The May/June 2019 Analog features Alec Nevala-Lee’s novelette “At the Fall” [on sale now], which describes the adventures of a sentient underwater robot as she embarks on her long journey home. Attentive readers might notice a few parallels to Frank Wu’s short story “In the Absence of Instructions to the Contrary,” which appeared in Analog in November 2016. In the conversation that follows, Alec and Frank discuss their stories, how each was separately conceived and written, and what happens when two authors inadvertently find themselves exploring a similar idea.
Alec: When Analog editor Trevor Quachri accepted “At the Fall,” he mentioned that its premise had certain similarities to “In the Absence of Instructions to the Contrary,” but he thought that the development was different enough that both stories could stand on their own. At that point, I hadn’t read your story—I’ve been behind on my back issues for a long time!—but I was obviously curious about how you handled some of the same material. Once I took a look at your story, I liked it a lot.
Frank: Thanks, Alec! I definitely see some parallels between the two stories, but I’m super-glad Trevor took yours, because I really enjoyed reading it! I love all the stuff you wrote about whale falls (which I want to ask about later).
Alec: I want to know more about the process that led up to your story. I think it’s a really interesting example of two writers independently exploring an analogous idea, and I have the feeling that you arrived at your story from an entirely different direction than I did.
Frank: By adding nifty details and clever ideas, there’s a million things you can do with any premise. Almost every Star Trek episode is “Kirk and Spock beam down to a strange planet where they meet bizarre aliens who endanger the ship.”
Alec: I agree! What was the starting point of your story, and how did it evolve as you wrote?
Frank: One of my inspirations was an XKCD cartoon of a Mars Rover, who is convinced that, if he does a good job analyzing rocks, eventually he’ll get to go home. Poor guy. Another inspiration: our dogs have utter devotion for us, which is completely unearned on our part. And then there’s Jim Carrey saying, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.” Mix all those together, and you have the emotional core of my story, with all the other stuff added as decoration. Where did your story start?
Alec: It’s fascinating to me that you started with the emotional angle and added the rest down the line, because I did exactly the opposite! My process began with my fascination with whale falls—I’ve always wanted to build a story around one. At some point, it occurred to me to make the protagonist a miniature robot that would explore the fall as if it were a huge geological structure. (For a while, I thought about treating the true nature of the setting and main character as a big reveal at the end of the first act, but that seemed a little too gimmicky.) I always start by doing a bunch of research into the central subject, and when I learned about the distribution of whale falls on the ocean floor, it must have occurred to me that Eunice, my robot, would be trying to get home by using a series of falls as energy sources.
The idea that there had been some kind of global catastrophe arose from the realization that a whale fall could also serve as a metaphor for the fall of a civilization and the succession of lifeforms that would appear after the previous ones had passed away. In other words, the story’s themes and emotions came out of the science, which is how it often works in my case.
Frank: Let’s talk about whale falls more! When we think about extraterrestrial life, we first ask if there is water. But water is (probably) necessary but not sufficient. In huge swaths of the bottom of the ocean, there is plenty of water (duh), but few organics, so it’s as barren as a desert. A desert at the bottom of the ocean! And then this huge dead thing falls down like manna from heaven. And you get life. So life—LIIIIIIFE!!—is possible in otherwise inhospitable places.
There’s a snowy cap on one of the Hawaiian volcanoes. Plants can’t grow there, and it’s freezing cold. And yet there is a thriving insect population. What do they eat? The poor unfortunate bugs who are carried up there, by winds. Like miniature whale falls. Here’s a question: When you were doing research into whale falls, did you find some interesting little tidbit about them that didn’t fit into the story?
Alec: I used almost everything that I found! One big challenge was finding enough information to accurately describe whale falls with enough detail to make it convincing, so I spent a lot of time reading academic papers, studying pictures, and looking at videos like this one.
Frank: That video is AMAZING. The whale skeleton is like this alien Big Dumb Object that’s fallen into our Universe! And I love when the narrator says that scientists have discovered 178 different animals on the whale carcass, most of which have been seen nowhere else. Wowzers!
Alec: I know, right? What I really enjoyed—although it was often tricky—was building the story around the facts that I had available. It had to take place in a part of the ocean that had hydrothermal vents and a lot of whale falls, so I ended up charting a journey from Mexico to Seattle. I had to figure out a plausible power source that could depend on chemicals found only at vents or whale falls, and the average distance between falls helped me determine how far Eunice could travel before recharging. As usual, these constraints led me to story ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise, which is one of my favorite parts of the writing process.
