(Warning: If you’re worried about that sort of thing, there are some minor spoilers for The Winds of Vulcan below).
Some of you may have noticed that Zendexor has graciously provided a home for a few of my stories in the issues of Tales to Astound. Some of you may have even read them - and to that elite and pioneering few, thanks. I appreciate your joining me in my rickety old rocket as I putt around the OSS, looking for interesting things to fill the pages in time for the monthly “Astound” deadline. The spacelanes are less lonely for your companionship.
My latest venture began as a request from our beloved webmaster himself - a challenge I was eager to take on. As the date approaches when Incandescence must disappear from the website to live in the pages of Vintage Worlds, he thought it might be fun to have a story set on Vulcan to take its place. The brilliant fury of the Sun goes, and the equally-brilliant-albeit-nonexistent fury of the hypothesized innermost planet steps in. That, at least, was his hope, but I’m sorry to say that as far as blazing glory goes, The Winds of Vulcan is likely to let him down. My Vulcan is dark and cloudy - not exactly what comes to mind when one imagines a planet a mere thirteen million miles from the Sun.
In my defense, the earliest drafts of the story had many wordy descriptions of “sunlight pouring through the viewports like a river” and “boiling, torrid pits of molten stone”, but in the end I felt I wasn’t doing anything that Alan E. Nourse hadn’t done better in Brightside Crossing (a wonderful tale, go and read it if you haven’t). I decided, as other authors have, that Vulcan must be tidally locked planet. Some research told me that such planets could, in real life, have a constant breeze off of their nightsides, as warm air on the dayside rises and leaves a vacancy. The closer to its sun, the more intense a planet’s winds might be. From there, the outline of my Vulcan presented itself.
Realists may object, pointing out at the planet so close would probably have no atmosphere at all, as the solar wind would blow it away. Fair point. My Vulcan has lots of erupting volcanoes, as befits its name, and they replenish the atmosphere. Or maybe it has some other mechanism that would work better. I didn't let it worry me too much.
There were other early complications. For example, initially, my characters were asteroid prospectors, down on their luck and trying the asteroids near the sun before disaster struck. This version saw Vulcan as a dwarf planet, inside its own Sun-hugging belt. But none of that served the story, so I took it out.
Well, I took it out except for one detail. The ship’s name, Barwaaqo, is a Somali word meaning “plenty”, and in Somali tradition, it referred to rain successfully prayed for by the nomadic peoples of that country (this information is taken from various online sources, so if you know better, please feel free to correct me: I’ll be appreciative). I intended the name as sardonic wink to the reader, given the financial straits that originally drove my heroes to calamity, and I liked it so much that I couldn't change it. I think the name still fits, as their luck did not improve with the final draft.
There are other such names in the story. Fahmi means “wise” and I read somewhere that Kowuko means “this one will survive”, although I can’t seem to find where. And in other stories: Meri Solar Orbital Station in Incandescence is named for a Brazilian folk hero of the Sun, the Ropen in Pirates of Titan are named after a flying Indonesian cryptid, and the Lunar city of Utulivu in Whom Gods Destroy takes its name from the Swahili word for tranquility.
I also like to reference classic scifi, as with my K&M Coil Pistols, which get their initials from Kuttner and Moore, Moore being the inventor of the Space Cowboy in her character Northwest Smith. In Pirates, Gabe’s boat is called The Siren after Kurt Vonnegut's fantastic The Sirens of Titan, and in Wanderers of Mars, the fictional song “The Green Hills of Earth” is mentioned, Northwest Smith’s favorite tune and a short story by Robert Heinlein. (Note: I’d like to rewrite Wanderers, so now I will have to find a way to keep that reference in it, or I’ll make myself a liar).
Astute readers might observe that many of my characters have names originating in nations near or on the equator. I like to imagine that, as space travel becomes more common, interplanetary companies naturally carry their business to the equator in an effort to exploit the advantage to rocket launches. The influx of business, I reason to myself, could launch the economies of those countries sky high, and their citizens as well. The OSS could be flooded with Indonesian, Somali, Brazilian, Kenyan, and Venezuelan colonists, among others.
That’s not to say that all of my stories take place in the same universe, merely that I enjoy reusing that backdrop. That said, there really isn’t much to preclude a shared universe yet, so if somebody wanted to believe such, they could. I’d just rather focus on trying to write a the best story I can, and not have to worry about inter-story consistency or anything. It’s a personal preference.
I’ve got other challenges, anyway. Namely, trying to write about characters from other cultures while remaining respectful and believable takes a lot of research, and I have no doubt I have made and will make missteps. I hope any readers will be forgiving.
Zendexor has suggested, as he is skilled in doing, a name for the rough-and-tumble Old Solar System milieu I have imagined. He proposes I called it “Gritty NOSS”, which is fine by me. I do like a bit of grit.
May your skin-tight spacesuit never chafe,
PS: Jamie, I really enjoyed your article about your time working for NASA. You’ve took part in something most of us only dream about, and I have about a million questions. But for now, I’ll start with one: If you could select one of the crazy, out-there projects you worked on to come to fruition, which would it be?