As we hunker down into the long dark of an English winter, it’s the perfect time to review a book that broke my reading drought last time round. There was something about the first lockdown that froze my brain. Its numb misery stopped me from drawing sustenance from a lifelong reading habit. Then months later, I got my hands on an ARC of HUMAN RESOURCES, a psychological thriller set in the icebound continent of Antarctica. A masterly sequel to Robin Trigg’s debut novel, NIGHT SHIFT, it blends urban sci-fi with a crime story’s breathless suspense, all set in the world’s most unforgiving landscape. Just the kind of winter’s tale to thaw out my imagination from its Covid induced cold-storage. You might consider stowing it in your own bunker for the months ahead.
When we originally sat down to plan out the Uncharted Constellations anthology, we were expecting to have print copies for sale by June and a summer of face-to-face events to sell them at. Instead, the world went into lockdown and we had to go back to the drawing board, so to speak. Our face-to-face launch plan turned into a Zoom/Youtube crossover event and our paperbacks turned into ebooks. We are very happy with the final product, though it was a very strange experience planning a book launch without any physical copies of the book in question!
Prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, I had been writing poems at the rather sedate rate of one or two a month, sending some out for publication and experiencing a string of small successes along the way. I wasn’t hugely productive but that didn’t bother me particularly. My day job as a journalist kept me busy enough with churning out thousands of words on demand.
As L.P. Hartley wrote in The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” It can be hard for us in the present, with our modern sensibilities, to resist the urge to judge those who lived in the past. Certainly, when I’ve been carrying out research for any of my pieces of historical fiction I’ve found myself scandalized by some of the “norms” of the past. (Don’t get me started on Victorian dentistry…) Yet, what unerringly heartens and inspires me is how humans have solved, or overcome, the many hurdles that life on this planet has thrown at them. That, for me, is where the real magic lies. How did we come to inherit the many, many gifts of the present that we enjoy, indeed, take for granted, from all those inhabitants of the past?
I dreamed in cerulean. The churn underneath creation’s folly, the lisp in thinking aloud, the slow breath towards nebula. Because I did not speak until my seventh year, my day was all sky. In July 1969, around 1.00pm our time, the black and white television in the crowded classroom held out the hand of otherworld. In my fifteenth year, this stuttering breach of language around letters to avoid, stretched. The quiet is a choice, soundlessness was a place.
Space is weird. The more we looked into the beyond, the more we realised that things don’t behave that way we thought they should. It started with small things, like planets moving ever so slightly faster than they should be, then suddenly time was no longer constant, and before we knew it particles were doing things they had no business doing while on earth (at least not without a great amount of effort).
My initial response to Space Cat Press’s call out for Uncharted Constellations was ‘meh’. I write about people rather than places so the idea of writing about space didn’t appeal. Even when I wrote a poem about one of Uranus’ moons, ‘Miranda’, I personified her. It didn’t really help that space had a very male image: the astronauts involved in the moon landing, Tim Peake being described as the ‘first British astronaut’ when Helen Sharman had beat him to it, and the sparse lists of female astronauts.
Science fact and science fiction packed my bookshelves, and when I turned to writing short stories as a teen, the call of space made itself felt in the subjects I chose. Even now, more than 40 years later, I can see that my story Scattered Across the Stars was heavily influenced by that HMSO publication; it features both a meteorite and a tentative explanation for mankind's fascination with the universe beyond our own tiny globe.
Here in the final section of our Uncharted Constellations anthology, we discover an insistent unease, and sometimes downright cynicism, about the mission ‘to boldly go’ into the universe beyond. The psychology and politics of space colonisation are teased out in these fictive pieces. The arrogance. The price paid. The risks when technology, or humans, break down. With wit, weirdness and some goosebumps, our writers plunge deep into space - where no-one hears you scream. Or DO they?
If we are to colonise the Moon in the 21st century and send crewed voyages to Mars, we need to know this venture is for ALL of us. It’s the human story, or it’s not worth telling. Any successful long-term mission will have to draw upon the skills of a multi-cultural and gendered crew, in order to deal with the challenges, psychological, social and technical, of deep space exploration. Our 'Uncharted Constellations' anthology writers approached this theme by celebrating space history’s ‘Hidden Figures’, as well as crafting science-fiction that imagines that bold future for all of us.