In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Jake Kerr to tell us a bit about the background of his story for Lightspeed, “The Old Equations.”
“The Old Equations” evolved in the wake of my previous story being rejected from a lot of different places. I knew why it was being rejected—its connection to science fiction was ephemeral. You could take the story and move it to practically any era, and it would still work.
It wasn’t science fiction; it was fiction with science as window dressing. I resolved myself to write a hard science fiction story, where the science was critical to its emotional depth.
I looked to the history of science fiction for inspiration, and the story that immediately came to mind was Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations.” Here was a story with gut-wrenching emotional turmoil linked directly to its central science fiction premise. As far as I am concerned, it defines the genre of hard science fiction. I decided to write an homage to the story.
Was it difficult to write your story while keeping “The Cold Equations” in mind?
At first. The initial genesis of “The Old Equations” was to take the plot of “The Cold Equations,” complete with stowaway, and overlay a different set of cold scientific facts to fuel the tragedy, in this case the stowaway’s ignorance of Einstein’s theories and time dilation. I really liked the tragedy of someone stowing away on a ship for kicks and then finding out in horror that all of her family would be dead of old age when the ship returns. But after I started writing it, I realized that it wasn’t so much an homage as theft. I was simply writing “The Cold Equations” with a different bit of science.
That’s a far different story than what you ended up with. How did you change things to end up with your final draft?
I pulled back and decided to look at a different scenario but with the same central tension of “The Cold Equations.” I also decided to use different literary techniques than Godwin, from my use of the epistolary format to my weaving in of the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief. But while the story and how it is told are perhaps unrelated to the plot and prose of “The Cold Equations,” the tragic spirit of real people facing the cold harsh reality of a science they don’t understand is there.
Some of the missives in the story get cut off because of the word limit in the transmission process. Did anything in particular influence this narrative choice?
Communication was the biggest challenge in “The Old Equations.” When I used traditional radio technology, the delays due to the vast distances of space undermined the tension. There is something much more visceral when James says, “No shit, Doc, put Kate on” than if he knew there was an hour or even longer delay. So I researched a communications system that would operate with immediacy. The only real choice with a modicum of scientific legitimacy was quantum entanglement. As I settled on quantum entanglement as the technology, I realized that by adding small pieces that revealed frustrating limitations I could further underscore the Godwin homage of “cold equations” and that it significantly added to the tension.
Thematically, here was a science that was unstable, cold, and almost cruelly arbitrary. Hence the one kilobyte character limit, and the fact that you can’t really just hit “send” when you hit that limit. At our most basic level we are social animals, and a critical part of that is communication. But when that communication between people who care for each other is marked by arbitrary rules and uncertain reliability, our whole social connection breaks down, even more so for a husband and wife.
In terms of the narrative, that arbitrariness, instability, and powerlessness obviously becomes a key plot point and provides us a glimpse at the cold equations of which Tom Godwin wrote about so eloquently.
What would you like a reader to take away from ‘The Old Equations’?
Of course, more than anything, I’d like the reader to be touched by the story. We all face loss, and we all face how cold and harsh reality can be at times. To see or feel that this is shared by all of us is powerful, even through as simple a vehicle as a science fiction story. I hope that my story was able to be that vehicle. Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” certainly did that for me, and if all I achieved in writing this story is to have others read Godwin’s story—well, then I did what I ultimately intended to do. Because this has always been intended to be, first and foremost, an homage.