Interviewed by James La Salandra
We are pleased to welcome Edward M. Lerner, author of Energized to the blog today. James had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Mr. Lerner’s most recent work. If you missed the review, you can check it out here. Many thanks to Alexis with Tor Publicity for setting up this amazing interview.
They say that all fiction, on some level, is autobiographical. It isn’t hard to draw connections between some of the characters in Energized and your own career as an engineer and scientist in general. Which experiences from your scientific life did you find most useful while drafting the novel, and were there any elements that surprised you by having emerged by the time the book was finished?
Seven years as a NASA contractor certainly helped! I’ve worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center (as does my hero), flown the space shuttle training simulator, and watched a shuttle launch from up close. More broadly, I spent thirty years working in high tech. Much of that experience helped me come up to speed on space solar power – and then design a powersat for the book. The big change from my NASA days was the shift from government-led to private spaceflight, and I did a lot of research into nascent commercial spaceflight and space-tourism companies.
Your characterization of the burgeoning relationship between heartbroken Marcus and widowed Valerie is every bit as thorough as the technological information contained in the story. Was this plot line born of personal experience? Was it difficult blending the technical and human elements together into one seamless story?
That part of the novel is entirely fictional. I’m happily married to my college sweetheart – for more than forty years now. But who doesn’t know someone who’s had heartbreak? Writing that element of the story was no more challenging – and no less – than any other.
Another great example of the emotional aspects evident in the novel is that there aren’t any clear-cut villains. To be sure, there are several individuals whose actions could be characterized as malevolent, but each evokes a certain amount of sympathy in the reader. Was this nuance of character development a conscious effort during the writing process, or just a natural result of your approach to fiction?
The latter. I forget who said it, but in his own mind, no one is a villain. People have their reasons – if only rationalizations, justifications, and excuses – for whatever they do. In my opinion, a storyline rings truer when we see why characters, even “evil” ones, do what they do.
Considering the effects of the Crudetastrophe on the geopolitical system, one might expect a far more chaotic state of affairs than that as portrayed in the novel. Do you think that society could so quickly and capably respond to such a disaster, or would it take no less than a miracle like Phoebe to prevent further rapid decline?
Apart from the opening chapter, set on Phoebe (Earth’s newest moon), the whole story takes place nine years after the Crudetastrophe. There’s been time for the world to adjust – and still there is deep recession and roaring inflation. Once upon a time, America could put a man on the moon in that time. When we have our act together – no matter the challenge – people can accomplish a lot in nine years.
Alas, we haven’t had our act together in recent years. It saddens me that the U.S. no longer has the technology to put a person into orbit, much less deliver one to the moon. (That’s not a slam against spaceflight commercialization, but against retiring the shuttle before any successor was ready.)
I’ll add that Phoebe wasn’t a miracle. There are many near Earth objects humans could capture and exploit. Maybe the newly announced Planetary Resources Inc. – with deep-pocketed investors like James Cameron, the director, and Eric Schmidt, the Chairman of Google, will do just that.
The technology described seems more than believable, as if a capable engineer need only to read your novel in order to make the powersat a reality. Are there already similar plans currently in the works? If not, do you foresee their development in the near future?
As a onetime engineer, I’m flattered. I started from a reference powersat design developed a few years ago by the International Union of Radio Science (URSI, in its official French acronym) and updated that baseline with insights from NASA studies and private correspondence with a NASA scientist. That was fun.
As for any powersat in the offing … prototypes are proposed from time to time, but none have gotten off the drawing board. The primary obstacle is launch costs – any powersat large enough to make a difference will be massive, and launch costs would quickly negate the efficiency advantages of putting solar cells into orbit. It will take, I believe, a Phoebe-like source of building materials (and consumables for astronauts) pre-positioned in orbit before the economics of powersats will work.
There are many who believe science fiction expounds upon the potential threats and risks of science in order to avoid such pitfalls as we move forward. Do you believe energy transmission via microwave could ever be truly safe enough to be feasible, or is Energized a warning against such means entirely?
