that will go out on submission. Structure and everything else? That’s a top down re-build job.
And finally, vindicating. Partially because I wanted to see if I could still do this (Turns out, I can) and partially because it’s helped me realize that one of the central ideas of the novel, which it shares with After The War, has some pretty serious fictional meat on its bones; the collision between crewed spaceflight as it was and crewed spaceflight as it probably will be.
Black Sky Industries first appeared in my fiction close to a decade ago. There, they were represented by Maria Williams, the third generation of an astronautical dynasty who, unlike her parents and grandparents, had gone into the assurance assessment business. A massive solar flare had grounded humanity and, with the effects now passed, Maria was part of a concreted effort to go through all the stock left in space and figure out what was worth keeping and what wasn’t. Sent to Mir, in a story written before it was de-orbited, she and her colleagues discovered not everyone had been evacuated in time…I’m still rather proud of it. Its a forlorn piece but there’s something of the square jawed astronaut to it, and some questioning of that, that I’ve returned to more than once.
The Williams family haunt my fiction like pressure-suited Banquos. Patricia, Maria’s grandmother, was the star of the first all-block capitals, all-the-time, fiction I wrote when I was about 12. Another version of Maria is at the heart of The Upward Ocean, a (sort of) abandoned novel which sees her called in as a PR stunt to revitalize the orbital rescue units her family died setting up. That, again, is all about the collision between the heroic astronaut myth and the realities of getting to orbit and back without dying. Still another version (Maybe the same one a few years later actually) is the head of an inner solar system spanning rescue team operating out of a constantly mobile space station.
But it’s the version of Maria who works for Black Sky, and the idea of Black Sky itself, that I keep coming back to. Because there is such romance in space, such incredible, ozone-tinted joy in the ridiculous idea that we can throw ourselves outside the atmosphere in a can on the end of the bomb, take a look around and then return. The men and women who’ve done it, and those who haven’t returned, are titans on my personal historical landscape. I remember being taken out of class in primary school to watch the first space shuttle launch. I remember being told that same shuttle had come apart on re-entry by a customer at the games store I managed over a decade later. The moment at a Jonathan Coulton concert when John Roderick started in on The Commander Thinks Aloud and my partner leaned in, hugged me and said ‘In about two minutes, you’re not going to be okay and that’s okay.’
I wasn’t. And it was.
But as time has passed my attitude towards Black Sky has evolved. The version in the NaNoWrio project I’ve just finished is a dangerously conservative boys’ club, a mafia of low earth orbit who kill to maintain not just power but the status quo that renders them invisibly dominant. The version we see in After The War is, mostly, far more benevolent. Or at the very least, far more reflective of my own experiences with massive corporations. Individuals, even divisions, who do extraordinary and necessary work. That work often being powered, or worse undercut, by the short sighted ambition of a superior. On the one hand, the younger me who cut his teeth on the R.Talsorian Cyberpunk (black box edition for life, yo) RPG would be disgusted. On the other, nuance is nuance.
And that’s really the big thing that drives how I think about Black Sky in After the War; nuance. The version here isn’t even ‘evil corporation’ or ‘benevolent corporation’, it’s an idea people are clinging to after The Song shattered every idea, every societal structure like a soprano wail the width of the universe. Those who are left are responding in very different ways. Some are embracing the new life Polvo offers them, some recoil from it or try and make something of it. But all of them exist under the same banner and al of them are aware how lucky they are to be able to do that. Just don’t ask them to sing the company fight song any time soon.