by C.H. Hung
Writers glean ideas from an infinite number of places. Sometimes a character, a story, can enter the mind after recalling old memories, either of how one felt watching an old TV show, or of people from one’s past. In this blog post, C.H. Hung discusses the conversation with her mother that inspired “Faster Than Falling Starlight,” her latest story for Analog. Read it in our [May/June issue, on sale now!]
I remember watching as a child the 1968 film Planet of the Apes, and the horror dawning on Charlton Heston’s face as he catches sight of the Statue of Liberty rising from that sandy beach, a beach on a planet that was supposed to be located hundreds of light years from Earth. I don’t remember if I understood then the emotional implications of all that scene meant then, to the character and to the story (I was, after all, just a child, and the biggest concerns I had that day were probably centered around whether I had done my homework and if I could get away with staying up late) but I did grasp one thing with vivid recall—that time doesn’t just breed familiarity. It can also cause such distance as to make the familiar alien.
So when the time came to write a story in any genre about exploration, it was that memory that drew me in and wouldn’t let go. Up until that point, I’d been focused almost exclusively on writing fantasy. But for this story, I knew two things: one, it would be science fiction, which I had very little experience writing and which scared the shit out of me to even attempt, because I sure as hell didn’t think I’d ever be smart enough to write hard sci-fi that wouldn’t get me laughed out of the scientific community; and two, it would involve a character coming home to an Earth they did not recognize.
Everything else, I didn’t have. But I opened a blank Word doc, took a deep breath, eyed the looming deadline, and trusted my discovery-writer subconsciousness would somehow figure it out along the way.
Some of my discovery-writer friends can’t start writing a story until they’ve sketched out their MICE quotient. Some need just a first line, and off they go like mad scribblers down their rabbit holes. Some need to visualize an ending before they can write toward that, fumbling along the way like the rest of us discovery writers.
Me, I need a character and a voice. And for this story, the first voice I heard was that of my mother.
I was in my late 30s by then, damn near within spitting distance of 40. Married, no kids. I had told my mother when I was a teenager that I didn’t want kids. Motherhood was never something I had ever aspired to. She, of course, laughed and said, “Give it time. You’re only sixteen. You’ll change your mind.”
I opened a blank Word doc, took a deep breath, eyed the looming deadline, and trusted my discovery-writer subconsciousness would somehow figure it out along the way.
It wasn’t an unreasonable response, all things considered. I know very few people who would not have said the same thing to their rebellious daughter. But as time went on and it grew apparent that I had not changed my mind, my mother grew ambivalent, then resigned. “At least you can be more independent,” she said matter-of-factly when I turned 35 without so much as a twinkle in my eye. “Not having children to tie you down.” She tried not to be obvious about eyeing my childbearing and -rearing parts, since my husband was standing next to me. Still, she added, “You have some time left anyway, eh?” I damn near expected her to elbow my husband in the ribs as if to say, “And you’d better be doing your part, mister.”
I didn’t blame my mother for her anxious concern. It wasn’t that she wanted grandchildren, although of course she would’ve been delighted to spoil some. She wanted to know that when I grew old, and everyone I loved before had passed on, that there would be another generation to care for me as she was caring for her mother, and as I expected to care for her. Independence is a dual-edged sword. I have freedom from certain responsibilities, but I also know that sometime in the hopefully distant future, if and when I find myself alone, I will need to find a way to care for myself. Or find the resources to do so. Without children to come after me, that task becomes harder. More sterile. More clinical, even.
And in that conundrum, I found Commander Chandra Sun. Google helped me find a time dilation calculator to assist with the physics and the math that is much, much beyond me. But once I worked through setting the rules for the universe, Chandra carried the story home.
Unlike me, Chandra wants children. Like me, she has a mother who is concerned that her daughter will run out of time to have them. But in Chandra’s world, the thought of running out of time is ludicrous because with the advances in cryogenics and in vitro fertilization, and the deliberate use of sleep hibernation to efficiently crew colonization missions across the stars, one could theoretically choose to have children any time they’re ready. As Chandra says, it’s not an either-or choice anymore between parenthood and a career.
But she also discovers that even with all of the science and technology and math at her fingertips, she has lost something she didn’t account for. It’s not just the tangible losses she experiences, but also the intangible. The sense of knowing where home is. The sense of family, and of a familial unit that she can grow old with, now that she’s finally ready for one. The sense of time marching on in its normal course, carrying her and all of her loved ones with it on the same wave, instead of rushing her forward until she breaks upon a beach so far into the future that it is as alien to her as it should be familiar, and she finds herself alone.
As we all might, in time.