Story Behind the Story: Fire From Space

Fire From Space is the fourth story in Atoms for Peace (available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook). The goal for this one was to establish Dr. Dani Taylor, last seen in The Claws That Catch, in her new role as a National Guard medic in California, which is where we will someday find her at the start of The Brain From Outer Space.

This story is also one of the reasons I never finished the darn book.

Writing the stories led me to do a lot more fleshing out of my setting and supporting cast than I had in Brain to that point. What’s life like in Wind Song, the town neighboring the National Guard base? What does everyone do for recreation? What are Dani’s platoon-mates like? I show Dani going on dates with Trueblood and Barclay, two characters from the book (Barclay may just drop out when I get back to it, he never worked out the way I wanted). But I needed a woman for her to talk to for a couple of scenes; not that I was consciously trying to pass the Bechdel Test, it just felt right. And out of the various women in the book (Gwen, DiNaldi, Jo Davies) I settled on Dr. Claire White. It turned out that was a good choice.

Claire is a brilliant scientist who’s about as far from Dani as you can get. Dani, at heart, is still a well-bred Boston woman. Like a lot of people in that era, she feels the need to look chaste, regardless of what happens when the lights go out. Claire’s quite open about liking sex, and getting it (in the real 1950s, this would have been a career killer, but the work she does is too valuable). She’s casual and fun-loving; Dani’s sober and serious. They’re a perfect comic team.

Trouble is, my plot for Brain involved Claire putting the moves on Dani’s boyfriend Steve (introduced in The Spider Strikes) for ulterior motives. By that point, five years after this story, she and Dani are best friends; even if I keep Claire’s ulterior motives the same, there’s no way she’s hitting on her best friend’s boyfriend. Particularly when she knows Dani loves Steve. My subsequent drafts the past seven years never figured that one out.

Like The Spider Strikes I made a conscious choice not to deal with sexual harassment in the military. It might come up in the novel. But I’d sooner have Dani out there healing the platoon than fending off creeps and rapists.

This story also established several changes to the timeline, most notably Sputnik going up in 1956 thanks to Russia re-engineering a crashed spacecraft or two. Khruschev realizing that Human vs. Alien now outranks East vs. West as the struggle of our time offers to go partners on a space program with the U.S. By Not In Our Stars But in Ourselves, set in 1958, the Cold War is sort-of over and we’re about to make the first moon landing.

Pop culture changes too. Robert Heinlein’s Starship Soldiers and Captain Podkayne of Mars establish the “space realism” school of SF; they’re seen less as science fiction and more a realistic Tom Clancy-style look at what war in space will be like once we’re finally fighting out there. James Dean is in The Lonely Crowd, so obviously (at least I assume it will be obvious) he didn’t die in that car crash (it’s a fantastic film, by the way, and earns him his first Oscar).

Some things, though, are worse: the segregationist opponents of Civil Rights are blaming every black protest on alien agitators (did you know Emmett Till was some kind of alien? But the aliens working in the movement covered up the autopsy!). It’s ugly but it fits the rather noirish (I think) tone of the story.

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, all rights are mine.

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Filed under Atoms for Peace, Short Stories, Story behind the story

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