Q&A With Benjamin C. Kinney

Benjamin C. Kinney watched his wife leave on a simulated mission to Mars, and wouldn’t see her in-person again for a year. The experience, and the many transmissions of long-distance love it entailed, helped shape his new short story, “A Living Planet,” available [in our January/February issue, on sale now!]

Analog Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
BCK: On August 30, 2015, six volunteers entered a Mars habitat dome for a one-year mission. One of them was my wife.
She was the Medical and Safety Officer on HI-SEAS IV, a 366-day space simulation (“analog”) mission funded by NASA. She and her five crewmates spent that year in a 1000 square foot dome on the side of Mauna Loa in Hawai’i, surrounded by uninhabited red rocks.
The mission was part of a long tradition of research to test crew dynamics, behavior, and function on an isolated and confined environment similar to a long-duration space mission. That meant no real-time communication. We had email, and could send each other videos, but with a twenty minute time delay each way.
When her mission began, the two of us had been married for 10 months.
“A Living Planet” isn’t about her mission. It isn’t about space simulation. It isn’t even about my life in her absence. But it is about the feel of sending those videos, back and forth across time and space. About love, distance, and the chance for connection despite all the obstacles in your path.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
BCK: This story went through a lot of draft titles, none of them good. It was always “The Martian’s Husband” in my head, but that’s more of a snarky commentary on titles like “The Time Traveler’s Wife;” it’s too metatextual for the story’s tone. The real title required me to find the story’s final line, and carve it like a sculpture until I’d cut away everything that didn’t look like a theme—and with it, a phrase with the right level of poetic heft and interpretability to become a title.

AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
BCK: I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy short stories, especially in my role as assistant editor of the magazine Escape Pod. As a result, I draw bits of inspiration from many writers, past and present—especially the ones better than I am! This story was my attempt to write in the Sarah Pinsker style, with an ending that draws its power from thematic clarity. (If you aren’t familiar with her work, I recommend googling “A Stretch of Highway, Two Lanes Wide,” or picking up her latest novel, We Are Satellites.) My wide reading has also drawn me to a certain format of short fiction: one where the final answers come not from a concrete resolution of the world’s questions, but an emotional resolution of the world’s meaning.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
BCK: I’m currently working on a duology of novels about the far future of artificial intelligence. They’re space operas where the solar system is locked in a cold war between two great civilizations: AI’s who emulate and fetishize the last few surviving humans, and AI’s who have abandoned the ways and minds of their creators. The first novel is out hunting for an agent, and the second one is about ¼ written.

“A Living Planet” isn’t about (my wife’s) mission. It isn’t about space simulation. It isn’t even about my life in her absence. But it is about the feel of sending those videos, back and forth across time and space. About love, distance, and the chance for connection despite all the obstacles in your path.

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
BCK: Every time you read a piece of advice, try to figure out what problem it is designed to solve. You will see a thousand competing pieces of advice, and advice to ignore advice, and and and. What you need is a way to sort through it. You don’t need to sort good advice from bad, because little advice is purely one of another: most advice is “good” for a specific problem and context. Which means you need to sort advice you need from advice you don’t.
For example, Heinlein’s Rules contain an admonition that’s terrible for most writers (“refrain from rewriting”), but it’s good advice if you’re looking to make money via volume rather than improve your craft. The rule “show, don’t tell” is often good advice for character and personality, less so for worldbuilding.
Rules are tools. Most people offering advice will tell you that it’s an all-purpose multitool, but that’s almost never true. Think about where the tool fits, and deploy it (or not) accordingly.

AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background, and does it impact your fiction?
BCK: I’m a neuroscientist by day, but unlike my last story in Analog (“Conference of the Birds,” Jan/Feb 2021) this story doesn’t particularly rely on my science. Instead, it relies on the science and expertise of many of my friends. Breakthrough Starshot is real, or at least a real idea. Space junk is an ever-growing problem, and there are all kinds of proposals out there for its cleanup. Most importantly, this piece wouldn’t be half as vivid without the input of my friend Andrzej Stewart, who shared his expertise based on his time as a flight controller for Lockheed Martin. I took some liberties to reduce the cast size and extrapolate into the future, but hopefully I got the spirit of his advice.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
BCK: I have a website at benjaminckinney.com, where you can find links to all my other online fiction, and sign up for my quarterly mailing list to get stories & news straight to your inbox. I’m also reasonably active on Twitter as https://twitter.com/BenCKinney and reasonably inactive on Facebook as https://www.facebook.com/BenCKinney.

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