Rosemary Claire Smith’s “The Next Frontier” [in our July/August issue, on sale now!] presents an alternate history of 1960s space exploration, placing women front and center—and beyond. Below, Rosemary takes us through the story’s complex germination, looks closely at “alternate history” as a genre, and explains why a background in archaeology is an asset for her writing.
Analog Editor: How did you come to write “The Next Frontier?”
RCS: I’ve always been intrigued by alternate history because it gives me a chance to improve upon real events. The genesis for this was Launchpad Astronomy Workshop, which I attended in 2015. Its mission is to teach astronomy to fiction writers, artists, screen play writers, editors, and graphic novelists who can use what they learn to spread scientific literacy to a larger audience. Before Launchpad, my last astronomy course was decades ago. So much is new! I loved soaking it all up, plus kicking around ideas for how to incorporate recent advances into my fiction.
The following year I visited the Cosmosphere with several science fiction writers. This museum displays an impressive collection from the Soviet space program. While I knew a fair bit about the United States space program, especially the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, my knowledge of the USSR’s space program was more sporadic. Visiting the Cosmosphere sparked my interest. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the full-sized mockup of the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft docked together, which was a premier achievement for both nations in 1975.
On the long drive back to MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City, we writers talked about what we were working on. One of the Analog regulars, C. Stuart Hardwick, was focused on an alternate history of the space program, leading us to trade notes. Not surprisingly, Stuart was quicker to complete his story, “For All Mankind,” which was published in Analog in 2017 and went on to win the AnLab Readers Award Poll.
Meanwhile, I worked on other projects. However, I eventually did get around to writing “The Next Frontier.” By that time, Mary Robinette Kowal was making a big splash with her Lady Astronaut series (The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky, The Relentless Moon). Consequently, a couple of writers, whom I will not name, informed me that she had “covered the field” when it came to the alternate history of women in the 1960s space program. I ignored them.
AE: Is “The Next Frontier” part of a greater universe of stories?
RCS: If you had asked me when I sent it to Analog, I would have said, “It’s a one-off.” More recently, I strongly suspect that I have more to say about human exploration of space in the late twentieth century and what my main character would have been doing.
AE: What is your history with Analog?
RCS: As a reader, I go way, way back with Analog to my childhood. I grew up in a home filled with science fiction magazines and books. It made sense that when I started writing, it would be science fiction and that when I began submitting my work, it would be to Stanley Schmidt, who was Analog’s editor at the time. He didn’t accept my early efforts, but he was very encouraging. I was thrilled when he bought “Birch Glow,” which appeared in 2002. I took quite a long hiatus from writing fiction before returning to Analog’s pages in 2013.
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
RCS: Looking back, it strikes me that “The Next Frontier” was born of a desire to live in a world with greater cooperation between nations on important projects requiring global efforts. I took international cooperation much more for granted in the 1990s and 2000s than I do now.
I’m invariably tempted to imagine happier outcomes. Then my contrarian tendencies kick in as I envision how things could be worse. This usually leaves me more accepting of unfortunate, even tragic, events.
AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background and does it impact your fiction?
RCS: Yes, I have an advanced degree in archaeology and was a field archaeologist for several years. This training supplied a great background for writing stories about time travel to the past. It’s been particularly useful in generating characters who are paleontologists and geologists because those fields tend to attract self-sufficient people who love being outside, far from cities, and who have an intense curiosity about the natural world.
AE: What other careers have you had and how do they affect your writing?
RCS: In addition to archaeology, I’ve been a practicing lawyer, which is useful in giving me an understanding of how legal and financial considerations play crucial roles in many human endeavors.
AE: What do you find challenging about writing alternate history?
RCS: It took a whole lot more research than I thought it would to write an alternate history set in a time period I was certain I knew well. I first set out to make three changes to history. However, as the story progressed, I needed to evaluate more and more actual events and real people, asking myself at every turn what if each person had done something slightly different. The divergence from actual events kept growing. Looking back, I can now appreciate the engaging intellectual puzzle of weaving all these real and imagined events together. That said, there were times while writing “The Next Frontier” when I wondered why I ever began this story. I hope it succeeds not only for readers who have a rudimentary understanding of the historical events of those times, but also for readers who know a great deal about various space missions.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to through your writing? If yes, what and why?
RCS: I find myself thinking, “What if this aspect of history had gone a little differently? Would the result have been better or worse and for whom?” My archaeology background enables me to indulge in thought experiments such as how crucial battles might have played out differently or what would have happened if a prominent historical figure hadn’t passed away at an early age. I’m invariably tempted to imagine happier outcomes. Then my contrarian tendencies kick in as I envision how things could be worse. This usually leaves me more accepting of unfortunate, even tragic, events.
AE: Is your protagonist a real person?
RCS: No, she isn’t. I originally thought that I would use an actual historical figure. In the West, the most well-known Russian woman cosmonaut is Valentina Tereshkova, a parachutist who became the first woman to orbit the Earth in 1963. So I wanted someone else. At that time, there was a group of a dozen or more Soviet cosmonauts who were women. The U.S.S.R. developed plans for an all-woman space flight and even for a woman to walk on the Moon. Neither of those came about and the reasons are complicated. After Valentina Tereshkova’s successful space flight and safe return, it must have been terribly frustrating for the rest of the women cosmonauts to wait in vain for their turns. Of course, it must have been similarly frustrating for their male counterparts and for the American astronauts who trained for years and never went into space. I was also mindful of the Mercury Thirteen women in the United States who never had the opportunity to get even that far. I don’t know if any of the Soviet cosmonauts ever seriously considered defecting to the West, although the idea intrigued me. Naturally, they would have been monitored incredibly closely, just as famous ballet dancers and performing artists were closely watched when allowed outside the Soviet Union. I wanted to give one of women cosmonauts her opportunity. Next, I had to figure out which of them might jump ship. I looked into their individual backgrounds but didn’t find anyone who would be a good fit for my story. I ended up assembling Natalya Orlova as an amalgam of several real people, although her personal background was my own creation. I also gave a lot of thought to how NASA and the federal government’s public relations operations would treat her.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
RCS: I’m most active on Facebook as Rosemary Claire Smith. I’m also on Twitter and Instagram as @rcwordsmith. I blog about dinosaurs and other topics at rcwordsmith.com.