Most technologies can be abused – if we allow it. I don’t see any insurmountable obstacle to beamed microwaves as a power-delivery mechanism. We don’t allow just anyone to wander into ground-based power plants; just so, we would need to secure a powersat. As we commercialize and, eventually, colonize space, laws and law enforcement – and for some assets, even more robust security mechanisms – will become essential.
It stands to reason that space exploration would be limited, given the drastic changes to the energy and power structures here on Earth. Do you think, in light of real-world achievements like the development of privately-funded space programs and NASA’s Curiosity rover, that there’s at least some chance further exploration beyond earth’s orbit could survive such events as those depicted in your novel?
Decades of evidence to the contrary, I hope the Apollo program won’t prove to be the high tide of human exploration. As for robotics, the recent Curiosity landing – keen as it is – could be the end of another era. Curiosity (aka, the Mars Science Laboratory) grew out of a NASA solicitation in 2004. For the past few years NASA has begun little new – and stuck with less – in the way of space exploration, human or robotic. To the contrary, the U.S. recently backed out of the Mars Exploration Joint Initiative signed with the European Space Agency in 2009. But that’s not NASA’s fault, it’s the doing of Congress and the president.
Would humans look to space in the event of a Crudetastrophe-type crisis? I like to think so. Just as many credit Cold War rivalries with powering a Moon race, it might take a real shock to make humanity look off-world for new resources.
Corporations working in tandem with government agencies works rather well in Energized. Are there any current collaborations which seem promising from your vantage? Absent the existence of a second moon as a source of materials, do you think any organization has the capabilities of constructing a powersat in the present?
The recent flight of the Dragon – cargo delivery to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a privately owned spaceship – was an encouraging sign. And NASA recently awarded another round of seed funding to three companies toward private crew taxi services to the ISS. But flight to low Earth orbit – if still a challenging endeavor – is something we’ve done for more than half a century. It’s no surprise that companies can learn to do for themselves what companies (sometimes the same company) already learned to do for the government. On the other hand, I don’t foresee companies self-funding a lot of the basic R&D for much longer-range exploration (say, to Mars) absent government investment. Private ventures can’t undertake such huge, expensive risks for a possible very long-term payback.
As for powersats specifically, I believe space-based resources will be needed to make the economics work out. But as I’ve said, we can go out and capture space rocks.
Amidst decades of work in scientific fields, what led to your decision to enter the world of fiction? Did reading science fiction inspire you to choose a scientific career path? If so, are there any particular writers or stories which influenced you more than others?
I’ve read SF since – well, forever – beginning with Golden Age anthologies and the Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton juveniles. I was eight when Sputnik was launched, and I grew up in the early days of the Space Race. Between the two influences, I don’t see how I wouldn’t have gone into tech of some sort.
Writing SF was a hobby for a long time while I had a day job. After selling some short fiction and my second novel, I decided I had to see – or wonder ever after – if I could make a go of a second career as a writer. Eight years later, I’m glad I took the chance.
Your collaborative efforts with Larry Niven have been very well received. What’s it been like working with another author, particularly one of such renown?
Fun, to be sure. Larry is a great guy and a master of the genre. His Known Space has many wonderful elements, and I’ve enjoyed playing with some of his most beloved creations, including the Fleet of Worlds, Puppeteers, and Pak Protectors. In a pay-it-forward vein, I like to believe I’ve contributed with my own aliens, the Gw’oth, and by adding computer science to the future tech of Known Space.
What can readers and science enthusiasts expect from you in the near future? Any noteworthy projects on the horizon?
Next up: Fate of Worlds: Return From the Ringworld. Picture the epic story arcs of four Fleet of Worlds series novels and four Ringworld series novels coming together in an explosive finale. And that’s not hyperbole.
Lastly, considering the landing of our most advanced rover on the surface of Mars, the ongoing transition to the post-shuttle era, and getting our first glimpse of the unexplored territory beyond the confines of the solar system, we’re clearly not relenting in our efforts to explore and understand the cosmos. What are your thoughts on the future of humankind’s extraterrestrial endeavors?
Humanity can have a great future … if we dare. I hope we do. I believe we will.