by Brenda Kalt
“The Trashpusher of Planet 4” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!] is one of my favorite stories to date. It began inauspiciously—“What can I write about this time?”—with a generation ship having serious problems. To freshen the concept, I populated the generation ship with aliens. The ship reaches a solar system, as generation ships do, and its inhabitants have to decide on their next step.
The story also needed a character. Some sort of underdog. What kind of underdog? A member of a low caste. A trashpusher who doesn’t get even a normal trashpusher’s privileges. Why not? This particular trashpusher wasn’t supposed to be born (excuse me, “budded”). Consequences of the trashpusher’s disadvantages? Not entitled to food ration. No place in ship’s society. Age of trashpusher? I went back and forth between adult and emerging adult. Eventually I decided on an emerging adult. School? The aliens may not have those. But there have to be exams before you’re allowed to do important things, to prove you’re competent.
With this I started working on the exterior universe. What kind of solar system, what planets, what do the aliens do there? Establishing a civilization on a new planet takes too long to fit into a short story. I needed something that could happen quickly, at least in the aliens’ terms. The project took shape in my mind through a number of drafts. Having an artificial intelligence run the ship and the project saved me from creating an entire crew structure. Could my young underdog play a part in the project? He could. (I say “he” because the aliens have two genders, though they don’t track exactly with ours.) He has taken an examination to demonstrate that he is ready for the role.
In mysteries I knew I would demand to know every detail. What kind of tree is the detective standing under? What does his/her gun look like? With science fiction, I could make up the details.
The underdog trashpusher struggles valiantly, as main characters often do. I’ll stop at this point so as not to reveal any spoilers. Let me tell you about myself instead.
I grew up in small towns in the Deep, Deep South. I am white, and I learned many of the stereotypical attitudes of that place. At times little insights filtered through cracks (“That’s not right”). In college—graduate school specifically—I learned another way of viewing the world, and I’ve kept it ever since. I also began a long period of therapy, which molded my character and exposed the many limitations of my previous world. I’m going a long way with few details here, but anecdotes to illustrate my development would fill a book. (No, I’m not writing it.)
I wrote in spurts while I was growing up. In my thirties I took a local class, began a mystery novel, and started to think I might have talent. The talent and novel got subsumed by technical writing for almost twenty years, but eventually my technical writing world changed. I became a programmer and started writing for myself.
This time I chose science fiction. In mysteries I knew I would demand to know every detail. What kind of tree is the detective standing under? What does his/her gun look like? With science fiction, I could make up the details. (The things about writing science fiction that I didn’t know!) I wanted to be scientifically correct, and there is a universe’s science around me to blunder through.
“Trashpusher” has a scientifically correct universe, as far as I can make it. The limitations of my knowledge determined a lot of decisions about the story. I hope they were inventive.