In this Author Spotlight, we asked author James Patrick Kelly to tell us a bit about the background of his story for Lightspeed, “Breakaway, Backdown.”
Will you tell us a little about the origins of this story?
I have always aspired to sell to Analog so I decided to take another shot at writing a hard science story. Also, I needed a story to bring to the Sycamore Hill Writers Workshop. Maybe these two things were working against each other because the science in this story is hard enough that Greg Benford bought it as a reprint for his anthology Skylife. But messing around with the narration to impress my mates at SycHill might have been a deal breaker for the Analog audience. In any event, Stan Schmidt passed and Gardner Dozois didn’t.
Despite Cleo’s seeming confidence, there’s a vulnerable uneasiness to her banter, as if she’s one of those people who talk more (instead of less) when they’re nervous. Is she trying to convince herself, as well as Jane, that she made the right decision?
No question that she is uneasy about her decision, although I think she knows all too well that Elena was right. Of course, Cleo has also altered her personality and isn’t really herself again until well into the story.
Cleo mentions that she “moved to the night” when she was young. Now she owns a day-night timeshare. The fact that both space travel and regular life are so greatly changed from anything we’re familiar with adds a great deal of believability to the story. Were there any other reasons you chose to advance life on earth in addition to space travel?
I decided to make it clear that one of the reasons why anyone would go to space, given that living there would lop years off one’s life span, is that life on Earth is much less attractive in the world of the story than it is in our world. Extrapolating a more crowded and less fulfilling mundane existence makes the glamour of breaking away into space seem more inviting.
I found it interesting that Elena didn’t reveal the toll that breaking away took on her body until the day of Cleo’s breakaway, as if Elena decided to say these things at the last moment. We don’t get a chance to hear her point of view, but what’s your take on that? Why did Elena wait so long?
I think that Elena had real feelings for Cleo, and that she was giving her the full measure of time to earn her right to breakaway.
Cleo claims that she changed her mind when Elena revealed her weakened body. But I wonder if it was even about aging at all. Could it instead have been a realization on Cleo’s part that Elena may not have needed her as much as she needed and wanted Elena?
Interesting. I often realize after I publish a story that there is more to find in it than I was conscious of including. I definitely think the story supports this reading, although it wasn’t one that I was aware of as I was typing it.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about this story?
This story has had an amazing afterlife. It’s among my most reprinted (thanks for adding to the total, Lightspeed!), but it has also been reincarnated as a stage play (with many productions), an audioplay and, just last year, as an independent short film. I am not known for being a hard science fiction writer, which is probably why “Breakaway, Backdown” is one of my favorite stories.
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