Frank: The way you integrated the whale fall and Eunice’s power system was really clever, and the journey’s path felt really organic to the story. That’s the trick, isn’t it? Adding enough details to make it believable, but not so much that the reader feels like they’re reading Wikipedia.
Alec: Did anything similar happen with you? How did you arrive at some of your details?
Frank: I did a metric ton of research for my story, most of which was left out. My story took place mostly around Johnson Atoll, which is sorta near Hawaii. And for this story I was writing SCIENCE FICTION, DAMNIT, not hand-wavy fantasy full of mumble-jumble argle-bargle, and I wanted details. DETAILS! I didn’t want to just say, “A fish swam by.” I wanted to say what kind of fish, in what habitat, and if it would be appropriate for that depth and that time of day. Luckily, I found on eBay some dude’s doctoral thesis, which was, essentially, A Complete Catalog of All Fish and Other Marine Life Around Johnson Atoll, though production on the story ground to a halt for a week while I waited for it to come in the mail. I also read an entire book written by a woman tasked with the first thorough maintenance of a submersible that had logged years underwater. She wrote a thousand-page manual detailing how to restore, repair, and replace every single component. Readers of Analog want details! And I am more than happy to give it to them.
Alec: I love hearing the details of your research process—I end up doing a lot of that kind of thing myself, and it’s great to find other writers who think the way I do! (I found myself reading a lot of papers with titles like “Control of malodorous hydrogen sulfide compounds using microbial fuel cells.”)
Frank: Here’s a different question (can I change topics without permission?). When a story starts, there are a thousand different places it can go. You mentioned deep-sixing the idea of the slow reveal of the nature of the characters. Were there other plot possibilities you considered? In a parallel universe, does “At the Fall” have a different ending?
Alec: As far as alternate ideas go, the original ending of “At the Fall” would have been a lot darker—it would have involved Eunice and Wagner ending up all alone in a deserted world, and it wasn’t until later that I decided that Eunice would have sisters who could reappear at the end. I also spent some time with the idea that the robots were built to operate in the depths of the ocean, and they couldn’t survive at the surface, which I dropped. There was also another plot point that involved Eunice venturing onto land for the first time, which didn’t make sense once I’d figured out her final design.
Frank: Those are fascinating alternative routes your story could’ve taken. Tell me more about how you wrote it!
Alec: About halfway through the brainstorming phase, I realized that the plot had some similarities with the story “Surface Tension” by James Blish, which is about miniature aquatic humanoids who are left behind by colonists on an alien planet. (One character is named “Eunice Wagner,” which inspired the names that I used, and it turned out to be a nice coincidence that “Eunice” was also the name of a Nereid in Greek mythology.) I also listened to a lot of Moby while I was writing the story, which turned out to be the perfect soundtrack. Were there any fictional models or inspirations that you kept in mind as you were writing?
Frank: Not so much specific fictional models, except possibly the entire oeuvre of A.E. van Vogt, where you can start the day off shopping and end up forming planets. Or maybe the collected works of E.E. Smith, where you start with building a spaceship in your backyard, and end up tossing worlds like cannonballs and blowing up stars. I like the idea of a plot zigging when you thought it would zag. But there’s a key thing I try to put in a story—and I liked this aspect of yours, too. Some writers choose the main character based on who has the most to lose, or who is the most emotionally invested. I see the main character as the one with the hardest choice. Like Eunice deciding should she stay or should she go? Are there general writing principles or ideals you use as you’re building your stories?
Alec: My big thing is making sure that all of the characters behave as logically as possible, even in the face of incredible circumstances. In some ways, Eunice takes this notion to the ultimate level—once she makes the decision to head home, everything that she does is completely logical, and she’s able to follow her plan to the limit because she has infinite reserves of patience. (I never actually did the math to figure out how long it took for her to get back to Seattle, but I think the reader gets the point.)
Looking over our two stories, they seem like a great example of how an idea can be executed in any number of ways, and there’s plenty of room for more than one author to play with a given premise. (The editor John W. Campbell used to give the same basic idea to half a dozen writers, knowing that he would end up with half a dozen different stories.) I’m glad that both of our stories exist, and I’ve even begun toying with the possibility that they take place in the same timeline. If I ever revise “At the Fall” for publication elsewhere, I may insert an Easter egg or two to make the connection more clear. Any closing thoughts?
Frank: This has been fun! I love the idea of putting in references so our stories are actually linked. And now that this joint interview is concluding, I should get back to writing. I have some ideas about a distant sequel to my story. But now I’m afraid to tell you details—but it would be absolutely astounding if the sequels to my story and yours accidentally wound up in the same place—AGAIN!