This is a story about hard choices and, more importantly, gathering evidence and coming to an educated conclusion. What drew you to write this story?
Space exploration conjures up awe and excitement, but it’s also about making hard choices, especially once we leave the solar system. Because of my human rights background, I was interested in knowing what our absolute red lines would be if we were trying to save our species from extinction. What would we agree never to do in deep space? What line would we never cross? So I told the story from the point of view of people who created the line, and those who were living on the other side of it. Here on Earth we decided that we would not tolerate certain acts. We had also agreed not to allow any one country to claim property in space, but that shifted five years ago once we gained the technical capability and private space companies became viable. Now it’s grab what you want. If we’re willing to shift our behavior in space so easily when we can still live on Earth, what will happen when we can easily move among the stars?
Steward Mafokeng is a delightful character, someone who you just want to see succeed because she’s doing the right thing. Alternatively, Hutchins is that antagonist that you just love to hate, and perfect at being a rival to Mafokeng. What made them the perfect pairing for this story?
They’re both members on an interplanetary council that has a mission to save humanity. Each is charged with helping to protect and steward a ship carrying passengers who will populate new worlds. Mafokeng comes from a powerful and wealthy African family that is ashamed of a colossal mistake she made that led to the explosion of her ship. Hutchins is the opposite—a bureaucrat reveling in his political power under the guise of generosity. But I wanted each of them to speak truthfully.
“Between the Dark and the Dark” touches on the idea of the wrongful killing of others based upon cultural differences, namely the act of cannibalism. Why was cannibalism the center of this difference? It’s such an interesting topic to explore using space and starships as its backdrop.
Cannibalism is terrifying, especially when it’s related to sadistic pleasure. That perversity is why it’s the subject of so many television shows and movies. But if you dig a little deeper into history, you’ll see that it often cropped up in cultures around the world—from Europe, to Asia, to Africa, and the Americas—not for titillation but for some religious or cultural importance. A deep and captivating look into this practice is the late professor Inga Clendinnen’s profile of the Aztecs. The Aztecs did not practice cannibalism or human sacrifice out of spite or pure evil—it was folded into their immensely complex culture.
In a spacefaring culture where food and nutrients would be absolutely vital to survival of the entire crew, perhaps we’d find that the extreme isolation would awake ancient modes of organizing our society. But mimicking the Aztecs or some other culture wouldn’t be realistic in a highly technical culture. So I thought about what practices might evolve if you combined the two.
At the end of your story, you thank Professors Steven Desch and Steve Ruff at Arizona State University and the Center for Science and Imagination. How did they help you craft this piece?
I’m a Future Tense Fellow at ASU and New America, which connected me to both professors, who generously shared some ideas with me. This is huge because I’m not a scientist. Professor Desch helped me understand some of the finer points of telemetry and deep space communication, and Professor Ruff explained why radiation is such a difficult problem that is often overlooked by space travel enthusiasts. I won’t give away the ending, but his insights formed the heart of the story.
What’s next for you? Any future projects you’d like to talk about?
I’ve been developing a concept for a new story that I’m pretty excited about. It’s no secret that Michael Crichton’s writing inspires me, so my next project will be in that vein of writing—although hopefully updated for the times we live in and my own multicultural background. This is how I like to work—scratch out some ideas, learn as much as I can, talk to fascinating people, and then sit down and write.
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