“The Dark Age” begins with an intense moment of character drama, even more so to many parents. Can you tell us a little about what inspired the story?
When my wife and I decided that we would move to Portland, OR, our daughter wasn’t quite a year old. By the time she was two, I’d been laid off at work, and found myself working triply hard to keep our family above the water line. For me, at that time, that meant I was doing quite a bit of consulting work, burying myself in book cover design projects, and of course interviewing like mad for a new job. All of this kept me extraordinarily busy while at home, my daughter was growing up by leaps and bounds. Each day when I came home, my dear wife had stories of new developments I’d missed. “The Dark Age” comes entirely from that place of feeling that I was doing exactly what my family needed me to do in order to care and provide for them, and by doing so, I was constantly orbiting them, missing out on all of the moments I so badly longed to witness. To this day, “The Dark Age” takes me back to that place. It just breaks me up.
Every word, every scene, heightens the tension of the story. You capture the character’s hopes, fears, and bittersweet dreams. There is no monster or evil outside force, simply the grim reality of extended space travel and saying goodbye. As a writer, how important is it to you to make those strong emotional connections with your readers?
Well, let me answer that as a reader first: I’ll go absolutely anywhere with an author who can pluck those emotional notes within me. I’m a raw nerve. My favorite books and films and songs are the ones that get in there, really deep, and just start mucking around with my wiring. And the impetus to be a writer comes directly from being a reader, so I suppose it’s only natural that similar emotional themes emerge in my work. When one of my own stories cuts me as deeply as this one did, it usually means I’m doing something right.
This story also addresses the issue of extra-marital sex, in particular sex for the sake of positive relationships and mental well-being. Many people and organizations are uncomfortable with the thought of relationships of that nature, particularly because of the possible discomfort that may come of it later on (which you also address). Do you foresee any other social challenges humanity might face before we reach the stars?
Yes, that’s true; the team of people aboard the ship in “The Dark Age” are all faced with a future that doesn’t include their partners and loved ones. They’re isolated in ways that most of us never will be, with an ever-widening gulf—physical, emotional, verbal—between them and their spouses and lovers. Under such circumstances I’m not surprised to see relationships aboard the ship become sexual. I do wonder about their inner lives as they consummate those relationships. How does it make them feel, searching for physical companionship and connections while their own relationships back home are hurtling towards an unavoidable ending?
It seems to me that any journey to the stars would rewrite social norms, and probably in ways we wouldn’t anticipate. When you live in space, thousands of miles from the traditions and heritage of your upbringing, what rules will you find yourself rewriting? What artificial boundaries will break down?
I’ve always wondered about the crew’s mission in “The Dark Age.” Given the commitment they’ve each made, it seems it must be a very serious endeavor. They’re sacrificing their own families for a cause, I think, and if that’s true, the cause must be very great. But the cost is immense, and when they achieve their goal, they’ll be doing so for entirely new generations of people back home. Let’s say they return home someday. Not a single soul on Earth will know them, not personally. Will they resent the strangers they’ve saved, while missing the families they’ve lost?
It is said that writers write what they know. How much of Jason Gurley made it onto the page in “The Dark Age”?
Quite a bit, I think. All of the anxieties and fears of being a father went into this story, in particular the fear of my child’s future, of what she’ll encounter in her lifetime as our planet changes, as we change as a civilization. The story is about my own sense of missing out, as I mentioned before, but there’s another wrinkle there: it’s also about my fear of missing out on everything she’ll do, all she’ll become.
Years ago I read one of Stephen Baxter’s Manifold novels—Manifold: Time, perhaps?—in which a character floated alone to the edge of our solar system, then dove into a wormhole. For years afterward, he bounced around through time and space, now and then popping back into our solar system to witness how mankind had evolved, what it had achieved. There’s a sense of that built into “The Dark Age,” too. It’s not only my daughter’s life that I don’t want to miss out on; it’s the grand march we’re all on. I’d live forever if I could. I just want to know where we’re going, where we end up. I hate the idea that I’ll die without those answers.
With the re-release of Eleanor, and stories in anthologies such as Loosed Upon the World, Synchronic, and Help Fund My Robot Army!!!, your readership continues to expand. If you could part the mists of time and look into the future, how would you like to see your writing remembered?
I want to twist the question just a bit in my answer. I’d rather be remembered for the husband and father and all-around decent person that I hope I am, and I’d prefer if my writing didn’t have to be remembered, because it will go on being read. Plenty of writers and their books are forgotten by time. It’s madness to spend time worrying about whether I’ll be one of them.
I am, however, particularly excited about Eleanor’s re-release into the world. An excerpt of it appeared right here in Lightspeed back in 2014, when I’d self-published the novel. And here we are, two years later, with a major publisher bringing Eleanor to a wider audience. It’s been a very surreal couple of years, and quite a dream come true.
If offered the opportunity to “see what’s out there,” would you accept?
In the film Contact, Jodie Foster’s character takes a journey to the stars only after the first choice—an experienced astronaut with a family—resigns his commission. In a press conference, his young son says—and I may be paraphrasing here—“I told him I didn’t want him to go.” The astronaut shrugs and asks how anyone could argue with that. I relate to that astronaut for precisely this reason; I wouldn’t be capable of leaving behind the family I love so much. But I also want to smack the astronaut for even putting his name into the hat to begin with. Secretly, you know that guy’s going to burn with resentment for the rest of his life. Those poor kids. That poor family.
My wife and I talked about this question. If NASA asked me tomorrow to join the Mars mission, would I go? I wouldn’t. There are many, many more qualified people for that kind of job. I wouldn’t trade a full life with my family for that. I couldn’t do it.
But, hypothetically speaking, if someone had to go to the stars in order to save all of mankind, and I was the only person on Earth qualified for the job—what then? Putting my family first would be a crime against our species. Wouldn’t it? By saying no, what would I doom humanity to? I gotta say, I’m grateful that I don’t have any world-saving abilities, so I’ll never be faced with this kind of decision. I mean, what kind of save-humanity space mission would require my special set of skills, anyway? “Aliens have demanded that we send a human representative to the Galactic Council to defend our planet’s right to survival. Strict requirements: Our representative has to be bearded, kinda tall, a mediocre third baseman, a moderately competent drummer, a decent illustrator with zero knowledge of human anatomy, a fan of the films of Paul Thomas Anderson but not Wes Anderson, more partial to Superman Returns than Man of Steel, a student who attended the infamous Texas Cheerleader-Murdering-Mom junior high school, and utterly inexperienced at all things aeronautical, biological, mathematical—well, anything ending in -al. Jason! You’re clearly the only man for this job.”
No, I’ll just strive for immortality down here on Earth so I am around when whoever goes to the stars decides to come back. Then they’ll have someone to tell their stories to.
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