by A.T. Sayre
“Rover” [on sale now] is the very first story of mine to be published in a professional-level magazine. I have had other stories placed elsewhere, in very fine small market/online publications, and I am as proud of and love those stories just as much as “Rover.” But that does not take away from the personal moment I’ve been having in the back of my head on a loop ever since I got Trevor’s e-mail telling me he was taking my story for Analog.
It just hits me every once in a while—me, in the same magazine that has published every single speculative fiction writer that I have ever admired. Not to mention specific stories that they’ve published that I grew up on, like Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God,” or Asimov’s “The Dead Heavens.” I remember reading Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” in a high school English class, which was the first time I ever heard anyone not into science fiction say something good and serious about a science fiction story without trying to pretend that it wasn’t a science fiction story. Those works all first saw the light of day in the pages in Astounding/Analog. And of course, they published friggin’ Dune. And now for some reason they have chosen to put the work of a doofus like me in their pages. Contemplating this has been equal parts exhilarating and intimidating.
It took me somewhere around six weeks to write “Rover.” I can’t point to a specific moment where the idea for it washed over me like an ocean wave of Eureka! sending me running through traffic, wild-eyed and desperate to get home to start writing it down. Nothing like that happened. I honestly couldn’t tell you how I got the idea for the story. Or when. Sometime a few months before I started it, I probably read some random article about the Curiosity Rover. Or an article on Mars in general. Or just saw a picture on my Facebook feed. Or stubbed my toe crossing the canyon-like depression in the middle of my street, the one that has sunk so far that the old-time cobblestones buried under the pavement are showing. Could have been anything. All I know is that early that winter, I didn’t have the idea in my head. And then a few months later in the late spring, I did.
I find this is a more common origin of a story than the sudden lightning flash in the brain down into the fingers type of thing. There can be times when the points of a story come to you and snap into a hole in the picture neatly—that happens too—but that’s not exactly what people think of, is it? No, the concept of the inspirational moment is always more flamboyant than just a single piece, it’s the whole story—plot, theme, and structure just coming to you out of nowhere, in some kind of magical burst of artistic genius. But to me that sounds more like the kind of thing someone would say to impress people at a party than something that actually happens.
I don’t think ideas ever just appear in your head like that. They grow from a single point going on in the back of your mind, usually so insignificant you don’t even know it’s there. An image, a phrase you like, a fraction of a scene, an idea or an emotion you’d like to express somehow. Most never really go anywhere and just float around, perhaps fading away over time. But some are too strong; they gain mass, slowly getting bigger, pulling in other little bits floating in the soup, making connections and expanding, gaining depth and context. The whole thing is more accretion than explosion.
Sooner or later, the idea will get too big to stay quiet any longer, and will start waving at you when you’re idle. When you’re standing on a subway car or waiting in line at the supermarket. Maybe that can be misunderstood as a story suddenly coming to you like magic, because having the makings of a space opera jump to the front of your brain while washing your coffee mug can seem like that. But I don’t think that’s what’s happened; the story’s been with you for a while—you just finally noticed it.
But some [ideas] are too strong; they gain mass, slowly getting bigger, pulling in other little bits floating in the soup, making connections and expanding, gaining depth and context. The whole thing is more accretion than explosion.
Even after I had the idea, knew what I wanted to happen, how it would end, and what it was all meant to mean, I still only had a very general idea of “Rover” in a logistical sense. A lot of the details inside were not filled in quite so much. Some of it was the particulars of the rover’s journey across Mars, but much, much more of it was Mars itself, a planet nobody has ever been to in person and thus nobody could give a first-hand understanding of. Which I suspect is a common kind of problem for speculative fiction writers.
So I did what I could to get better acquainted with the locale. I spent a little time reading things about Mars—what the surface of the planet was like—and looking at pictures from the various machinery we’ve sent there. The most useful thing I came across was this NASA interactive map. With it, I was able to accurately plot out the journey, not to mention zoom in to an impressive scale in order to better imagine the terrain in particular that my little robot hero was on. It was quite a neat thing to play around with. And was indispensable to me in making sure what I was writing at least seemed to be more like the actual planet Mars than a sparsely populated area of Arizona.
The writing went as it usually does; there were the standard blind alleys and dead ends went down and then backtracked from after several paragraphs; alternate mini-scenes or passages added, taken out, then put back in, only to be taken out again; clunky phrasing so bad a Futurama break was called for to recover confidence in my abilities; and more than just a few minute-long bouts of staring at the wall trying to remember basic words I’d known since I was five. It went a little more smoothly than usual, all told.
And “Rover” was pretty much what I wanted after the first draft. There were a few little changes here and there that I made, some came from my reflections on the story, others based on what readings with friends said about it. But mostly I corrected my grammar, paid someone else to check the grammar again, and the story was as you see it in the magazine. Sometimes I have a lot more work to do in the editing, things to fix, mostly in places where when writing I was stuck, and just wrote anything to get through the passage, then moved on knowing I’d come back to it. But I don’t remember very many if any of those spots in “Rover.” I think that alludes to just how strong my feelings are about the idea of this story.
“Rover” has no grand, “the fate of the universe rests on the metal and ceramic frame of our hero” stakes to it. What goes on in the story has little to no effect on anyone or anything, other than the rover itself. For me, it’s a story of isolation, of loneliness, but far more importantly, of purpose and meaning. The rover’s whole existence is dictated by its programming, given to it by its creator—a creator that has long since abandoned it. But it keeps going, over the rough, unforgiving terrain by itself day after endless day, through setbacks and disasters big and small, and it will continue to do so for as long as it can. Because no matter how pointless it all is, it’s all the rover has. It’s a very dreary, Sisyphean existence.
And then at the end, when even that meaning is taken away and the rover is left with nothing, it could have shut down, stopped functioning then and there. But instead it does something far more positive, and probably as close to an uplifting ending as I’ll ever get; it chooses its own purpose and keeps going. It’s my Bastian riding Falkor moment (yes, the memory of that got attached to this idea very early on. Don’t ask me, I’m not in charge). If you really think about it, the meaning it gives itself is not that much different than the one its creators had given it—its probably even more pointless. But it chose it for itself and that’s what matters, that’s what makes it happy. Because now it’s self determined.
Well, that’s at least what hoity-toity me was intending. Whether I got there or not is not up to me. You’ll just have to read it yourself and let me know.