Erebus - Writing and Story Tidbits

SPOILERS ALERT! If you haven't read Erebus, grab a copy first. It's only 99 cents. Seriously, you can't even get someone to read a 17,000 word story to you for 99 cents.


Erebus is the inverse of my original story idea. In my first draft, Sarah was the one who got trapped in interstellar space and James rescued her in Bernard's Beauty. I still have the draft of chapter one, titled "Gamma 222". Here's a clip:

Sarah breathes fast, her words muffled by the mask. “Collapse the wave.” She spins the damage control graphic with his fingers. Red flagged systems follow a diagonal line bisecting Gossamer Goose. Ballistics calculations plot the trajectory of the impactor.

But I really didn't want Sarah to be a damsel-in-distress. So, I flipped it.

One of the issues I immediately ran into is "one too many heroes" and I needed to think a bit about using story structure to address this. One thought was to use parallel stories, like "The Martian", with some chapters following Watney while others followed the NASA rescue efforts. You can see how James's scenes - crashing Bernard's, scouting the snowy landscape - would be compelling as their own chapters, and toggling between his and Sarah's story would be interesting. But, ultimately the story is Sarah's. It's about her voyage there, what she's feeling, how it changes her, and what she does when she gets back. As interesting as James's adventures are, they're the background events. It's a bit like how the movie Titanic wasn't really about the Titanic.

As an aside, I notice that James, who was the clear hero in 43 Seconds, takes the role of catalyst in the subsequent stories. When I write him, it's very easy for him to overshadow the lead characters, so I always need to use some restraint. I also like how his strength (taking risks) is also his weakness.

Handling time was one of the consistent narrative challenges. During James's voyage to Erebus, he and Sarah are in different timeframes. I decided to give a sentence or two for each of them during Jame's six transmissions. It's similar to the approach I used with Jia's video journal in Aero One. William's slightly convoluted whiteboard diagram for the rescue was another visual tool to help with time. Pepper in some flashbacks via James's two video logs and you've got a narrative moving on multiple time axis.

In a way, this story was a bit of an all-star reunion for many characters. A few thoughts:

  • I'll bet James and Will's offices are just like you imagined. Letting Sarah sit in both gave a chance to see what each man valued.
  • My beta reader commented that she always liked any scene where Hitoshi appeared. In 43 Seconds, he was Q to James's Bond. In Erebus, he's a little like Galaxy Quest's Guy, having read far too much sci-fi to think it's a good idea to be on an away team. I relate with him the most.
  • Ananke could've used more air time, but she does get to ask a very important question near the story's end.
  • I broke a bit of a story rule by introducing two new characters midway through the narrative. Isaac gets a decent share of talk time, but you don't get to learn too much about his or Julian's personality. I'm sure they'll appear in future stories. On the plus side, it was fun having an actual crew, and I liked how they each had their own area of expertise for the mission.

And a couple of plot tidbits:

  • Cassini Station was developed for a new story called Titan's Shadow. It seems like a fascinating place, and I'm looking forward to exploring it. Here's a clip:

Rolin shrugs.

“Why didn’t facial recognition pick him up?”

“Cassini Station doesn’t have an open security agreement with EarthSec.”

“Well, that’s idiotic.”

He gestures towards the shops. “Everyone who comes here has some reason to get away from Earth.” He appraises Jia a second. “If Cassini had an open sec agreement, probably a quarter of its shops would be gone.”

  • James tucking himself weightless into a wall-mounted sleeping bag was inspired by Chris Hadfield's video of sleeping on the International Space Station.
  • When I wrote 43 Seconds, it occurred to me that if a ship could maintain greater than one gee acceleration for days at a time, then it could maintain a one gee deceleration long enough to land on a planet. The reason real-life spaceships can't do this is because they are rockets and are bound by the rocket equation. This means they can't possibly take enough fuel with them to both accelerate and decelerate the full way (because the fuel has mass and needs to be accelerated itself, requiring even more fuel). So, real spaceships need to fall from the sky at orbital speeds.
  • At the end of the story Riggs switches from a threat to a defense. In the 1960s, fear that Russia would develop space superiority and deploy orbital weapons fueled the Apollo program.
  • The idea of a ninth planet (or tenth, prior to Pluto's demotion), has been around for  a while. Dubbed Nemesis, some thought it was a distant object perturbing the Oort Cloud, raining comets down upon us. More recently, the theoretical planet was given a working name of Xena based on the Xena Warrior Princess tv series. When it is discovered, it will be given an official name. This will be challenging because the majority of roman and greek gods have already been assigned to dwarf planets, asteroids, or moons.
  • As an aside, there was an actual distant orbit which grazed the Oort Cloud not very long ago (from a cosmological perspective). Scholtz's Star passed through our Oort Cloud 70,000 years ago. It kept on going, and is now 17-23 light years away. When it passed through, it was 52,000 AU away. In Erebus, Gossamer Goose travels 1200 AU. Scholtz's Star may have perturbed comets, but it will be two million years before any make it to Earth. When Scholtz's Star passed by, it would have been magnitude 11.4. The Neanderthals and early humans alive at this time lacked the telescopes to see such a faint object.
  • In mythology, Erebus was the primordial god of darkness and consort of Nyx (Night). Janus is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, and endings. You can see why I chose Janus for Sarah and James's adventure.