Eric Choi revisits the Columbia disaster with his newest tale—”The Greatest Day.” In our current issue you’ll also find a companion fact article tackling the science behind the event as well as the reimagined alternate history. After getting to know Eric in our Q&A, give “The Greatest Day” a listen—free—in our first podcast, launched this year as part of our 90th anniversary celebration!
Analog Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
EC: “The Greatest Day” is an alternate history about the Space Shuttle Columbia accident. It has particular meaning to me because I was there when it happened.
I was at the Kennedy Space Center the morning of February 1st, 2003 to see the landing of Columbia. Over the loudspeakers, the NASA public affairs person kept saying that Mission Control was trying to reestablish communications with the shuttle. That never happened. The landing countdown clock went to zero and then started counting up. We were ordered back to our buses and sent to wait in the Operations and Checkout Building. During the ride, a woman got a phone call from her sister who told her a TV news channel was reporting that debris was falling in Texas.
We were not permitted to leave the O&C Building for several hours. After watching a televised statement by the NASA Administrator, followed by the president’s address to the nation, we were finally allowed to depart later that afternoon. I remember stepping outside into bright sunshine and a cloudless blue sky. That moment was, strangely, still my most vivid memory of that day. It was such a beautiful afternoon.
AE: What is your history with Analog?
EC: I was introduced to Analog by a childhood friend named Leslie Gelberger. His father, Peter Gelberger, had been buying Analog since 1961, and remains a subscriber to this day. At Leslie’s recommendation, the first Analog story I ever read was “The Road Not Taken” by Eric G. Iverson in the November 1985 issue. I was thrilled that there was apparently a professional writer out there also named Eric; however, the table of contents outed him as Harry Turtledove. The ending of “The Road Not Taken” lingered with me for days, and it fostered a crazy dream that I could perhaps also write stories that were equally thought-provoking. And maybe, just maybe, I might even be lucky enough to appear in the pages of Analog someday.
My childhood dream was finally realized when “Crimson Sky” appeared in the July/August 2014 issue. That story would go on to win the 2015 Prix Aurora Award, Canada’s highest honor for speculative fiction, in the category of Best Short Fiction in English. I have subsequently appeared in Analog with “Most Valuable Player” in the April 2016 issue, “Decrypted” in the May/June 2017 issue, and now “The Greatest Day” in the 90th anniversary January/February 2020 issue. The latter is a particular honor because I will be sharing a table of contents with none other than Harry Turtledove, whose work inspired my dream of writing for Analog all those years ago.
Leslie Gelberger was tragically killed on April 20th, 2017. It would take pages to describe everything he did for me, but the introduction to Analog must be close to the top of the list. I am glad that he lived to see two of my stories appear in the magazine we both love. Around the first anniversary of Leslie’s death, his father, Peter Gelberger, gifted me with his entire collection of Analogs from 1961 to 2017. And so it was that I found myself spending two weeks last summer sitting on the floor of my home office, surrounded by boxes of Analog (they’re still there!) and savoring the many decades of truly astounding stories.
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
EC: My background is in aerospace engineering, and many of my greatest influences and inspirations have been other engineers and scientists. The British website SF2 Concatenation has an excellent series of articles by science fiction writers with a degree in science, engineering, mathematics, or medicine about the top ten scientists and engineers who have most inspired or influenced them. My article appeared in the Summer 2019 edition.
I was thrilled that there was apparently a professional writer out there also named Eric; however, the table of contents outed him as Harry Turtledove. The ending of “The Road Not Taken” lingered with me for days, and it fostered a crazy dream that I could perhaps also write stories that were equally thought-provoking. And maybe, just maybe, I might even be lucky enough to appear in the pages of Analog someday.
AE: How did you break into writing?
EC: My start in writing is owed to the Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy (formerly the Isaac Asimov Award), which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. I was the very first recipient of the Dell/Asimov Award for a story called “Dedication,” which was about a team of astronauts on Mars struggling to survive after their rover is damaged in a meteorite shower. The story was published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, and years later it was reprinted in Japanese translation in the anthology The Astronaut from Wyoming and Other Stories. I am forever grateful to the late Gardner Dozois, Rick Wilber, and Sheila Williams for kicking off my writing career.
AE: What are you reading right now?
EC: I typically have a pile of (way too many) books on my night table that I alternate through before going to bed. Currently, the pile consists of Arctic Rising by Tobias Buckell, the Mission Critical anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan, and The Fifty Year Mission oral history of Star Trek compiled by Mark Altman and Edward Gross. The non-genre books in the pile are The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre, about the Russian defector Oleg Gordievsky who changed the history of the Cold War, and Does It Fart? The Definitive Field Guide to Animal Flatulence by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti.
AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background, and does it impact your fiction?
EC: I have a bachelor’s degree in Engineering Science and a master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, both from the University of Toronto. In my engineering career, I have worked on a number of space projects including QEYSSat (Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite), the Meteorology (MET) payload on the NASA/JPL Phoenix Mars Lander, the Canadarm2 on the International Space Station (ISS), the RADARSAT-1 Earth-observation satellite, and the MOPITT (Measurements of Pollution on the Troposphere) instrument on the NASA Terra satellite. In 2009, I was one of the Top 40 finalists out of 5,351 applicants in the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut recruitment campaign, but I did not advance further because I failed the swimming test. I wish there had been an Analog story to warn me that learning to swim would be prerequisite for becoming a Canadian astronaut (it is apparently not a requirement for NASA).
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
EC: Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/AerospaceWriter
Eric Choi is an aerospace engineer and award-winning writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He co-edited the hard SF anthology Carbide Tipped Pens (Tor) with former Analog editor Ben Bova and the Prix Aurora Award winning Chinese-themed anthology The Dragon and the Stars (DAW) with Derwin Mak. His short stories have appeared in over 20 publications. In 2009, he was one of the Top 40 finalists (out of 5,351 applicants) in the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut recruitment campaign.