Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Author Spotlight: Jeremiah Tolbert

The “space whales” or “messengers” are the catalyst to the story, but “In the Dying Light, We Saw a Shape” is much more about the connection that develops between Thom and Lilian. How do you strike that delicate balance between character development and science fiction elements?

Meaningful science fiction stories are really about the human condition, or so I’ve been told enough times that I’ve begun to believe it. We’re a pretty self-centered species at a fundamental level, so a story that deals only with an extremely “alien” entity would not be very satisfying to our need for stories. At the core of any story, there has to be a human soul, regardless of how dressed up it is as “other.”

The balance for me has gotten easier with time. I’m usually obsessed with the science fiction idea in my story, but I know if anyone is going to get to read my favorite part of the concepts and SF toys, I need to hook them with the characters and their development. As I worked on the story, I came to really sympathize with both Thom and Lilian, and so ultimately, I was passionate about both aspects. When I write a story in which I’m not as interested in the characters as I am the science fiction, I make a strong effort to find people I really care about who are impacted by the ideas I want to explore. That helps a lot.

There are a lot of great details about our future that are woven naturally into the story, so what is important for the reader to understand about the science fiction and the world and what do you feel like you can skim over or skip?

Details are an important tool in making a story feel like it exists beyond the margins of the actual story; one thing that’s important for me is to make sure the world in which my story takes place is a rich one, as complex as the world we live in. Ideally, all the details worked in would be important to the story, but I’m kind of bad about this; I like to work in ideas wherever I can that simply expand the scope of things, that make you feel like if you could step off the rails of the amusement park ride of a story, you’d find something beyond just two dimensional cardboard cutouts of buildings; you’d find rooms, filled with people and furniture doing things—a place that’s lived in.

There were various hints at government conspiracies and conspiracy theories in general throughout “In the Dying Light, We Saw a Shape.” What, if any, conspiracy theories influenced you? Would you say any conspiracy theories have particularly affected you?

That’s interesting; I didn’t really see any aspect of the government’s behavior as being a conspiracy. Really, I think the government in the story is trying to do its job of protecting the people. But I fear that a government as divided as ours is would not really be able to do much thinking about the situation, only to react in a pretty stereotypical manner of containment. Fundamentally, playing with aliens like the messengers is dangerous, and law enforcement branches of the government would aim to minimize that risk—that’s just the nature of what they do when dealing with the unknown.

It’s possible, though, that all those X-Files episodes I watched growing up had a more fundamental impact on my views of the role and behavior of government than I thought.

Exploring space and the mystery of space are central themes to the story. How do you feel about the continual budget reductions that are put on NASA and the rise that this seems to be giving to companies like SpaceX?

I think that the era of government-led space exploration is nearly over. Right now, space exploration is still far, far too expensive for the average person to do more than oooh and ahh over the pictures coming in from the Mars probes. But there’s a deep hunger for space exploration in us because we are still filled with awe at it. To go into space and survive is fundamentally the most difficult undertaking we have accomplished as a species—I really do believe that. There’s so much more out there, and I hope to see more of it before I die.

Organizations like SpaceX are interesting to me, but I’m not that interested in space tourism, which seems to be a major focus of theirs, at least in the short term. I’m much more interested in enterprises looking into asteroid mining; those are the kinds of commercial efforts that might actually get a human presence established off this rock, I think. And I do think we have to get off this rock and out there, if for no other reason than it turns out living on just one rock is a really good way to increase your chances of extinction.

That said, I also acknowledge that the motivations to go into space physically are pretty weak. In some ways, this story was an attempt to find a motivation that would spark everyone’s desire, to really push things forward at a faster pace. What would it take to get some people behind space exploration again? Maybe communion with a space whale would be enough. I’d like to think so, anyway.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about “In the Dying Light, We Saw a Shape?” What’s up next for you?

I hope that readers enjoy the story!

Coming up, I’m hard at work on a 150-page graphic novel called Nightfell. I’m also doing research on a young adult time travel novel set in Kansas that deals with teen troublemakers who are press-ganged by a desperate young girl into sailing a boat on the Cretaceous oceans to find and rescue her missing parents.

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Bradley Englert

BradleyEnglertBradley Englert is currently an undergrad at Western Kentucky University where he studies English, creative writing, and film. He enjoys writing fiction and directing short films. One day he hopes to have something written in italics in this section.