“A Shot in the Dark” [in our current issue, on sale now!] is one of two hard sci-fi stories penned by Deborah L. Davitt last year. Read on to learn how it relates to Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, how the story itself developed, and what a technical writing career taught Deborah. Plus, a peek at what she’s been reading!
Analog Editor: How did this story come to be?
DLD: Every year, I try to write one pure, hard sci-fi story. Last year, I actually wrote two, but this is the one that stuck the landing here at Analog, of which I’m inordinately proud. In this case, I wanted to write about a part of the solar system rarely visited in science fiction—Uranus and its moons. However, I was somewhat handicapped by the lack of information we have on that system. I was initially going to have Dominic explore the dark side of Titania, but that seemed too close to stories I’ve written about Titan. I’m also fascinated by exosolar objects; I’ve previously written about a rogue planet captured by Sol’s gravity (“The Cenotaph,” published in 2015 by InterGalactic Medicine Show if anyone’s interested). With ‘Oumuamua’s passage back in 2017, that fascination grew, and I wondered, “Hey. If Dominic is that far out there, wouldn’t he be in the best position to investigate a new ‘Oumuamua?”
The rest sprang from there, along with the inevitable Rendezvous with Rama jokes.
For the subplot regarding Dominic’s previously unknown daughter, all I will say is that it was inspired by real life 23&Me revelations in my own family tree—back a generation and over a couple rows.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
DLD: There are definitely days when, like Dominic, I would really like to retreat into a cave and never have to deal with another human again. I’m an introvert at heart. But he’s really a demonstration of someone who failed one of Erikson’s crises (see Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development). Specifically, he failed at “Intimacy vs. Isolation,” so he never arrived at “generativity vs. stagnation” . . . or rather, he did, but because he failed the previous stage, he’s been stagnating for decades.
We all get the chance to learn and grow, though. And I like to think Dominic takes his chance when he finds it.
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
DLD: I have a strained relationship with titles. In this case, the title came initially from the concept that this extrasolar object was some other species’ “shot in the dark,” their attempt to ensure that life was promulgated through the galaxy, but as I was writing, I found that as Dominic grew as a character, he began to see that all life is that shot in the dark—from procreation through survival through fumbling attempts at enlightenment.
I’d rather talk about the great conflicts in adult lives—how we form communities, even just communities of two. How we make or miss connections. What we mean to each other, and what we pass on. It’s all a part of learning and growing, both as individuals and societies, so why not talk about it?
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
DLD: I read a lot of science news and nonfiction; I listen to science podcasts like Kyle Hill’s and others from time to time. That all tends to inform what I’m thinking about, and science articles frequently serve as prompts for my poetry.
With regards to non-science news, I poke my head online to read news from a couple of different sources, confirm that the abyss is still out there, looking back at me; I avoid eye-contact with it, and then I close the window and draw the curtains again. I can’t say that current events don’t impact me, but I tend not to like preachy writing, so why inflict that on others?
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
DLD: Definitely; I mentioned Erikson’s crises up there, and I know that I return to intimacy/isolation and generativity/stagnation a good deal across all my work.
Quite a lot of modern fiction is about adolescents and stage 5—identity vs. role confusion. (Erikson’s terms, as he defined them in 1950, please note). I find that area well-worn by other authors. I’d rather talk about the great conflicts in adult lives—how we form communities, even just communities of two. How we make or miss connections. What we mean to each other, and what we pass on. It’s all a part of learning and growing, both as individuals and societies, so why not talk about it?
AE: What is the weirdest research rabbit-hole that working on a story has led you down?
DLD: I don’t think I have a weirdest. At any time, my browser history for the day might have “what is the melting point of helium?” “what is 0.95 K in F?” “techniques for making macarons” and “history of Gobekli Tepe.”
Most recently, I spent a fair bit of fairly grim time reading up on cave exploration disasters, including people who died trapped in various passages. (This was for a story currently out making the rounds. Who knows; perhaps it’ll make it into Analog in the future!)
AE: What are you reading right now?
DLD: I just finished some of my reading requested for Christmas 2019 *cough*, so I just finished reading the steampunky Johannes Cabal: The Detective and the excellently-researched and well-written Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen (published 2012; I’d asked for it before Covid-19 was a dot on anyone’s horizon, and it took me most of the year to get around to reading it). Next up will be Horse Soldiers, by Doug Stanton. I’m sure that by the time this interview goes live, I’ll have received a new Jim Butcher book to devour as well . . . and I’ll have stacks and stacks of amazing short stories to read for Nebula consideration in the meantime, too.
AE: What careers have you had and how do they affect your writing?
DLD: I spent seventeen years of my life as a technical writer, working on projects ranging from nuclear ballistic missile submarine documentation, to documentation on the International Space Station, to the manuals for your laptop that you probably never refer to unless you can’t figure out where a given port is hiding.
The most important thing I took away from that career into the rest of my writing is the need for organization of thought and clarity of expression. Even in my poetry, when I’m testing the boundaries of playful expression, I really want people to understand my words, and I think it’s my job as a writer to remove the barriers to comprehension wherever I can.
I’ve also taught writing at the college level, and that also led me to prize comprehensible, clear writing.
So what were my degrees in? . . . Renaissance and medieval literature, with a focus on Shakespeare, Spenser, Chaucer, and Beowulf. In their defense, they were (mostly) clear to the people reading them or hearing them at the time. (Except Spenser. He ate abstruse for lunch.)
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
DLD: For more about my work, including my novels, short stories, and my Elgin-nominated poetry collection, The Gates of Never, please see www.edda-earth.com.
You may contact me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/deborah.davitt.3 or Twitter @davittDL.
Her story in this JANUARY issue, A SHOT IN THE DARK, is easily one of the 2-3 Best stories in the issue. However, I wonder, how Deborah worked out all all the orbital mechanics and such in her story? That is complex to get plausibly accurate! Thanks for the interview. Best of luck and hope to see more of Davitt’s work in Analog or similar.
While I did enjoy the story, there are three issues I had with it.
The first is the printer’s and publishers failure to get the punctuation correct on the last page, resulting rectangles instead of punctuation. Minor but irritating.
Second is the use of the phrase “dandelion sporesean” instead of “seeds”–the word “seed” is ancient, and has a distinct meaning as does “spore,” unlikely to change in the future.
Last is a factual physics flaw, where the ship is supposedly burning fuel to “keep up” with the extra-solar object which is not under power, but coasting…once you match speeds, no fuel is required.
I blame this on poor proof-reading–a service once provided by publishers but which seems to have vanished in recent decades.