Sean Monaghan’s second story for Analog, “Problem Landing” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!], takes us Mars-ward. Below, Sean takes us backward, elaborating on the story’s origins and his history as a writer. Plus: What he’s been reading, his works in progress, the importance of perseverance, and a fun tie-in to our magazine’s title!
Analog Editor: How did this story germinate?
SM: Over the last few years I’ve been encouraged and inspired as space programs are ramping up. I do like the international space station’s activities, and am thrilled by the robotic explorations taking place, both with rovers and probes, but watching the way private enterprise is pushing the boundaries and testing and doing things by trial and error.
In particular, I’m impressed by the way SpaceX tries things out. All those failures are such great steps along the way. Figuring out what doesn’t work.
Watching footage of those first stages attempting to land on the barge, and tipping over dramatically was exciting. Especially exciting when it went right. And that now it seems to go right more than it goes wrong. Pushing up against it becoming routine.
Part of their goal is to land on Mars. To me that’s about as cool as things get. Mars! With people.
And that’s where the idea for the story began. What if there was a problem with a landing, but it wasn’t here on a barge, but on Mars itself?
AE: How did the title “Problem Landing” come to you?
SM: One of the things that writers deal with is problems. It comes back to the most basic story structure: a character with a problem. Usually they try to fix the problem and fail, try again, over and over. Meanwhile the struggles get harder.
I think this is one of my most basic titles. I did worry that the landing mention in the title doesn’t actually occur until well into the story, so perhaps the title is a spoiler. Or, then again, it might create some anticipation, as the reader knows something the characters don’t.
AE: What made you think of Analog for this story?
SM: I’ve published a few stories in Analog‘s sister publication, Asimov’s Science Fiction—stories that play a bit more loosely with the real world (faster-than-light travel, alien transplants, etc.), but sometimes I like to write with more constraints and have practical problems and practical solutions.
Especially with the near-future setting, the extrapolation of current technologies and clear goals, Analog felt like the natural home for “Problem Landing.”
AE: What is your history with Analog?
SM: This is my second story in Analog‘s pages, after “One Hundred” in 2020. That was another Mars story, set a little farther ahead.
My story “Eyes to the Height” will be in a forthcoming issue.
I’m busy writing more to send in, so hopefully there will be more to come.
At some point I realized that these books weren’t mystical things, and that those writers weren’t magical gods. They were just people, telling stories.
AE: What inspired you to start writing?
SM: As a teenager I was reading an awful lot of science fiction. I was quite dedicated really. At some point I realized that these books weren’t mystical things, and that those writers weren’t magical gods. They were just people, telling stories. I think maybe I wanted to join that club, perhaps. When I look back on those early, clunky, teenage stories I realize that I was laying the foundation for my writing now.
Sometimes people ask me what’s the most important thing to becoming a writer, and my answer would be perseverance.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
SM: I try to stick to one project at a time, since my brain just gets confused with who’s who, from which story.
I have just completed a deep-space sci-fi novella, and have started in on the first draft of a contemporary thriller. I find it good to vary the genre I write in (as I try to vary what I read—very different to that teenager I was). Once the thriller is drafted, I have a couple of sci-fi short stories I want to write, and then I’ll be working on the third book in my Jupiter Files series.
Always keeping busy 🙂
AE: What are you reading right now?
SM: I’m sure that I have something in common with many readers—a stack of books to read that never seems to shrink. As soon as I’ve finished something, somehow, another book has come into my possession (usually because I’ve purchased it), and joins the others.
I’ve finally gotten to The Last Man on the Moon by Eugene Cernan and Don Davis, about Gene Cernan’s journey as an aviator, through the Gemini program and on after Apollo. Over the years I’d always enjoyed seeing interviews with Cernan; he seemed very straight up, pragmatic and did not suffer fools gladly. I’m finding the book really engaging, and honest. A lot of things that would never have been said at the time.
Though I only knew him through reading articles and those occasional documentaries, I was surprised by how saddened I was by his passing a few years back. He’d been an inspiration through my growing up and adult life, even way out here in New Zealand, a half a world away.
Also, from the stack, I’m working my way through the Neil Clarke-edited The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 1. That’s the 2016 issue—I tend to read a couple of stories and put it back in the stack (as I mentioned, the stack never shrinks). I just read Naomi Kritzer’s “So Much Cooking”—a clever, moving and deceptive story, that seems just right for these challenging times.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
I think it’s like that for many endeavors. Practice the craft, and keep practicing. People who turn wooden bowls make plenty of duds to begin with; guitarists play loads of bum notes on their way to proficiency; pro surfers got wiped out heaps of times before they got that endorsement deal.
AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?
SM: What other hobbies do you have?
Writing is a blend of hobby and profession, which is interesting, but I’m also an amateur musician.
I’m pretty sure that I’m tone deaf, and I have no sense of rhythm, but I love music. To make music, I have a modular synthesizer—similar to one of those Korg or Yamaha keyboard synthesizers you can buy off the shelf, but rather than having all the various active parts built into one unit, a modular synthesizer is made from individual modules. Oscillators to generate sounds, clocks to keep rhythm, filters to change the sound, sequencers to build melodies. There are hundreds of modules around, with all different flavors.
Bolted into a case, my twenty-two modules take care of being in tune, and keeping time, as I turn knobs and tap triggers. It’s a fun hobby.
A cool thing, writing about it here, is that the modules aren’t digital, which feels rare in today’s world: they are all analog.