How did “Tethered” get started? From the beginning, the visuals in “Tethered” had me hooked. Was there a particular image that you really wanted to show us?
I want to shout out the Alpha Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Workshop for Young Writers. I worked on early drafts of “Tethered” there, and it became my first professional sale. The idea spawned from my dual interests in space law and space debris. There was something about the image of debris around Earth that felt personal and tragic while simultaneously grand and almost apocalyptic. I had attended the 2008 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, hosted annually by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and that year the subject was “Mining the Sky.” One of the debaters was Henry Hertzfeld, a professor of space law at George Washington University. Sometime around then, I’d also read about the quantity of debris in orbit—right now, just under 700,000 pieces of debris larger than a centimeter, according the European Space Agency. Even a piece of debris as small as a centimeter can do serious damage and generate a cascade effect of debris—the Kessler Syndrome. Space mining is a far off prospect, but debris is a very real issue and poses some fascinating and pressing legal and political questions about international accountability. I wanted to put a face and a story to all of this. And, yes, it could make for a visual feast.
I was particularly drawn to the early image of the junkship hanging “over” the satellite, and to that last image of Kalima. Both felt precarious—possibly hopeful, but possibly disastrous, much like the current predicament of debris.
How conscious were you at the outset of writing “Tethered” that the ending was going to be ambiguous? It’s easy for me as a reader to want to have more definite answers at the end of a work (happy endings for everyone! I’m a softie); were you tempted as a writer to fall on one side or the other regarding Kalima and Charlie’s fates?
I juggled for a while, but I think I had a feeling around a third of the way through the writing process that the story would end ambiguously. This felt the most honest. One of my favorite essays is Peter Watts’s “Outtro: En Route to Dystopia,” which concludes his collection Beyond the Rift. He’s notorious for writing very dark near futures, and he says he does so because he feels an obligation to confront the political terrors of this world: “It is not a world my characters built. It is only the world we left them.” For him, confronting this reality is integral to changing it. He wrote this after “Tethered,” but the essay resonates with my feelings about the story.
The problem we have now with debris is that the international community hasn’t woken up to the reality of the situation, that if we don’t do something to remove debris now, it will eventually hit us hard. We have reached a point of no return where, even if we stop launching satellites into orbit (which we won’t), the density of stuff up there is such that a Kessler event is likely within the next 200 years if we don’t start taking stuff down, and the 2006 study on that was before the two record-breaking events in debris history: the Chinese anti-satellite test and Russian-Iridium collision.
More generally, the debris issue is symptomatic of the even scarier problem of the politicization and militarization of spaceflight. I wanted to force readers to confront where our future is headed, and to be left with that choice to interpret the ending, to “make the future” in their social and political imaginations, because that’s the reality we’re left with today.
I also wanted to toy with readers’ prejudices. A surface reading of the story would see the Chinese as the antagonists, but I think that boils down to what you think they’ll do with Kalima at the end. I was tempted to take a side (and perhaps you can guess what I think happened based on what I’ve just said), but, again, I wanted to force readers to struggle with that judgment on their own.
You’ve written that you do two things: write and make robots. Does writing inform your robot-making, or is it more the other way around? Are there unexpected ways you combine these two passions?
Writing and engineering always felt hand-in-hand for me. What I write inspires my work in engineering, and vice versa. The climactic sequence of “Tethered” was actually inspired by an AP physics exam problem about space shuttle tethers. Since I wrote “Tethered”—maybe because of it—I’ve further pursued space law and debris. I worked at Boeing’s satellite facility in El Segundo in their “Survivability Department,” which focuses on debris and other interference from the space environment. For my engineering degree, I conducted an independent study with NASA astronaut Mike Massimino on space law and debris. All of this work has given me a host of new story ideas. And now I’m headed to law school, where I want to focus on space law. But I will never lose sight of my writing. Stories are crucial for me to grapple with the social, moral, and political implications of my work in technology and law.
What’s next for you, Haris Durrani?
My debut book, Technologies of the Self, just won the Driftless Novella Contest from Brain Mill Press. It’s a fictionalization of my family heritage from both the Dominican Republic and Pakistan, and of my experiences growing up Muslim in America. There is also a time-travelling space knight. I am happy to say that it has garnered a lot of early buzz thus far.
Spread the word!